Campus close-up: Portsmouth University

Portsmouth’s v-c wants to bolster postgraduate provision and to apply research strengths to stretch students

May 1, 2014

Graham Galbraith experienced a revelation not long after he began walking the halls of the University of Portsmouth, where he became vice-chancellor in September last year. “I was surprised at how good the university is. As I delved more and more into the university, I became more and more surprised. Since I arrived, I have been bowled over by the stuff that we are doing and the impact that our activities are having. Our profile externally doesn’t reflect the strength of the university.”

One strong point is the breadth of Portsmouth’s research and its impact, he explained. The university’s work spans everything from a dental academy to work on extraterrestrial probes to explore Mars, and Portsmouth ensures that students gain insight into how their chosen subject affects society and the wider economy.

The university is “passionate” about the transformative power of higher education and the use of its research to “stretch students”.

“The National Student Survey scores are good, and we need to continue to drive that forward,” he said. “I want this to be the university of choice for a first-class student experience and one that leads to employment.”

Professor Galbraith is keen on Portsmouth expanding – but not rashly. Before any growth, the university must “grapple” with where it wants to go. “We have got to think as an institution long term [about] what size is the right size.”

For popular universities such as Portsmouth, there is a “real danger” of expanding almost unwittingly, incrementally taking on more students. “That might not be the answer for us; we need to maintain our quality,” he said.

Maintaining a comprehensive spread of subjects that takes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as well as areas in the humanities and modern languages is also important amid any expansion, he said.

“My impression is that we want to strengthen our postgraduate offering,” Professor Galbraith said. This area of higher education is facing an “uncertain and difficult” climate, he admitted, and presents many challenges. “But this is a debate about what we would ideally want to do to fix a rise in the future and not be driven by the constraints of today.”

The pipeline from undergraduate to postgraduate to academic “is not there” in UK higher education at the moment, he observed. “There is a fall-off in postgraduate study” that will affect the size and composition of the pool of future researchers and academics. “If we do not have that throughput, our universities are not going to be staffed by UK nationals.”

One area of particular concern for Professor Galbraith is engineering, a subject with an ageing demographic. “There will reach a moment when we will suddenly wonder what we did, why we did not prepare,” he said.

Keeping engineering strong is vital because the high-level skills it offers are essential if the UK wants an economy built on high-end manufacturing, he explained. “We as a nation need to worry about it…[otherwise] in 10 to 15 years’ time we are going to have to be buying [the skills] in.”

Increasing the number of undergraduates who progress to postgraduate study at Portsmouth will also help to “open the horizons” of his students. “We are an institution that has a fantastic record of widening participation,” said the vice-chancellor, who would like to ensure that students have the same opportunities to move on to higher-level study as those in any university.

Also being considered by Professor Galbraith is internationalising the curriculum to ensure that students are prepared for an increasingly global employment market. This could include elements such as giving law students the opportunity to explore jurisdictions outside the UK and covering international standards in engineering courses.

The importance of Portsmouth’s image abroad is not lost on Professor Galbraith, who was previously pro vice-chancellor international at Glasgow Caledonian University, which has just opened a satellite campus in New York.

“We will have to think about our brand presence overseas,” he said of Portsmouth, which has a number of partnerships overseas but no branch campuses.

In numbers

12 - the number of undergraduate courses in the field of modern languages at Portsmouth

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