FD Interview - Having it Large

The director of finance at Oxford Brookes University tells Jenny Hirschkorn about his complex and diverse work in the public sector.

Paul Large admits that when he first took on the role of director of finance at Oxford Brookes University it was intended as a short-term move. He had spent the previous 10 years effectively telling other people how to run colleges and universities and he wanted his CV to show that he could practise as well as he preached.

That was back in 1997. Almost nine years on, he is more committed to Brookes than ever. These days his remit extends beyond finance, as his current title, director of finance and legal services, indicates. 'As well as the finance area, I am responsible for the provision of legal services in the university and also for what is referred to as research support and business development. This means providing support to academic staff in applying for research grants and also interacting with business.

There's very much of a thing going on in the higher education sector at the moment, trying to improve the knowledge transfer from universities into business and industry.'

Mirror image

My meeting with Large takes place in Headington Hill House, the Italianate mansion once described by Robert Maxwell as 'the best council house in the country'. Having negotiated a peppercorn rent with Oxford City Council, Maxwell and his sprawling family occupied the house for 32 years until the time of his death in 1991. It, together with buildings in the grounds which housed his company, Pergamon Press, now form part of Brookes's Headington campus.

Large tells me about his professional career, which began at the age of 17 when he joined Birmingham City Council. He qualified as a member of CIPFA in 1986 and then spent five years at KPMG, specialising in audit and consultancy for the not-for-profit sector. From there he joined the Further Education Funding Council, which had been set up to fund and regulate further education colleges as they transferred out of local authority control. 'It was very interesting to be there at the time of the creation of the FE sector,' Large recalls.

So what is it about Brookes that has drawn Large into by far the longest job tenure of his career to date?

'I think it's the huge potential and the huge challenge that sits within a university. There is always a lot going on, an enormous breadth of activity.

When I talk to new staff, particularly those coming in from the private sector into the finance department, I'll say, "You look at our turnover - it might be about £125m this year - and you compare us to an organisation in the private sector with a similar turnover; we are much more complex and much more diverse". It is keeping that all moving in the same direction which is something of a challenge and, on top of that, this is a university which is very ambitious.'

Since becoming a university in 1992, Brookes has regularly appeared at the top of the performance tables of new universities. But that, says Large, is not enough. The goal is to be among the best of all universities.

'There is a real drive for quality in teaching here. That drive runs through the whole institution: a refusal to compromise, not allowing some things to be good and some things to be average.'

Another factor contributing to the university's success, he believes, is that it operates on a very devolved model in comparison with most new universities. 'Both financially and managerially the individual schools have a lot of freedom to operate as they see fit in order to fit in with what their students and markets need.'

Such autonomy has led to an enterprising and imaginative culture, where innovative initiatives thrive. A particular example that, as an accountant, Large was pleased to see is the joint venture entered into by the school of business and the ACCA, which allows students to study for a degree in applied accounting while taking their ACCA examinations. The business school has also established very strong international links, which in turn help raise the profile of the university overseas. With 18% of the university's students coming from outside the EU, this is an important market in terms of student recruitment.

Top-up talk

Between them, overseas students and post-graduates make up around half of the total student body at Brookes, with the balance being home or EU undergraduates, the funding for whom is a subject rarely out of the headlines.

What, then, are Large's views on the increased top-up fees that are due to come into effect in September this year?

'I think the institution's view on the whole is that it regrets their introduction but sees them as inevitable within the current funding arrangement.

Personally, I think it is entirely sensible that students who will benefit ultimately from the qualifications they gain do contribute back towards those qualifications. The level of the funding is I think a very cautious step. It actually isn't sufficient for a full market to grow up in higher education.'

Fees for the vast majority of Brookes courses will be set at the maximum £3,000 a year and, aside from inflation, will be pegged at that level by law until 2010. But Large quotes arguments which suggest that some institutions - 'obviously a very small number of the older universities' - could sustain fees of £25,000 and he clearly would like to see the sort of defined market that freedom in setting fees would create.

Brookes does not expect to see the fees giving rise to a significant downturn in applications this year. In fact, Large believes that the new system, which means that students do not have to repay fees until they start earning in excess of £15,000 a year and which also reintroduces maintenance grants for students from poorer backgrounds, is a positive step.

So will the universities be sloshing around in cash once the fees start pouring in? After all, a recent forecast by the Higher Education Funding Council indicated that universities would have a combined operating surplus of £427m by 2008-09.

Far from it, says Large. 'Universities have got to generate surpluses because we need to invest in our infrastructure. On the whole, most university infrastructures have been under-invested in the last decade. We certainly, for instance, in this institution have got backlog maintenance problems on our estate of about £27m and these are just all evidence that we haven't been spending enough.'

The mid-20th century buildings that make up much of the university's teaching and research facilities are not only ugly and dilapidated, they are poorly suited to modern academic needs.

In the case of Brookes, lack of funds has not been the only obstacle in the way of redeveloping the academic estate. Additional pressure comes from the local planning authority, as Large explains. 'There is a housing shortage in Oxford and one of the solutions is to get the universities to move their students out of residential properties in the city and into purpose-built student accommodation. If we breach the number of students that the city thinks should be allowed to be in the rented market, then that actually impacts on our ability to get further planning consent for academic building.'

But with funds so tight, Large was keen to look for different ways to finance new halls of residence and found the solution in an arrangement with University Partnerships Programme, which funds, designs, builds and manages student accommodation. At a time when the university was looking at two major residential projects - one to demolish 400 old units and replace them with 750 new ones and the other to construct 650 units on a new site - the partnership arrangement was particularly attractive.

The two projects combined would have overstretched Brookes's own estate department, and having one of them run under the partnership scheme would not only provide welcome off-balance sheet funding but also a benchmark against which the internal estate department could be measured.

The arrangement would also mean a transfer of risk, in an environment where there is continuous speculation about whether future generations of students will continue to study away from home.

All this should pave the way for two major redevelopments of the academic estate, costing something in the region of £40m-£50m over the next five to six years. But deciding exactly where the money goes is a constant juggling act, says Large.

'It's a real conflict in an institution which is trying to put as much of its resources as it can into academic development, academic staffing and research. Spending that sort of money on buildings can often be hard to explain to teaching staff who are asking why we are closing a given course area. But if we want to be one of the best universities, we know where our current estate is compared to where the upper quartile of the sector would be and there is an awful long way for us to travel.'

What drives Large on is the knowledge that the university's potential is always greater than its achievement. 'We know we can achieve more and it's actually all about being part of that ambition and achievement.'

CV

Who: Paul Large

When: 16 December 1958

Where: Birmingham

Qualifications: CIPFA

Work: Auditor and consultant, KPMG; regional director of finance, then assistant director of finance, Further Education Funding Council.

Life: Golf (says he plays extremely badly).

OXFORD BROOKES FACTS

•    The university takes its name from John Henry Brookes, who was appointed vice-principal of the Oxford City Technical School and head of the School of Art in 1928. When the two schools were merged in 1934, Brookes was elected the first principal.

•    Prior to becoming a university in 1992, the college was known as Oxford Polytechnic.

•    The total student headcount is around 18,000, almost 60% of whom are women.

•    In the employability ratings, The Times Good University Guide lists Oxford Brookes as joint 20th with an employability rating of 77.5%.

•    Last year's decision to award an honorary degree to motoring journalist and broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson drew a wave of protest from environmentalists at the university.

•    The university has three campuses: Headington, Harcourt Hill and Wheatley.

•    The university's chancellor is journalist and television presenter Jon Snow.

•    In 2004, the university awarded an honorary degree to International Accounting Standards Board chairman Sir David Tweedie.

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