One of the biggest figures in Suffolk education ,Professor Dave Muller - Principal of Suffolk New College, quits
PUBLISHED: 13:53 14 November 2014 | UPDATED: 13:53 14 November 2014
A towering figure in Suffolk education, who pioneered the development of University Campus Suffolk and the £70million Suffolk New College, is retiring next year.
Professor Dave Muller, whose 16 years as principal of Suffolk New College have seen dramatic changes to education in Suffolk, is leaving with a tidal wave of praise.
He will also admit that he leaves with some unfinished business as the college itself has, of late, failed to live up to his ambitions.
In 1987 when he started at the college, it had just 20 students studying at degree level.
His commitment to further and higher education saw this figure grow to 3,000 and expand into the health sector by merging with the schools of nursing, midwifery and radiography.
Nothing could better illustrate the beliefs and education ambitions of Prof Muller than this wholesale change.
His commitment to education when the student needs it, and not within the confines of a formal and constrained curriculum, summarises his strategic aims for the college from his first day.
“It has become a very challenging curriculum for the young adult. So many of them come here to develop their occupational and vocational skills and it is essential that they do maths and English but not in the highly formal and standardised way that Michael Gove defined it,” he said. “It’s a school-based curriculum in further education at the moment and it’s always changing according to the whims of the politicians and not to the needs of the training and technical requirements of the students.”
Prof Muller leaves after a disappointing Ofsted report which said that the college “requires improvement”.
To put those results into context, they were narrowly below the national average and in the previous year the college had been judged “good”.
He added: “It was disappointing and obviously I would prefer to be leaving with a better rating but we are educating against a curriculum which does not work in favour of further education.
“However, it is the job of the next principal to make sure we score good next year.”
John Dugmore, chief executive of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said: “Under Dave’s lead the college has always been a key strategic partner for Suffolk Chamber both in engaging and listening to the business community but also in responding to their needs in relation to apprenticeships and vocational training.”
Born in a poor working-class prefab in Norwich, the young Dave Muller struggled for some while to find a life path.
“I passed the 11-plus and found myself in a grammar school which I hated. Formal and rigid and no stimulation there. I soon found myself working in the wills department of Barclays bank and hating every minute of that too.
“I went into teacher training, not because I wanted to be a teacher but because it just looked more interesting. They tried to make me specialise in religious studies and it was then that the magic moment occurred.
“A teacher called Riq Anderson suggested I did psychology and, again, it just looked more interesting than religious studies.”
Prof Muller, then, is a product of a further education which offers a student an education when he needed it and not when the system decided he could have it.
This was the defining moment in a career which has seen the man develop and drive strategic solutions, create new colleges, inspire the arrival of a university in Suffolk and fight tooth and nail to provide an education of the right type and at the right moment for all young adults.
“We don’t all develop at the same time and the first learning decision you make shouldn’t be the last.
“Education needs to be flexible enough to give a new chance to youngsters who, these days, are increasingly pressured to make their decisions when they are 13.
“What if it goes wrong? What if they change their minds? We have to be able to allow them another chance.”
That is not to say that Prof Muller didn’t believe in a good degree system. It was he who proposed to the county council and the college bodies responsible that they create University Campus Suffolk.
Some years later they are poised to become an independent university. Currently their degrees are awarded in conjunction with the University of East Anglia and Essex University.
However, that is set to change. He said: “By October I am pretty sure they will be awarding their own degrees and within another six months become a full and proper university.”
Richard Lister, provost of University Campus Suffolk, said: “Education in Suffolk, especially in Ipswich, owes a great debt to Dave Muller, not only further education but higher education too. There is no doubt that UCS would not have come into existence without Dave’s vision and determination.”
Prof Muller, who leaves at the end of the current academic year, will not be there to see his dream become a reality but he is philosophical about this.
If he has an unfulfilled ambition, it is that he could not persuade the authorities to provide more money for 19-plus education.
He said: “We want to be able to provide local employers with the skilled and developed professionals they seek and whether it is accountancy or human resources or any of a range of skills we should be able to ensure that they can come here and learn and go out there and be properly employed. It’s the job of further education.
“Half of Suffolk, in terms of numbers, lives within five miles of us and we should be far better budgeted to provide the professional skills it needs.
“The trouble is it’s not a vote winner and so the politicians don’t care about 19-plus education.”
Prof Muller is moving into his other areas of interest which include journalism in his area of psychology. He is editor in chief of a research-based journal, Disability and Rehabilitation. He will also remain as chairman of charity, Suffolk Inspire.
His private life is largely spent helping his new partner Pam Davis and her business Fashion Candy Style, watching football and the occasional glug of red wine.