All change at the top

At the start of November Professor Mary Stuart took over the top job at the University of Lincoln, replacing Professor David Chiddick after his nine years as vice-chancellor. She’s a new face and a new name, but what’s actually going to be different?

Professor Mary Stuart (left) took over from Professor David Chiddick (right) at the start of November 2009. | Photo: Samuel Cox
Professor Mary Stuart took over from Professor David Chiddick at the start of November. | Photo: Samuel Cox

To put it simply, Professor Chiddick was the builder, and Professor Stuart looks to be the academic. In an interview with The Linc Professor Stuart says: “I am different.

“I feel passionately about the role of university as an academic environment, where you need quality teaching, you need good research, and you need an excellent student experience, and those are my priorities, and that is what I come from, what I expect, and where very much we will be developing,” she says.

This seems to chime with her background, too. Professor Stuart has a doctorate in Social Policy, and is a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Teaching, Quality, and Student Experience committee, and also a higher education advisor to the World Council for Total Quality and Excellence in Education.

Her academic background has won her praise from staff, some of whom have expressed their desires to see senior management practices change too. Some expect this will be a black mark against the university in the staff survey. At the very least, the survey will be a useful tool for gauging the staff’s opinions at the end of Professor Chiddick’s time and the start of Professor Stuart’s.

Professor Chiddick’s background, on the other hand, is in town planning, and he will be returning to this now he has left the university’s top job. He started his career working for Hertfordshire County Council as a town planner. His membership of various committees and groups reflects this. For example, he has worked with and supported the Association of University Directors of Estates.

This is not surprising if you look at the development of the university during his tenure, particularly that of the Brayford campus. Professor Chiddick has overseen the university’s change from the old University of Lincolnshire and Humberside into its current form. Even if someone has no knowledge of the university, they can tell a lot has changed in the past few years just by looking at the buildings that dominate the waterfront in Lincoln.

The Enterprise building has just been finished, and there are now plans for an engineering building and dedicated facilities for the School of Art and Design. When he spoke to The Linc he said that there was still much work to be done, and his work will continue long after he has officially departed, it seems.

Asked to justify the university’s spending on construction projects, Professor Chiddick says: “We needed to put the buildings up, otherwise we wouldn’t have anywhere to put the staff,” and “there’s still several tens of millions yet to spend.”

The argument can certainly be made that this is necessary — Bridge House is made out of Portakabins, for example — but you have to wonder whether this spending will affect Professor Stuart’s time here.

The university’s Board of Governors has just approved Professor Chiddick’s last budget, which will run until 2014, and it includes £15m of borrowing for building projects, with other funds being pumped in as well. This loan does not cover the new engineering school’s building, as that is being financed largely by private sources, such as Siemens, with whom the university is working to set the school up.

This is a lot of money, and with the prospect of cuts in financial support from the government — which the university is highly dependent on — the budget could hobble Professor Stuart’s future plans.

She has talked about the need to look for funding sources other than the state, such as from businesses, so if looking elsewhere does provide the necessary funds, then it shouldn’t be an issue, or at the very least reduce the budgetary stress.

It also might be the case that Professor Stuart’s vision is going to need less money than what the university has spent in the past. Perhaps this budget will be the last spurt of capital spending, and the changes to and improvements in teaching quality, research, and student experience won’t lighten the university’s wallet too much.

But everything costs money, so perhaps this is overly optimistic, though Professor Stuart’s focus sounds as if it will be on improving what Lincoln already has, rather than on huge, expensive new projects. She has said: “I think that any university at different times has different needs.”

Maybe what the University of Lincoln needs in the coming years is some polish, after the cranes and concrete.

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