The new idea of a university

The new idea of a university

There is a heatwave, and it is clear that Victorian buildings, however beautiful, are not ideal places in which to work in such weather. The marked absence of neckwear among the senior management team suggests that even the more conservative among us have decided to accommodate ourselves to the times.

If only it were that easy on the political front. With threats from Brexit and Trump on the international front, and from Corbyn and the least competent government since Lord North on the home front, it is hard to feel that things can only get better. As a deep-dyed conservative, this is what I expect. That anti-Semitism has made a comeback is deeply depressing. These are times to try the spirit.

As colleagues pack themselves off for exotic (or not so exotic) destinations, and the thoughts of others turn to the holidays, those of this pro vice-chancellor turn to something most academics scorn: league tables.

It is almost obligatory to play them down. Like any measurement of performance that is not purely financial, the university league table metrics have their weaknesses. But the days when universities could grandly refuse any form of assessment other than their own are, thankfully, long dead.

Our students here at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, pay £9,250 a year for their tuition. If you add on living costs, their total bill across three years is in the region of £50k. They have the right to know that what they are getting is the first-rate education that we, along with all other universities, claim to be offering.

So it was a delight when the National Student Survey figures recently came through to see that we have risen 56 places and, at 88 per cent student satisfaction overall, have the most satisfied students in London.

I am delighted that the efforts of our own students’ union presidents, Conal Baxter last year and Natalie Hobkirk this year, have been rewarded, and that the great work put in by all teaching and support staff is thought by our students to be of such a high standard. Our rise in the table to 80th nationally prompts a smile, much needed after a year in which we have reorganised St Mary’s.

A former vice-chancellor under whom I served elsewhere once described a reorganisation as the “last refuge of the intellectually bankrupt vice-chancellor”, before going on, 18 months later, to launch one. Times change, and if we do not change with them we risk finding ourselves on the wrong side of what Harold Macmillan once reputedly called “Events, dear boy.”

I came to St Mary’s two years ago, attracted by the prospect of helping to create a genuinely Catholic university. With Francis Campbell as vice-chancellor and Ruth Kelly as one of my fellow pro vice-chancellors, a formidable team was gathering. But we knew that the inheritance would not be an easy once to take forward.

Higher education in Britain is a ruthlessly competitive market, with universities able to take as many students as they can attract. When I read that the Department for Education is surprised that so many universities are making unconditional offers, I wonder whether ministers realise that their actions have consequences, rather than believing that their responsibilities are confined to their time in office.

At an educational institution founded in 1850 by the Catholic Church, we have to think in rather longer terms. We are creating a place that will show that Catholicism and higher education go hand in hand – after all, the first universities in this country were religious foundations, and this conservative is delighted to revive that link.

Which is where those league tables come in. As a grammar school boy from a working-class background, I am competitive. If tables exist, I’d rather be high up them than low down. To see St Mary’s rising up the league is satisfying, but it is only an incentive to do better.

We are fortunate in having recruited two excellent new deans, Symeon Dagkas and Adam Longcroft. Along with Karen Sanders, they represent a formidable array of talent. Adam remarked that between the four of us we had more than a century of experience of higher education. I suppose I have been around a long time (40 years now in universities), and look like it.

This is not the university as I knew it back then – and thank God. We look to the future with confidence.

Professor John Charmley is pro vice-chancellor for academic strategy at St Mary’s University, Twickenham