Vice-Chancellor is proud to have boosted Leicester's self confidence

Professor Burgess's success in putting the University of Leicester on the national stage

Receiving the Times Higher Education University of the Year award in 2008.
Professor Sir Bob Burgess feels that building the University of Leicester’s self-confidence has been one of his greatest achievements.

“Becoming more self-confident has enabled the University to increase the quality of everything it does. It has also helped push it up the league tables so that it now appears in the top 20 of universities in the UK,” he said.

Sir Bob, who retires this summer after 15 years as Vice-Chancellor at Leicester, has put the University on the map. Under his leadership it has won many prizes (it is the only university to have won awards from The Times Higher in seven consecutive years) and achieved the accolade of the most inclusive of Britain’s leading universities.

Internationally it has won renown for unearthing the skeleton of King Richard III, and at home the campus has been upgraded with a £1 billion capital programme, including the £32m state-of-the-art Library and Students’ Union building.

For Sir Bob it has always been vital to carry the University staff – academics and administrators - with him. From the earliest days he talked to them about his ambitions for Leicester and what it could achieve compared to where it was then. He believed in the University having ambitions on all fronts -- including to catapulting up the research league table, ensuring that it was a selective but inclusive university, and putting the institution on a firm financial footing. He has been successful in each case.

As soon as he arrived at Leicester, Sir Bob set up a review body to examine the research of every academic department, and persuaded them to go out head-hunting. He gave a good deal of thought to Leicester’s image and to the notion of “selling” the institution in a competitive market place.

It was a strategy that has paid off over the years, most recently resulting in Leicester winning the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for the third time, being runner-up as Sunday Times University of the Year, and achieving its highest ever ranking in the Times Higher Education World University guide.

“What you find now is that people are very enthusiastic about entering competitions of various kinds and improving their record. Academics like winning. If you climb the league tables, that is seen as winning,” Sir Bob says.

The University is proud of the fact that it has managed to ascend the league tables while maintaining a reputation for inclusion, he added. “We have worked hard at being inclusive. We set out to be very accessible and this has evolved over time.”

Flight sculptureOne of his more unusual passions has been collecting sculpture and modern art to be displayed on campus. Earlier this year an impressive bronze by sculptor Helaine Blumenfeld was unveiled outside the entrance to the University’s new David Wilson Library. It symbolizes Sir Bob’s legacy and is called “Flight” (pictured right).

“It illustrates aspiration and inspiration,” says Sir Bob. “It’s right at the focal point of the University and it will make a difference to people as they pass by it every day.”

Helaine Blumenfeld helped Sir Bob to establish the University’s annual Sculpture in the Garden exhibition, now in its 13th year. A collection of modern sculptures is displayed in the University’s Botanic Garden and attracts over 30,000 visitors to the campus each summer.

Sir Bob’s achievement at Leicester is widely acknowledged to be his single greatest legacy, but he has also made his mark more generally on UK higher education, particularly through his work on postgraduate education and degree assessment.

He established the UK Council for Graduate Education which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, and his work on degree classification reform spawned the Higher Education Achievement Report now being developed in the majority of universities.

A consummate problem-solver, Sir Bob has chaired the Higher Education Academy (HEA), which champions teaching and learning in universities, and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

His work on the assessment of degrees, which has been continuing for the past 10 years, has recently won international attention and could yet be his greatest legacy to higher education in the UK. Sir Bob is now chairing a group supervising a pilot of 21 universities interested in exploring the American-style Grade Point Average system in place of traditional UK degree classifications.

“In this group we are untangling some of the issues of assessment,” he said. “Either degree classification reform will come into our system and make a difference, or we will see it flicker and not be sustainable. I hope it will continue and develop.”

Sir Bob is continuing this work into retirement and is becoming president of the Society for Research into Higher Education as well. He will also continue to be Chairman of the Board of the National Centre for Social Research.

“I am actively looking for other things,” he says. “I don’t wish to be as busy as I am now but equally I don’t want to be in a situation where I have a lot of spare time.”

Higher education watchers say it is a tribute to his success that the University has attracted a big hitter, Professor Paul Boyle, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, to succeed him. “I think the sector will miss Sir Bob and his style,” says Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE.

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