Why does university chief Michael Arthur attract so much hostility?
‘I don’t shirk change’ says the UCL provost. But many of his staff are not happy about his big expansion plans
University College London, founded nearly 200 years ago, was inspired by Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher who believed that rulers should aim for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Today, UCL has grown to 42,500 students with plans to recruit a further 4,000, making it the largest UK university apart from the Open University. For the past six years, Michael Arthur, the softly spoken son of a cabinet-maker and a probation service assistant, who went to a state comprehensive in Harlow, Essex, has presided over this success story as UCL’s provost (vice-chancellor). But he has not achieved Bentham’s goal of the “greatest happiness” among UCL’s 6,500 academic and research staff.
All university leaders encounter hostility, but few can have attracted quite as much as Arthur. Some UCL academics feel such a “frenzy of hatred” against him that they would prefer “a blind, three-legged elephant” as provost – and that judgment, in a privately circulated note last year, came from his press officer (since departed). “He’s been a disaster,” one academic tells me. “This was once an egalitarian, collaborative place. It has become a Stalinist institution. The whole ethos has changed.”
Another says: “UCL is being run as a business, not as a university.” A poll of the 1,531-strong academic board (which includes all professors plus elected members) got 724 responses, of which only 100 declared their confidence in UCL’s governance. Arthur says the poll was “not properly conducted”.
Some professors took allegations of “acts of improper governance and breaches of the statutes” to the university Visitor, a largely ceremonial post occupied at UCL by the master of the rolls, England’s second most senior judge, currently Sir Terence Etherton. In an 86-page confidential report – seen by the Guardian – he found no “sustained or intentional infringement” of UCL’s constitution but described Arthur’s management style as “more top-down than that of some of his predecessors”.
On some occasions, Etherton continued, “challenge has not been received as it should have been”. There was “a loss of trust and morale” among “a significant number” of academics (though not a majority) and that “cannot be simply ignored”.
The academics’ complaints are wide-ranging and some date back to 2015, when the Nobel prize-winning biochemist Sir Tim Hunt resigned his UCL honorary professorship after comments made about his “trouble with girls”. Hunt’s supporters said the university, anxious to protect its “brand”, created an unnecessary fuss and gave Hunt no option but to step down. “Arthur was extremely unpleasant to him,” said one insider. “He was given no opportunity to explain himself.” Arthur replies: “I am confident we accepted a genuine resignation.”
But the nub of the grievances concerns UCL’s expansion – and particularly plans for a £516m, 11-acre second campus at the Olympic Park in Stratford, six miles east of the site it has occupied since 1826 in Bloomsbury, traditionally London’s academic and high cultural heart. The first hole in the ground for UCL East has just been dug, Arthur tells me when we meet in his awesomely spacious office.
Arthur has big ideas for the future: a school of politics and public policy to rival the Kennedy School of Government in the US; a school of “the health of the public”; a business school for the real estate industry (“for estate agents?” I ask; “definitely not for estate agents”, he says firmly). UCL, having recently swallowed the London University Institute of Education, will then cover just about all human knowledge and activity except theology and performing arts.
But isn’t UCL too big already? “We want to be a global player,” says Arthur. “Round the world, you’re seeing universities of 90,000, 100,000 students. If you have critical mass, you can create outstanding cross-disciplinary research on things like climate change. You can do research that makes a difference.” He mentions a treatment recently developed at UCL that makes HIV, the virus that causes Aids, untransmittable. If UCL didn’t increase student numbers, thus maximising fee revenue, such research would have to be cut back. “To me,” Arthur says, “that is unthinkable.”
His opponents disagree, saying UCL should make money from research spin-offs in areas such as healthcare, not from student fees, an unpredictable source of future income, particularly if the government carries out the Augar review’s proposal to cut them from £9,000 a year to £7,500. They point out that, of the top 12 in the world rankings (UCL is 14th), none has more than 22,000 students and two have fewer than 10,000. “Big universities reduce the staff and student experience,” one senior academic says. “The university becomes a sausage-machine.”
“Arthur hasn’t reached out to staff and got them to buy into UCL East,” says Sean Wallis, a UCL research fellow in English and vice-president of the academics’ union branch. Dissidents claimed that a £280m loan for the new campus from the European Investment Bank was rushed through without proper consultation. They accused Arthur of imposing stringent controls over “discretionary funds” – £78m donated by academics from private consultancy fees and the like and spent, for example, on supporting PhD students and entertaining guest speakers – because they were needed as loan collateral (which UCL denies). Meanwhile, the Bloomsbury site was being neglected. In another poll, 423 out of 492 academics thought teaching facilities were inadequate and one commented that “I have taught too many classes in rooms where the windows don’t close and the heating doesn’t work, with half the chairs broken.”
This may explain UCL’s poor performance in the National Student Survey, in which it languishes in 119th place. What is he doing to improve the student experience? He says he has changed the promotion system, introducing “teaching fellows” to give teaching more recognition. He is also “bringing research and teaching together” and has gone through every degree programme to see how that can be done. He explains: “If you explicitly engage students with the research process, they acquire really important life skills. They begin to understand how knowledge is created, how to deal with uncertainty, how to work in a diverse team. These are skills they can take to employers. I’m not trying to create 42,000 researchers but 42,000 critical thinkers and leaders.”
He admits, though, “We’re not doing as well on teaching as we’d like. We are on a journey.” When he started his last job, as vice-chancellor at Leeds in 2004, that university was, he says, “at a similarly low level in the student survey. Now it’s in the top three.”
Before Leeds, Arthur spent almost his entire academic life at Southampton University, starting a medical degree in 1972, going on to a research fellowship, a lectureship and a professorship, and then becoming a dean in charge of one-third of the university. His nine years at Leeds were also marked by a vote of no confidence from the academics’ union amid accusations that he was sacking 700 staff. In fact, he says, it was a voluntary severance scheme. If he attracts trouble, it’s because “I don’t shirk the need for change”.
He is not, I suspect, a natural enthusiast for the marketisation of universities, even though, as Russell Group chair from 2009 to 2013, he campaigned for rises in fees and ending the cap on home student numbers. “Would I have invented fees? Probably not. If I had been prime minister, I would probably have kept government funding.”
Since UCL was already set on expansion before Arthur arrived, it is perhaps just bad luck that he finds himself in the frontline of bitter struggles to reconcile the demands of a new funding regime with traditional academic values. But I wonder also if, as he climbed the promotion ladder, he suffered some kind of identity crisis that caused him to emerge, according to his UCL critics, as a man who lacks either a medic’s “bedside manner” or a university leader’s political skills. At Southampton, he was known as Mick Arthur. But he arrived at Leeds as Michael, his mother having insisted that Mick didn’t fit his status. He cheerfully confirms this, seemingly unaware of what a psychologist could make of it.
Though there was talk of financial crisis two years ago, shortly after UCL took out loans to start work on the new campus, Arthur tells me with pride that the university is now on a sound financial footing, with borrowing as a percentage of turnover below the Russell Group average, and zero academic staff redundancies during his tenure.
At the end of the next academic year, Arthur is due to retire. But some UCL staff predict – and hope – that he will be gone some months before then.
By Peter Wilby