UEA must adjust to changing times

PAUL HILL Come September and David Eastwood will be the man who ministers turn to for advice about higher education. He will hold the strings to a £6.7bn purse and oversee how that money is divvied up between universities and colleges across the country.

PAUL HILL

Come September and David Eastwood will be the man who ministers turn to for advice about higher education.

He will hold the strings to a £6.7bn purse and oversee how that money is divvied up between universities and colleges across the country.

For the last four years, Prof Eastwood has held the top job at the UEA in Norwich - at a time when student tuition fees dominated the political agenda and, more recently, a staff pay dispute threatened to leave final year students without their degree certificates.

Nonetheless, Prof Eastwood is bullish about his spell as the UEA's vice-chancellor.

"When I arrived the challenge was to build on success, but to recognise that the environment we were moving into was an increasingly competitive one," he said.

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"It was already reasonably clear that tuition fees - or something like them - would come in, that compet-ition between universities [for funding] would continue, and that reputation and profile of the university would matter enormously.

"The indicators - in terms of quality and performance - are moving in the right way. We've invested in the university and increased staff numbers.

"Looking outwards, I'm delighted we've taken forward the initiative in Suffolk - it will be a beacon for how to enrich higher education in what are seen as tradition 'higher education cold spots'."

But does the creation of that joint campus in Ipswich with Essex University signal that collaboration might turn into a merger in future - in the way that Manchester University and Umist merged last year?

Could there one day be University of the East of England?

"I don't think there's going to be a sudden transformation in the next few years," Prof Eastwood said.

"What's going to happen is that the landscape will start to change - and the universities that succeed are the ones that get their positioning right.

"For some, that's positioning themselves as they are now, for others it will be perhaps to move through collaborations to mergers or a federation of institutions."

But does Prof Eastwood's depart-ure from the UEA to take up the top job at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) also come at a low point in staff morale?

A prolonged dispute between lecturers' unions and the national higher education pay body in recent months saw academics boycott the marking of students' exam papers.

It was a move that threatened to prevent thousands of final year students graduating and collecting the degree certificates they had been working for for three years.

Prof Eastwood said: "Like lots of vice-chancellors, I'm more aware now of the difficulty of sustaining national pay bargaining.

"Do I think the dispute could have been handled differently? Yes I do, on both sides.

"It was an avoidable dispute with goodwill. Do I think what has emerged is a generous settlement? Yes I do."

He added: "The UEA has higher staff retention rates than many other universities and other institutions in the Norwich economy. That suggests to me that morale is reasonably good.

"For a vice-chancellor it's constantly a balance between challenging the institution and reassuring and encouraging staff that UEA remains a fine place to study and a good place to work."

So when Prof Eastwood leaves East Anglia for Bristol, where Hefce is based, will he have any regrets?

"East Anglia wasn't a part of the world I knew well when I came, but it's a part of the world for which I've developed a deep affection," he said.

"East Anglia needs good people to work here and to lead the key institutions and put them on the map nationally. But those people also need to move on from time to time, otherwise the danger is you become a household name in your own family."