UK: The virtues of just listening

It might be expected that any dean of a university with an audience of international academics and press would take the opportunity to bang their own drum. But in his keynote speech at the Reinventing Higher Education conference at IE University in Segovia, Professor Michael Arthur, Vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds and Chair of the Russell Group of UK Universities, immediately impressed his audience by explaining the importance of listening.

When Arthur took over as vice-chancellor of Leeds in 2004, he faced a university with morale at rock bottom. While the number of students had increased from 11,000 in 1990 to 33,000 in 2003, income had fallen by 42% over the same period and quality was inevitably suffering.

"I chose 100 key opinion formers in the university and asked them to identify six things they would improve if they were me," he said. "Many would have expected hundreds of diverse responses to that request but in fact only 13 areas came through as key things that needed attention."

Three of the most important issues identified were that students did not want to be considered as customers but rather lifelong members of the university; academic excellence should be at the centre of the core values; and research and teaching should be brought closer together so that, among other advantages, students could experience research as soon as possible in their degree course.

Arthur also promoted dialogue by visiting schools, holding meetings with all key departments including the cleaners (the tidiness of the university improved markedly in the following weeks) and allowing an interviewer with BBC experience to grill him on a live open webcast.

"I was asked very direct questions like 'your real intention is to cut staff, isn't it?' and it made me sweat," he laughed. "But it had an impact. The webcast is still a popular choice on our website."

This extensive consultation process led to a strategy that is printed on one sheet of A4 paper. Arthur explained he was not interested in having a long glossy document that was put on a shelf and not touched again.

"Surveys show that 85% of our staff are familiar with the strategy, it is on walls around campus and I have even noticed people carrying it around with their folders - something I never expected to see," he said.

To measure progress, Leeds has selected a number of other universities, such as Bristol, Manchester and University College London, to assess and compare key areas. These include how each school is performing, quality of facilities, research income and staff retention.

"These data are then presented to the academic community and when academics are given data they like to see their position improve," Arthur said. "I could talk a lot about the data but in general the strategy has worked, we are very popular and have received many commendations."

Turning to the Russell Group, Arthur explained that it represented 20 leading UK universities with unrivalled links to business and the public sector. "Its aim is to drive up standards of higher education and research in the UK," he said.

Arthur argued the UK was second only to the US in terms of research productivity, citing the fact that "the UK has 1% of the world's population but 13% of academic citations. But Britain tops the table with 16.6 citations if the comparison is based on per $1million spent on research."

How has this success been achieved? The autonomy of UK universities means that a vice-chancellor can identify a top researcher, negotiate pay directly and offer them a job on the same day. The dual funding of research, through government and other independent sources, and the improvement in research impact assessments are also considered key success factors.

These achievements in the UK, however, are being threatened by the global economic crisis that has meant decreased funding for universities. The Labour government decreased funding in 2010 for the first time since it came to power and more cuts are expected, Arthur said.

"However the government has maintained research funding and ring-fenced science budgets, including funding for the social sciences and arts and humanities," he concluded. "So it is not all doom and gloom."