Alan Gilbert, RIP

Professor Alan Gilbert, who was my boss for the last four of his eight years as Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, died yesterday in Manchester. He had recently completed a term as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester.

I first met him in the late 1990s, during my time as then Education Minister David Kemp’s higher education adviser. He was very noticeable among the VCs who came through or approached our office. Most of them just wanted another cash hit to feed the sector’s great addiction to public money. Alan knew that game was up and that universities would have to do more to earn their own income.

He was an early and regular advocate of deregulating tuition charges for domestic students, but also knew that this was going to be politically difficult. So he turned to other ways of making money for the U of M – with the main strategies being international students, Melbourne University Private, and Universitas21’s commercial arm U21 Global.

The first of these was very successful; Melbourne had been a laggard in recruiting international students but this rapidly changed during the Gilbert era. But as Alan’s many critics repeatedly pointed out, the other two ventures were money losers. The problems of Melbourne University Private in particular generated much work for me in my first few years at the U of M.

Melbourne University Private could never escape the initial over-claiming about its prospects and the reaction the provocative word ‘private’ caused. There is nothing unusual about public universities running commercial teaching arms. DeakinPrime had been uncontroversially servicing the corporate education market for many years, and several universities run colleges for international students. But they do this more discreetly, without the words ‘university’ or ‘private’ (it was also a 100% owned subsidiary of the public University of Melbourne, so the fuss about private universities was baseless). On a more modest basis, a private commercial teaching subsidiary could have generated a bit of extra cash for the U of M without the grief caused by MUP.

U21Global was a more interesting failure (or perhaps non-success, as it is still going on a much smaller scale than predicted). One key assumption turned out to be right – that the rapid modernisations of India and China would create a huge market for international education.

Another assumption was that the spread and development of the internet would, in combination with limits on the physical capacity of campuses, create a big market for online education. I haven’t seen global analysis on the uptake of online education, but many ventures based on it have been unsuccessful. Face-to-face contact still seems important for most students.

A third part of the analysis was that new educational ventures often struggle because education is a ‘brand’ industry – as it is hard to objectively assess the quality of the product, more than in other industries consumers fall back on quality proxies such as institutional reputations. Alan’s idea was that linking U21 to the brands of its member universities this market resistance could be overcome.

While it did not meet the ambitious targets set for it, U21Global remains to me an interesting entrepreneurial venture. The analysis behind it was over-optimistic, but it wasn’t silly based on what was known at the time.

In October 1999 I too was involved in an unsuccessful higher education venture, David Kemp’s radical plans to reform the higher education sector. After these reforms were rejected I decided that I could probably do more good outside government than inside it.

I’d had some previous discussions with Alan about working for him, and called him to see if he was still interested, which he was. The CIS also offered me a job. Combining the two let me work in the higher education sector but also pursue my own commentary wearing my CIS hat. It also meant I could stay in Melbourne and become Carlton’s lone classical liberal.

Within a few months of arriving at the U of M I made my first blunder. Keen to build a media profile, I agreed to a 4 Corners interview on higher education policy – or at least that’s what I thought it was about. The U of M’s media adviser warned me that it was in fact an attempted hatchet job on the University’s commercial ventures, and that I would be ambushed in the interview due to my U of M affiliation. Despite assurances from 4 Corners that I would not be asked U of M questions, as soon as the cameras were rolling they broke that assurance (the person responsible is now the ABC’s China correspondent; I always view his reports with considerable scepticism as a result). But when Gilbert was asked about it in a part of his interview that was broadcast he defended me.

I’d stuffed up in not taking the University’s warnings seriously enough, but Alan never complained and only ever said positive things about my higher education commentary. He ignored student protests calling for me to be sacked. I was grateful that he created a tolerant atmosphere that let me do both my jobs properly.

I was surprised when he cut his Melbourne contract short and took the Manchester job instead. But he said that he thought that he only had time for one more major appointment, and that he would be too old if he waited. Neither of us realised that he had even less time left than he imagined. But by the accounts I have seen, his time as Manchester’s VC was very successful. It was a good way to end his career, but it is very sad that he did not get to enjoy his retirement.

