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.