In the short lull between the buzz of graduation ceremonies in July and the (likely to be manic) clearing week in mid-August, speculation on university campuses has focussed on the runners and riders for arguably the two most influential jobs in UK higher education.
The delay to early autumn of the expected reshuffle of middle ranking ministers means that David Willetts stays in post (for the summer at least) although speculation remains that he will eventually be replaced by a rising star of the 2010 intake, perhaps Liz Truss MP, a junior minister responsible for early years in the Department for Education and former Head of Education at think tank Reform. She is highly rated in Conservative ranks, tipped for future high office and considered to have the intellectual credibility to hold her on against big beasts in the HE sector.
Despite the unpopularity of some parts of the coalition’s HE reforms, most senior figures in the sector will breath a sigh of relief that Willetts remains in post for now. He is well respected by vice chancellors, considered to have an excellent understanding of the challenges facing the sector, sympathetic to concerns on major issues such as international student visas and university autonomy and offers stability (of sorts) in a period of recent wide-ranging policy change.
Whilst there is no change in ministerial ranks this month, the choice of the new Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) has surprised many seasoned HE watchers and fuelled speculation of a subtle change in focus from HEFCE. Amongst a field that is rumoured to have included vice chancellors from a broad spectrum of institutions, Professor Madeleine Atkins CBE has been selected for this influential job, the first woman to be appointed to the role.
Professor Atkins CBE is currently Vice Chancellor of Coventry University, a post she has held for nine years, in which time she has overseen an impressive rise in performance, reputation and league table position for the institution. An institution which had many strategic challenges when she took over the helm, has risen to the elite end of the post-92 universities, overtaking not only a range of other modern universities but challenging many older universities. This was highlighted by Coventry’s rise to 33rd place in the 2014 Guardian University league tables (published in June 2013) where the university was ranked as the top modern university and held a position higher that a dozen older universities, including a few members of the Russell Group.
Professor Atkins has the reputation as a talented, focused, business-like and pragmatic leader. At Coventry she has positioned the university to focus on enterprise, business engagement and applied research with impact. She also improved the teaching experience, so that Coventry rose in to the top 20 institutions for teaching quality in the most recent National Student Survey.
Professor Atkins is the first Chief Executive of HEFCE to have held a vice chancellorship at a post-92 modern university. Her five predecessors all joined HEFCE from older universities (Liverpool, Keele, Southampton, UEA and Dundee). Her leadership of a non research-intensive university has fuelled speculation that she may have a view on research funding that differs from the recent policy trend towards greater concentration. However, to presume that her approach will be radically different from her predecessors ignores her reputation as an experienced, level-headed and consensual leader and the fact that she has sat as a HEFCE board member since 2009 and so been involved in recent changes to HEFCE funding formulas. Although she is currently the leader of a modern university, she also has a strong background in the research-intensive institutions having studied at the Universities of Cambridge and Nottingham and been a successful research-active academic herself and held senior leadership positions at the University of Newcastle. Whoever was to take on this role would find REF-related issues very high in the in-tray for the next couple of years.
One could argue that she has the perfect blend of experience to understand both the modern and research-intensive parts of the sector. The HEFCE Board and Government will hope that she is both a success in her new role and provides long term stability after a period of rapid policy change and the relatively short (albeit regarded as successful) terms of her two immediate predecessors. However, a new Chief Executive will inevitably bring a new dynamic at the top, and a change in Minister around the same time would represent a very significant change to sector leadership and politics. Seasoned observers of all stripes will be watching with interest.