Alan Gilbert, RIP.

6 thoughts on “Alan Gilbert, RIP

  1. This is sad news for Alan’s family and for all his many friends both in Australia and in the UK. He was a pioneer and will be missed.


  2. Andrew

    Very sad news. I met Professor Gilbert on a few occasions when he was Pro Vice Chancellor at UNSW, and while we differed politically, he was a thoughtful, considerate and respectful discussion partner. I recall once being on a visit to a conference in the Netherlands with him, and he explained why historically England had never worried overly about invasion from France or Spain, but prevailing tides and winds meant invasion from the Netherlands was a bigger risk in the era of sail. It was a fascinating piece of history, and he explained it in a compelling and easily understandable way. My condolences to his loved ones and friends.


  3. Andrew

    Thank you for your thoughts. This is very sad news indeed, and particularly for Alan’s family. Alan’s appointment at Melbourne in 1996, a decision aided by the late Chancellor Ted Woodward’s wisdom at the time, really set the University of Melbourne on its current international direction. I will never forget two of Alan’s comments made at a planning conference held at Marysville in November 1996 in the wake of the Coalition’s decision to cut Univerisity funding and provide no supplementation for salary increases – a cut amounting to at least 25% by 2001. Alan’s first comment; “We must plan to make the government funding line the smallest on the income side of our budget!” was followed by “and benchmark with the best in the world”. Alan provided great leadership at Melbourne, and Manchester.


  4. When Prof Alan Gilbert left the University of Melbourne we lost one of the greatest VCs this University has ever seen. He left the University of Melbourne behind as one of the leading universities in the world. Specifically, he strongly supported the Faculty of Engineering (one of the oldest engineering schools in the world) in its internationalisation program, which led to its high ranking at the time. It is with absolute sadness that I received the news of his passing, as he made a point of making me feel at home in the greater University of Melbourne community, including inviting Jannie and me to dinner at their home. His track record at Melbourne and Manchester of lifting universities to a higher level speaks for itself. As an inspirational leader and role model he was a hard act to follow at Melbourne. I will remember Prof Alan Gilbert for the good he did for the University of Melbourne, but also for the fine human being he was! May he rest in peace. Tiny van Deventer


  5. Thanks for this Andrew. Alan was a star but unfortunately one that some in Australia will overlook (I note a report in the Hobart Mercury, The Australian, but not The Age!). His arrival at Melbourne co-incided with my thoughts about leaving the University. I didn’t and thanks heavens I didn’t cos I had an exciting 8 years learning experience with Alan … a brilliant mind, a shy person but a VERY loyal supporter of his staff, a wicked sense of humour – particularly in diffusing tense situations. The UoM leapt into the 21st century under his hand – internationalisation, the fantastic University Square precinct, the commercialisation followed by many other universities, the move from reliance on shrinking government funding – and a brilliant University environment enjoyed by both my sons! Christina


  6. Well put Andrew. Like Christina I was looking for multi-page spreads in the newspapers the next day. I started out working for Alan in Tasmania first, joining him 18 months or so into his two decades as a Vice Chancellor. Boy, it was fun – he loved power and relished everything it made possible, I’ve never seen anyone since enojoy it and use it to such positive effect. Sometimes it was scary – like the day he gave a talk to a group of older people in Launceston and decided as he went in that it was going to be about ‘why the dinosaurs died out’. Dear God sometimes you wondered where he was going next. But he always seemed to have a plan, or at least to be able to make one up. Melbourne was the same but bigger – too big at times, as you point out but everything based on clear and (as it turns out) accurate insights into what the University needed to become, and the best bits of his legacy still in place. Don’t know much about the time in Manchester but I visited him once there and he looked like he was having a ball – you can imagine, can’t you? Two universities and a vast bucket of money to play with, and a cavernous office that I swear he could have fitted the one he had built in Melbourne into a corner of. I’m gutted he’s dead, but he crammed a lot of impact and joy into a relatively short life. David


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