Podcast: UEA vice-chancellor Edward Acton reflects on five years at the helm
Edward Acton will retire this month as vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia. Education correspondent MARTIN GEORGE talks to him about his five years in charge.
Historian Edward Acton has been at the helm of the UEA for five eventful years. Nationally, students rioted about tuition fees. Locally, the UEA was engulfed in an international furore over climate change research.
He said his central job had been a determination to drive the UEA up, the success of which has been captured by university league tables, but he also pointed to nurturing medical research, building the reputation for creative writing, progress on the Norwich Research Park, and a year-on-year rise in the number of international students.
After August 31, he plans to write in the mornings, and spend the rest of his time playing bridge, doing charity work and having 'a little bit of engagement' in high education. His first project will be updating his book Rethinking the Russian Revolution; then, he will write about his parents.
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In 2014, the UEA was rated best in the country for student satisfaction in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, and this year climbed to 15th in the Complete University Guide 2015.
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Prof Acton said investing in the number and quality of academics was a 'very major imperative' when he came to office, and improving the staff-student ratio to one of the top dozen in the country was a key reason for its success.
He said: 'The engine that enabled us to make the changes we have is pouring resources into the quality and number of academics, so there were more hands on deck to raise the quality of our education and our enterprise and our commitment to preparing students for rattling good jobs.'
A local, national or international university?
As the UEA continues to climb the league tables, Prof Acton acknowledged a tension between serving its local community and its national and international ambitions.
He said: 'The university's reputation has risen, so has the competition to get in and the A-level grades required, so that can mean you are probably drawing home students from more widely across the country. It can mean it is harder to get in. Some people who want to go to UEA and live in Norfolk find their qualifications are not so good.
'We are terribly keen to raise aspiration and help fertilise schools so that more and more people within the region really do have the momentum in school to come.'
Asked about the challenges of his five year tenure, climate-gate was the first issue he mentioned. It erupted in November 2009, with the publication of hacked emails from climate researchers which were used to claim they had been manipulating data.
An investigation by MPs cleared Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit, of hiding or manipulating data to back up his own science.
Prof Acton said: 'At the time it had a dual effect. We were on the front page around the world, so we were better known, but it was double-edged. But as time passes and as research around the world confirms what the UEA has proved, I expect the long-term impact will be positive.'
He added: 'Although it was quite time consuming and taxing, it was certainly very stimulating.'
The biggest national controversy in education during Prof Acton's tenure has been increasing tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000, which the UEA adopted, but he has consistently declined to take sides on the debate.
He said he did not think the university had any 'special authority on how a democracy should fund it', but thought it did have a duty to say how much higher education costs if it is to be top class.
He has, however, noticed the effects.
'It's probably intensified under-graduate motivation,' he said. 'The keenness of students to get the most of the degree, as well as thoroughly enjoy the wider social and cultural aspects of studying here, I'm very keen on that.'
He added: 'It's made us all, as we already should have been, but even more, keen to hear what students think, and to listen to students and understand what would really help them. The effect of fees undoubtedly makes that so obvious. It's given students more voice.'
As chairman of a task force on student visas for Universities UK, it is no surprise this tops Prof Acton's wish-list for the next government.
He said many universities rely on international students financially, and they create a critical mass which allows them to offer courses that would not otherwise exist for British students to study.
He said: 'Every rival is looking bewildered but delighted by us shooting ourselves in the foot.'
Research funding was another key concern. He said: 'For the sector, it's very worrying watching the way the proportion of GDP committed to research is falling behind the proportion in other developed, and in some rapidly developing, countries.
'We are very anxious that there is too much complacency in some parts of the British establishment that Great Britain is guaranteed to be second only to the UEA in research.'
Listen to a podcast of Edward Acton at edp24.co.uk
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