It was in an interview with the Financial Times last month, Sir Richard voiced concerns over Governmental Higher Education policy. He gave the opinion that funding what he referred to as "third rate" institutions was a drain on better Universities, illustrating his point by stating that "a penny spent here [Imperial] is a hell of a lot better than a penny spent at Luton for the economy".
Following the public airing of these opinions, several Vice-Chancellors, mainly from newer Universities, made it clear they felt his position on the Higher Education Funding Council for England was untenable and called for his resignation from the board.
It emerged yesterday however that Sir Richard has written to apologise,12399,1197528,00.html to Luton University Vice-Chancellor, Prof Les Ebden for the comments. The letter, dated 7th April, explained "I was trying to emphasise that Universities are different and need to be treated differently but my language was ill-considered and clumsy and I am sorry to have caused offence." In a similar letter to HEFCE Chairman, David Young, he claimed that his comments had been reported "in a selectively and incomplete way and, to some extent, out of context" and that his intention had been to "illustrate the diversity and differences - in mission, purpose and courses offered - within our higher education system and the way they are funded". Interestingly, Sir Richard’s statements bear echoes of those of Prof Edben who, in response to Sir Richard’s original comments regarding Luton University, expressed "we have different Universities doing different things".
Though this diplomacy appears to have smoothed some relations, with Prof Michael Driscoll (Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University) stating "We're pleased Sir Richard has seen the light and believe the matter to be settled", it appears that a wider question may have been thrown open. Prof Michael Sterling, Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell group, has voiced concerns over whether Vice-Chancellors should be allowed to sit on the HEFCE board at all.