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Friday, 29 August 2014

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‘Cumbria as safe as any university is safe in the current climate’

This is a new starting point for the university,” Professor Graham Upton states as he reflects on his time at the University of Cumbria.

Graham Upton photo
Graham Upton

The 67-year-old has led a rapid turnaround at the young institution and is ready to step down.

He will hand over to Barrow-born Professor Peter Strike, the vice chancellor designate who officially takes over on August 1 – the university’s fourth anniversary – following a turnaround which is expected to see the its bank balance back into the black.

After its rocky beginnings, the university is poised to record its first surplus at the close of its current trading year at the end of July, a figure which is thought will be in the region of £5m. A surplus was recorded in last year’s accounts but became a £8.93m deficit when one-off factors had to be taken into account.

It’s a far cry from Prof Upton’s hasty interim appointment in the wake of Professor Peter McCaffery’s sudden depature in May last year, which came as the institution was struggling to tackle a £30m accumulative deficit.

Problems had built up since the university’s creation in August 2007 from the merging of several predecessor institutions. It had to slash £10m from its annual spending to balance the books.

Courses were axed, 300 jobs were lost, faculties were cut to three and there was a shake-up of campuses.

Prof Upton said: “It has been an amazing, incredible turnaround in the university’s financial position.

“Fourteen months ago it was precipitously close to the point where you almost have accountants talking about it no longer being a going concern.

“If we didn’t get our £5m loan last July we would’ve been bankrupt. The plan when I arrived was essentially to make the changes we needed to keep it viable. I’m not quite sure where we’d be now if that hadn’t happened.”

He added: “We were very close to the edge but now so many things have changed. Resolving the underlying financial issues was important for the university’s survival and this means we should now be able to declare a healthy surplus that is much better than expected – it could be over £5m.”

This is in part because Prof Upton and his team predicted Government cuts would be worse than they turned out to be. Financial predictions for the years ahead also look healthy but Prof Upton is cautious of what the future holds.

He said: “There is a very different approach to financial management now. Over the next five years we’re also predicting surpluses.

“We’ve caught up with every other university now and the problems and uncertainty we face are now the same as everyone else with the changes in the higher education sector coming in and new tuition fees.

“Just to be on the cautious side we’re predicting there could be a drop of 15 per cent in student numbers. We needed to take that prudent approach. Some of the past problems [of this university] came from expecting things that did not happen and I don’t think it is wise to operate finances from a wish list.”

Prof Upton also spearheaded a shake-up of the university’s board of directors as part of the transformation.

“From that process last year, we had seven new directors and there’s a few more we hope to announce very soon,” he said. “There was nothing wrong with the people in the past but the board did not have the right skills. Now I think we’ve got a financial committee that is second to none and is as good as any I’ve worked with. There is also a good audit committee.”

A new senior management team has also been formed following several key academic and professional appointments since Prof Upton’s arrival.

The search for a new, permanent financial director to replace interim appointment Stephen Avery is to be launched later this year, Prof Upton said.

“I’ve never done anything like this [re-organisation] before with this speed,” he added. “At Oxford Brooks, my last university, we organised faculties but we did that over 18 months, a longer period. Here we had no choice, we had a very tight timescale.

“What I brought along was the experience and knowing what had to be done. I suppose I brought a certain level of confidence but it wasn’t me doing it all alone. It was also the first time that I’d come to such a new university. A member of staff came up to me the other day and said, ‘We feel like you’ve contained us and held us’. I suppose people found it reassuring.”

Prof Upton says he has developed an affinity with Cumbria. “ To be leaving at the end of this month, it feels fantastic when you see what we’ve got is a viable, stable and sustainable university and it is as safe as any university is safe in the current climate.”

He added: “It is now a starting point for the university. It is now stable and it can decide what it wants to be when it grows up. It is up to Peter [Strike] to help it grow and develop from this point.

“The University of Cumbria should be able to become the university that will really serve Cumbria and the region.”

Prof Upton compares the work to turn around the university to pieces of a jigsaw with two of the final pieces expected to slot into place over the next week – the transfer of further education and most assets at Newton Rigg to Askham Bryan College while Carlisle College is due to take over FE courses at Brampton Road.

He points out the map of Cumbria and Lancashire on the wall of his office at the Fusehill Street campus in Carlisle.

“It reminds me that Cumbria is a very special university. It is unique,” he said.

“Before I came here, I thought it was largely the Lake District and so I had not quite realised some of the issues facing places like Barrow and west Cumbria. Now I know it is not just the Lake District. I’ve discovered lots of other beautiful places here too, and know more about the differences across the county.”

He added: “It will be difficult to leave. I feel I’ve given it my all. I really like Carlisle and Cumbria and to go somewhere else may feel promiscuous, like having a second lover!

“Seriously though, I will have to let go but I’d like to be kept informed of how it is going. I’m really interested in what happens and how it grows from here.”

He would like the university to win the right to award research degrees and expand its postgraduate research studies.

It has also excited Prof Upton that the university hopes to breathe life back into its Ambleside campus. It was mothballed as a cash-saving measure at the height of the financial crisis. Now higher education provision could be transferred from Penrith to Ambleside when Askham Bryan College starts to develop its presence at Newton Rigg over the next three years.

“I think another highlight has been our assessments by Ofsted and the Quality Assessment Authority,” Prof Upton said. “Despite all the things that were happening it is good to know that the academic programmes were judged to be sound.”

Prof Upton now plans to spend some time with his wife Bebe Speed at their home in Oxford. He has four children and five grandchildren.

He also hopes to refocus some of his efforts on other positions he holds. He is chairman of a small science company specialising in manufacturing proteins, president of the Play House in Oxford, and deputy chairman at the University of the West of England, an institution three times the size of Cumbria University where he also chairs the university’s finance and resources committee. And he is looking forward to serving as High Sheriff of Oxfordshire in 2013.

Stephen Henwood, chairman of the University of Cumbria, leads the praise of Prof Upton. He said: “A complete overhaul of processes and structures has led to budgetary improvements so impressive that the university is forecasting a surplus higher than budgeted which gives us confidence to move forward with our plans to improve the quality of our teaching and learning resources.

“This is an incredible achievement for all involved. Under Graham’s leadership the university has gone from strength to strength.”

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