Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)

22 MARCH 2004


  Q1 Chairman: Sir Alan, you can bring a crowd with you and you have not started the job yet! Can I congratulate you on behalf of the Committee. You will know something of the Committee's work, having read some of the results of our inquiries and so on.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Yes, indeed.

  Q2 Chairman: We are delighted to see you here. We know you have not taken up your position yet.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: If you will forgive me for saying so, Chairman, I took up the position half time on 1 February, so you can talk to me on that basis. I have six weeks' experience half time.

  Q3 Chairman: It is early days yet. We are pleased to see you, thank you for coming along. If there is anything you cannot answer please say so and you can let us know later on.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: That is fine.

  Q4 Chairman: Why was your job created? There you were working away, beavering away at Leeds, why was this job created and tempting for you?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think it was created because if you look at the structure of the Department, the Directorate of Lifelong Learning had a very, very wide brief. It embraced skills, adult learning, everything concerned with FE colleges, the Learning and Skills Council. I think there was a concern that higher education had something of a back seat. I think part of the reasoning was to give higher education a higher profile and, indeed, in my case, to seek to bring somebody in with experience of the sector who could offer something in those terms.

  Q5 Chairman: It implies that something was not right, was not going well, something was missing, does it not, and it needed this appointment? Not you, but the appointment.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: If you look at what has happened in the Department I think it reflects a restructuring process which has been going on for a year or two in terms of bringing people into the Department at board level. In fact, I think it is true to say now that five of the eight members of the board actually came from outside the Civil Service. They are bringing skills that represent the sector that they are now working in in the Department.

  Q6 Chairman: Where do you sit in the Government circle, as it were? Are you a representative of the universities or are you a bridge between the universities or are you your own man?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I have to say, I have entirely changed positions, or I will have done on 1 June when I move full-time into this job. I have moved from being Vice-Chancellor in the University of Leeds to being a full-time civil servant in the senior Civil Service. I will have exactly the roles that you would expect of a senior civil servant in a Director General position.

  Q7 Chairman: I am not interviewing you for the job, you understand. Is this position best filled by an ex-vice chancellor with that experience of all the vicissitudes of higher education over the last 10/20 years? Do you think that is a great advantage for this job and position? Does it position you well in understanding the problems?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am not sure it is for me to answer that question, Chairman, but I can attempt to do so. From my perspective it works perfectly well. I hope what I actually bring to the job are administrative and management experiences as well as knowledge of the sector. I am very conscious that it is a very different kind of job and that is one of the challenges for me, it is one of the interests in the job.

  Q8 Chairman: I realise this job was re-advertised. Were you head-hunted?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Yes.

  Q9 Chairman: You were head-hunted the second time round?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Yes.

  Q10 Chairman: Why did they not get anybody the first time, do you think? Did nobody apply?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Again, I do not think that is my question, Chairman. I was not involved in the first round.

  Q11 Mr McWalter: Might it be that you are there to then take the blame so that when things go wrong there is a Director of Higher Education, whereas when things go right ministers will claim that? That might be why nobody else bothered to apply.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am not sure it works that way, Chairman. I am happy to take whatever responsibility I am given.

  Q12 Mr McWalter: Including being the whipping boy?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I do not see myself as a whipping boy, Chairman.

  Q13 Chairman: Can I just ask you two specific questions and then I will pass on. The e-university is quite interesting to me. I remember it being put forward several years ago and lots and lots of money being put up for it. What has happened to that in your experience? Has it failed?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It would be wrong to say it has failed. I think what has happened is that the Funding Council, who are the main funders of it and were the agency for carrying the Government money into that experiment, are seeking to restructure it. My take on it would be that it is a big job still to be done. They have not recruited quite the number of students that they expected at an early stage.

  Q14 Chairman: About 900 across the world.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: If you look at the bigger picture, it was set up as a private sector organisation, or it was intended to be a private sector organisation, to attract more than 50% of private equity in order to run it, but it was actually launched, and one has to say in all fairness from the Funding Council's point of view by accident, at exactly the time that the Stock Exchange was turning down seriously on high tech companies and no-one wanted to invest in it except some through the platform. It now looks more like a public agency which I think the Funding Council will seek to use to drive their e-learning strategy. I do not see it as a failure, I would see it at this stage as a major investment in e-learning.

  Q15 Chairman: It will not be your function to drive it?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It is the Funding Council's role.

  Q16 Chairman: But £30 million down the drain is the implication.

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think it is far too early to say anything like that.

  Q17 Chairman: My last question is, it is implied because of the terrorism interest just now that universities, being part of that, are having to smarten up some of their procedures about recording biological and chemical substances and so on, but there is also some vetting going on of students from abroad. Is that true in your experience from Leeds?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: There has been a Government voluntary vetting scheme. It is not a scheme that I have been directly involved with but it is probably true in my case that one of my colleagues may have been.

  Q18 Chairman: As Vice-Chancellor, surely you must have discussed that at council meetings?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think what has been discussed is whether the university, like most universities in this country, would take part in a voluntary vetting scheme.

  Q19 Chairman: Which students from which countries are being vetted, the "axis of evil"?

  Professor Sir Alan Wilson: That I cannot answer, I am afraid.

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