Gloucestershire v-c tells staff to speak out on past turmoil, 'warts and all'

The new vice-chancellor at a university emerging from financial woes has asked for a "warts and all" account from staff about their experiences and vision for the future.

Stephen Marston, who started at the University of Gloucestershire this week, said no one should be afraid to speak out about the events of the past few years.

The former civil servant, a key cog in government education departments since 2002 and before that director for institutions at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said morale had been "undeniably affected" by the institution's well-publicised problems.

"People now want to feel that they are being listened to, that their experiences are being understood and that they have an opportunity to help create a sense of what the future purpose and vision is going to be. I am absolutely committed to that," he said.

The past two years have seen a major battle - overseen by the funding council - to steady Gloucestershire's finances, a string of high-profile departures (including two vice-chancellors in 18 months), an independent review into its governance structure, and an employment tribunal that exposed bitter internal wrangling.

Mr Marston said that despite the problems, which he said were "primarily about financial control, leadership and management", he was attracted to the potential to make Gloucestershire "very successful" given the quality of its student experience.

"What I saw in Gloucestershire was a place where the fundamentals were sound," he said, adding that it was heading for a "healthy surplus" this year.

While there needed to be a "corporate understanding" that the university might not always be able to fulfil staff wishes, he said an atmosphere was needed where "people feel confident to speak out and give their views...without any fear of retribution".

He added: "I want people to tell warts and all, no holds barred, what their experience has been and what they now think we should be doing to achieve success."

Most recently, there has been an outcry over the awarding of a professorship to business school dean Kevin Richardson, who was criticised by an employment tribunal judgment for his behaviour in a previous role as head of education.

Mr Marston said it would "not be fair" to comment about an individual, but said he had seen no evidence to warrant a review of the decision.

Later in the year Mr Marston will be joined by Sir Peter Scott, former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, as chair of governors, and Richard O'Doherty, assistant vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, as deputy vice-chancellor.

He said the appointments signalled that the university's "academic purpose" would still be central to its mission despite his own lack of direct experience in running a university.

He added that his job application followed an "absolutely standard" process and was not an attempt by government to ensure that a safe pair of hands took over a struggling university.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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