It is time to wake the sleeping giant
The University of Birmingham is a sleeping giant that needs to be awakened for the benefit of its students and reputation alike.
Vice Chancellor Professor David Eastwood, giving his first interview since taking over the prestige role last month, has a clear image of how he views the future of the leading higher education institution.
The former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England has taken over the reins of the Edgbaston-based university following 19 years at the helm by his predecessor, Professor Michael Sterling.
“When I was appointed, people described this university as a sleeping giant, and there is this feeling that although this is a great university, we could do even better,” Prof Eastwood said.
“This is a university which can do yet more and I am here to play my part.
“That is the challenge, but it’s not an easy challenge as we are competing in a global environment.”
Prof Eastwood, an historian by academic background, said the Russell Group university needed to further strengthen its position as a leading research institution.
“We have some terrific, genuinely global leading research at this university, but we need to build on our research strengths and increase further the quality of our research and the impact of our research.”
Prof Eastwood said their reputation rested very much on the quality of its research.
“Cancer research is as good here as anywhere, we have one of the best three psychology courses in the country, the best music departments and best sports science degrees in the country, and very good engineering.
“One of the great attractions of this university is that we have the breadth that other universities dream of, but it’s fundamentally about building on our strengths.”
One of the biggest challenges facing universities today is funding, particularly in the current economic recession.
“There is real pressure on public expenditure,” Prof Eastwood added.
“We have restored some of the cuts of the previous 15 years, but other countries, particularly the US, spend more on higher education than we do.
“Our percentage of the Gross Domestic Product is 1.4 per cent whereas, in the US, it is 2.9 per cent.
“There is no fat in the system, so I think we need to fight to ensure that we can continue to invest in higher education in general and in student support in particular.”
So that does mean raising the current student tuition fee from £3,000 a year to £5,000, or even £7,000, despite concerns over student debt?
“It’s a matter of record that I supported the move towards variable fees.
“The position we are now in is that there has to be a fees review, but I don’t think there will be a change in the cap anytime soon.
“The next few years will be difficult for universities, as they will for everyone else,” Prof Eastwood warns.
“This university has the advantage of being well run, well managed financially, and we will be able to steer through the downturn better than our competitors.”