University of the West of England goes Howard's way

Sir Howard Newby amazed the higher education world when he took up the post of vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England. He tells Lucy Hodges about his model for a US-inspired, 21st-century institution
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The Independent Online

ir Howard Newby looks bronzed and fit after a week's holiday in Tobago. As the new boss of the University of the West of England (UWE) he needs regular breaks, he says, because of punishing days that begin at 7.30 in the morning and go on into the night.

It is no surprise that the new vice-chancellor of Bristol's former polytechnic has set about the job with gusto. On his first day in the post he gave a series of lectures to the staff outlining his vision. On his second day he met the principals of further education colleges in and around Bristol to discuss how UWE could work with them. These were both firsts for the university.

His appointment to the top job at what is regarded as one of the best of the new universities amazed everyone when it was announced last year. Why would Newby - the biggest beast in the university firmament, as chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) - want to run a new university, albeit one of the largest in the country?

He could have had any job going - head of a venerable Oxbridge college or vice-chancellor of a posh research-intensive university. Neither of those would have challenged him enough, of course. An Oxford college would be a bit of a come-down after running the entire higher education sector and Newby has already been a vice-chancellor of a Russell Group university, South-ampton. Plus, the Hefce offices are on UWE's campus north of Bristol, so he doesn't have to move physically.

He just turns left at the roundabout instead of right. And the university made him a very attractive financial offer. The retiring vice-chancellor, Alf Morris, was on £189,000, and Newby is believed to be on more. So taking over at UWE made sense.

It is a fantastic coup for the university to have such a formidable operator as vice-chancellor, someone who knows his way around Westminster and Whitehall and who wrote chunks of the White Paper on higher education. Moreover Newby was president of Universities UK, the umbrella group for higher education, and ran the Economic and Social Research Council. The expectation is that he will take UWE into a new league - and that is his intention. There is also talk that he will bring vigour to the new university sector by articulating a vision and giving it some much-needed confidence, at a time when the CMU group representing the new universities is being criticised for being too negative.

"He is a massive acquisition for the University of the West of England," says Professor Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of neighbouring Bristol University and a former colleague of Newby's at Southampton.

"He has an unparalleled understanding of the higher education system and its parts. He is a great leader, has vision and is fabulously networked."

Universities are in the throes of great change. All are having to cope with a new fees regime and with surviving in what is becoming an increasingly competitive marketplace. UWE, with its 27,000 students, is a successful new university that has good scores for teaching and some niche research strengths in, for example, robotics and animation.

Newby's aim is to fashion a distinctive role for it in the 21st century."If you buy the argument, which I do, about the knowledge-based economy, in other words, that the future economic prosperity of the country is going to be based on human resources and the knowledge we can generate and exploit, and if you believe that higher education is the major driver of the knowledge economy, which I do, then you come to recognise that universities need to engage with society rather than be separated from it," he explains. "They need to engage with the economy rather than see themselves as above it. They need to engage with the reform of public services rather than stand back."

Thus the country needs a group of universities for which knowledge transfer is more important than research. And knowledge transfer is not just about commercialising research, or patents, licenses, spin-out companies and science parks. It's about producing graduates who have the skills to enter the world of work, he says. It's also about continuing professional development. Graduates take the skills they have learnt at university to the world of work. They learn more skills and knowledge in that world and return to university to update those skills. That process of exchange is how knowledge transfer works, according to Newby.

UWE is extraordinarily well placed to be this kind of university because it runs courses in all the health professions excluding medicine that require staff to undergo continuous training. And it is strong in problem-solving research for companies such as Airbus, Rolls-Royce and the National Health Service. "We are not an ivory tower university," says Newby.

It feels as though UWE is situated in a science park. Over the fence is Hewlett Packard, with whom the university has strong links in visualisation; the company, in turn, sponsors a chair in art, media and design. Beyond them is the Ministry of Defence. Up the road is Airbus. Beyond them are Rolls-Royce and then Aardman, the people who brought you the Oscar-winning Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: the Curse of the Were Rabbit. UWE's animation degree is co-branded with Aardman. The deal is that Aardman helps with designing the course and takes the best students for jobs.

"We have a geographical cluster," says Newby. The concentration of hi-tech digital companies and the university is akin to what happened in Cambridge in the 1980s when computer companies set up around the university. Where Cambridge had its silicon fen, Bristol now has a digital hot-spot.

The new vc's other big ambition is to make UWE into a genuine university for the West of the country, embracing progression routes through from further education colleges. Although the university has formal links with one FE college, Hartpury, famous for equestrian training, it wants to form many more.

"We want to develop a kind of mini-Wisconsin in the West of England," says Newby, referring to the University of Wisconsin in the USA, where he was a professor in the 1980s - a model he has been fond of promoting in the past. "The vision is that you can go to a further education college and do an evening class, or whatever, and then progress on to a degree or a PhD at UWE. The idea is to create a federation of institutions stretching from Gloucester to Taunton. Wherever a student encounters one of our partners, there will be clear pathways through to UWE. We, in turn, can place higher education provision in those institutions."

Bristol University is not much interested in playing this kind of role because it has to maintain its standing in research, Newby suggests. Bristol's vice chancellor, Eric Thomas, however, says his university would certainly want to help Newby achieve his ambition. "We want people in the West of England to have the best education available to them," he says.

Newby gives thanks every day to his predecessor Alf Morris who left the university in a stunningly healthy position. The fact that it has such a good balance sheet means that Newby can pursue other pet projects.

One of these is to make UWE much more international by increasing the number of overseas students and exposing undergraduates to a semester overseas. "Although we are rooted in the region, we mustn't become parochial," he says.

The new vc would like to benchmark UWE against other similar universities in the world such as Chalmers in Gothenberg, Sweden, and Twente in the Netherlands.

Another of his aims is to improve the experience of students. To this end UWE is opening an £85m student village containing 2,300 beds that Newby can admire from his office window. More academic buildings will follow.

Since arriving three months ago, he has introduced reforms to speed up decision making. He has also set in train a student satisfaction review that has thrown up a few problems already with transport and student union facilities.

Newby's desk is surrounded by fat files of applications for a slew of jobs he will be filling. He is amazed by the response to the advertisement for the new posts that sported a picture of his smiling face, the first time a vc has been used to sell job vacancies.

If Newby has a similar impact on other aspects of the university's life, he could really break through the barriers separating old from new universities.

His great strengths are his people skills and his interest in ideas, though critics say he not terribly good at putting his ideas into effect. "He's not a great details man," says one vice-chancellor. "But he is a great strategist."

At Hefce he was criticised for not being there enough and of spending too much time in London hobnobbing with mandarins and ministers. There is no sign, however, of him doing that at UWE. He is up with the lark driving to the campus to beat the traffic, and staying on in the evening to schmooze with local businessmen. A sure sign of dedication to duty.