Meet Mike, top dude at Thames Valley University

He has highlighted ageing-rock-star hair, discoloured teeth, a jazzy tie, green suit and a dangling silver earring engraved with the initials of a pop song. He looks wrecked and talks in a heavy way, man. This is Dr Mike Fitzgerald, 41, Britain's youngest vice-chancellor and top dude at Thames Valley University, London.

TVU (as he calls it) is one of the new universities established last June. Formerly the Polytechnic of West London, it is in Ealing and was created from the merger of four establishments, including the London College of Music. It is unique. ‘We're a very unusual kind of university, and trying to be very different,' affirms Fitzgerald, in his Liverpudlian accent with Havana smoking chestiness.

Appearances are deceptive. Fitzgerald came to TVU a year ago, having been dean of social sciences at the Open University for 12 years then deputy director of Coventry Polytechnic for four, and is responsible for the university academically and for its annual £45 million budget. He has 20,000 students, employs 1,600 people, and is paid £67,000.

But first let's talk about appearances. ‘I've looked like this for years. I'm actually terribly old-fashioned,' he laughs. ‘I wear my hair like this because I've got a big nose. I highlight it and spend a fortune on it.' He recently gained weight, so gave his Armani suit to the chauffeur who drives his Volvo. ‘I used to be a mod. Now I wear Boss clothes.'

He looks unhealthy. Does he do drugs? ‘Never' - emphatically - ‘It would be wrong, with a lot of young people here. But I'm not a moral entrepreneur about it.' He looks earnest and swigs part of his daily intake of two litres of decaffeinated coffee. ‘I've never even had a sip of alcohol in my life. I just look naturally wasted and always look wrecked. I don't sleep enough.' Sex then. Does he sleep with students? ‘Never! There are codes of behaviour people in my position should uphold,' he says, with conviction. ‘It would be inappropriate because in any relationship there's a power element.'

TVU is an unconventional university. Thirty five per cent of his students don't take degrees, but do things like City and Guilds in crafts or hospitality and catering. ‘We're not just a higher education institution, we do further education as well. We're much more like an American state university.'

Instead of three terms a year, TVU has American-style semesters with modular courses; this enables students to drop out and rejoin and study full or part time, interchangeably. ‘We also have the highest proportion of women of any university, about 54 per cent.'

Fitzgerald also believes strongly that, unlike many universities, TVU can't exist in isolation. So it has a series of partnerships. ‘A computing firm runs the computing section, providing the infrastructure and running the teaching.' He's also working towards a fully electronic campus (his ‘model university') allowing distance learning on computer terminals. FITZGERALD was the third of eight children, including two adopted black sisters. He grew up in Ainsdale, ‘by the beach in a ramshackle barn of a place'. His parents were uneducated. ‘They both left school at 14. Mum got a scholarship to school, but they couldn't afford the uniform so she didn't go.'

His father managed the Liverpool labour exchange. ‘He wasn't particularly highly paid, but we had a regular income. A lot of locals were unemployed...At Christmas my parents didn't spend much on us, and gave charitable contributions instead. You'd go back to school and your mates all had lots of new things and you didn't. That was difficult.' He started newspaper rounds aged 11.

Fitzgerald went to a direct grant grammar school run by the Christian brothers in Crosby, then Cambridge where he read social sciences, gaining a 2:1. ‘I thought people who had cars were rich, because we didn't have one. But when I arrived at Cambridge, all these students had cars. I felt intimidated and uncomfortable. I'd never before met people who felt they owned the world and saw it as perfectly natural that they would get good jobs and lead people. Where I'd come from people had always struggled to get jobs and education.'

Educationally, it was an inspiration. It encouraged him to take responsibility for his learning and offered unbelieveable resources and facilities. ‘I learned that what matters about education is not knowledge per se, but that you're curious about the world and not frightened to ask questions.'

He married in his second year and had a son, now 19, just before finals. ‘My professional success is inversely related to my personal success.' He never married the mother of his subsequent child, now nine, but lived with her for 12 years.

But back to TVU. Applicants for universities have increased three-fold over the last five years. ‘We have massive overcrowding here, 8,000 people in accommodation for 2,500.' (Fitzgerald discusses this difficulty and staffing and student problems with his chauffeur. ‘He's more my minder than my driver.') MANY come to TVU without formal qualifications. ‘I don't think A-level grades are an appropriate way of judging people's future performance. What matters is the value that you add to people while they're here. ‘People don't have to get degrees. They might come to us because they lack confidence in themselves, having been through a system that has rejected them. They may become more secure and may get jobs. Others may not finish the programme, which doesn't fuss me much. What's important is that we help create people who are confident and curious about the world. I believe in helping people realise their potential.

‘My parents' generation struggled to let people like me go to university. They had a fire in their belly about it. That's what I've inherited,' says this Labour Party member. ‘I have a fire in my belly about picking up the torch and running with it. About giving people the opportunity for education as a basic democratic right.'

TVU has just built the most modern recording studio in Western Europe. Fitzgerald's face suddenly resumes the look of an old rock 'n' roller. ‘I go to a lot of rock concerts. I think the Stones are the most wonderful band in the world. One of the great thrills of being here is that there was an art college here before and Ronnie Wood was a student.' He beams. ‘I often think about Ronnie Wood walking these corridors. That really pleases me.'