Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Changing Cardiff

Saw this excellent interview with Prof Sir Brian Smith, former VC of Cardiff University, in the education section of the Star last Sunday (Dec 16, 2007). One of our readers caught this interview as well. I'll reproduce it in full (for posterity, when the link expires) and then add some of my thoughts at the end.


Prof Sir Brian Smith shares his strategies for restoring Cardiff University’s reputation as a research university.

FOR someone who does not like administration, it is ironic that Cardiff University (Cardiff) international ambassador and former vice-chancellor Prof Sir Brian Smith ended up heavily involved in research management.

He was first landed with it back when he was a Physical Chemistry lecturer at Oxford University.

“Every time people asked me to do an administrative job, I'd say: 'No, no, I'm doing my research'.

“So, in the end, they just said everybody has to do his, or her, bit.”

And that was how he was appointed to the university’s General Board – the body responsible for academic planning and development as well as finance and appointments.

“Then, to my surprise, I was elected chairman of the board, and that was how my administrative career started,” he shared, during a recent interview at the British Council.

Prof Smith headed the board for two years, from 1985 to 1987.

Later, he served as Master of St Catherine's College.

He was also the founding director of Isis Innovation, Oxford's intellectual property arm.

The experience gained from holding these two positions stood him in good stead when he was appointed vice-chancellor of Cardiff in 2001.

PROF SMITH: My theories worked because the people at Cardiff were ready for change and ready to change dramatically.

Strong leadership

At that time, Cardiff was a university in trouble. Due to government cutbacks in the late 1980s, the university had reached a stage when it was essentially bankrupt and on the verge of closing.

It eventually had to merge with the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, previously a polytechnic, and obtain a government loan to pull it through that rough patch.

“My predecessor, Sir Aubrey Dickinson, had five years to get the finances and the merger sorted out – a very difficult and technical job,” shared Prof Smith.

Once its financial standing was stabilised, then came the question of how to improve the university's research capabilities.

Said Prof Smith: “Cardiff offered a fantastic opportunity.

“Here was a university that had been through very difficult times; it was the perfect opportunity to try out my theories.

“And they worked because the people at Cardiff were ready for change and ready to change dramatically.”

The main problem faced by the university at that time was that it had not yet re-established itself as a research university.

According to Prof Smith, there are a number of factors involved in the move to regain a university's research strength.

“A very big factor is research staff.

“Because British universities have a great deal of autonomy and flexibility, we were able to go out and recruit.”

And that was how Prof Sir Martin Evans, one of this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine recipients, came to join the university.

“He came to a department that was not strong but actually managed to increase its number of publications in top journals 11-fold,” said Prof Smith.

Prof Evans, he added, was a stimulating presence as he could motivate not only the new people but also those people who had been there all the while.

“Although a lot of the publications were from new staff, half came from people who were already there.

“They became much more active and proactive under him.

“It is very much a leadership issue, I think. Star scientists and academics can transform the culture around them,” explained Prof Smith.

Shared vision

Asked how he managed to attract top people like Prof Evans to join him at Cardiff, Prof Smith said he believed what counted was not just a lucrative contract but the whole package.

“I don't think it's entirely about money. I feel that Prof Evans was equally attracted by the opportunity to unify the entire biology department and direct its vision,” he observed.

To encourage productivity, Prof Smith switched the promotion system from a quota-based system (where the total number of professorial positions in a faculty were pre-determined) to a performance-based one.

He even offered an attractive retirement package to faculty members who were not producing much research.

However, in order for universities to be able to do that, Prof Smith said they need autonomy.

“The university has to be free to offer different contracts (to academics and scientists).

“And within the university, a lot of power needs to be devolved to the young people.

“It's all about having decisions taken at the lowest level practicable.

“That’s a major change,” he said.

Another important move Prof Smith instituted was to eliminate as much of the bureaucracy and structures as possible in the university.

Faculties were removed and the research and academic units dealt directly with the central administration.

“I can't describe how much paperwork that saved,” said Prof Smith, adding that the rules and regulations were also much simplified by that move.

He added that it was absolutely important that all the people in the university have a “very clear and single-minded vision”.

“Everybody (in the university) must know what the aim and mission is.

“They must also feel, in their own different ways, able to contribute to that,” he said.

Changes must also be instituted quickly, he added.

“I had about two years to make substantial changes before our first research assessment exercise (RAE).

“I think if you take a long time instituting change, things lose their momentum.

“You have to make changes when people feel the need for change.”

Due in large part to these strategies, Cardiff has risen from a ranking of 241 in the THES-QS World University Rankings in 2005 to 99 this year.

Prof Smith, however, also pointed out that saying something and doing it are quite different.

Citing autonomy as an example, he said: “Governments are very reluctant to give too much power to universities.

“University managers are also reluctant to surrender power in turn.

“The desire to hold on to power is something we have to struggle with both inside and outside universities.”

Some of the no-brainers in regards to how they apply to the Malaysian context. While it is a no-brainer to change to a performance based scheme which gives incentives for researchers to publish, giving autonomy to universities to 'reward' good researchers is easier said than done in the Malaysian context. Since all university lecturers and professors are civil servants, they are on a centrally fixed pay scale. There is less room to negotiate for pay increases or higher salaries, especially to attract outstanding talent to come to our public universities. UM, for example, cannot offer higher pay to attract outstanding talent from let's say NUS.

Similarly, it makes sense, financially at least, to reduce the levels of bureaucracy but this might run into the problem of individual departments wanting to maintain their own autonomy as well as their administrative staff. Hence, university autonomy for Prof Smith also comes with individual university centralization, from a bureaucratic standpoint at least.

Finally, he talks about how a university needs autonomy from other sources of powers including the government. Again, I think that long term, a university cannot be too closely tied to the government (because of government interference) but in the case of Malaysia, it looks like, at least in the short to medium term, the government, through the MOHE is driving changes in our public universities. While this might be a short term measure (without which our public universities might continue to languish in mediocrity), it is not a long term solution. Ultimately, our public universities need to be weaned off government interference and also government support.

I was a little disappointed that he didn't talk about funding since Cardiff is one of the universities which benefit financially from obtaining more and more foreign students (including Malaysian students), an option which is not immediately open to our public universities.

The changes proposed here are no brainers - performance, incentives, leadership and autonomy - most, if not all, of which are currently needed in large doses in our public universities.


Anonymous said...

Cymru Ambyth! Nadolig llawyn! Croeso i Brifysgol Caerdydd. Mae Prifysgol Caerdydd yn ganolfan addysg uwch lwyddiannus a bywiog sydd wedi ennil bri rhyngwladol am ymchwil ac addysg o'r radd flaenaf, ers ei sefydlu gan Siarter

Anonymous said...

Wish that the next UM VC has such intellectual capabilities and expertise to lead the premier university. The current mediocre VC must be removed!

Anonymous said...

UM VC got only a lowly Masters!

If I am not sure she didnt succeed in getting her PhD in Wales before...hehe

Anonymous said...

"mediocre" is a word too kind to be used on the VCs we have in Malaysia. i would call them rubbish, underperforming rubbish. aside than talking rubbish, going for networking sessions with politicians and taking the salary they don't deserve, what else are they?

research universities? apex universities? global ranking? wait until the current ruling government is down. then that might be able to realize.