Q&A with John Coyne

We speak to the vice-chancellor of the University of Derby

December 11, 2014

John Coyne, vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, recently passed the dual milestones of 10 years at the institution’s helm and 40 years in the higher education sector. Last month he announced his retirement at the end of this academic year.

Where and when were you born?
Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in 1951.

How has this shaped you?
I lived in a small mining village and had the good fortune to go to a local primary school with an inspirational headteacher. He believed that everyone who set foot through its doors could go on to conquer the world. So I’m not sure it’s necessarily the geography that shaped me – rather it was the people that geography brought me into contact with.

Are you pleased with your record?
I am very pleased with where we are. If someone had described the university as it is today when I took the job 10 years ago, I would have snatched their hand off to be in this position.

The average vice-chancellorship is about five years. How did you stick at it for a decade?
I didn’t “stick at it for a decade”, a decade just flew by, and part of me still feels like the new kid on the block. I think universities are long-term institutions, and the kind of development and consistency we have seen at Derby has often benefited from the ability to take a long view. Fortunately vice-chancellors do last longer than football managers!

What do you see as the biggest concern facing the sector?
The potential instability and uncertainty surrounding the ease with which the sector will translate into the new environment. The cohort of 18- to 21-year-olds is quite static, so any aspiration for a university to grow is likely to be at the expense of others.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best part is undoubtedly working with bright young people, full of optimism, who have worked hard to get where they are and are part of our society’s future. The worst part is the mindless accountability. You can spend more of your time accounting for what you have just done than doing more of what you should be doing.

How do you feel about retiring?
It brings a whole host of emotions. Part of me says I could go on forever, because I love both the institution and my job, but part of me is excited at the prospect of being able to do some new things.

If you were a prospective university student facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I would go again – like a shot – and I would advise everyone to think about their life plan and where and if university fits into that. Don’t even think about the fees – it’s not changing hands at the point of entry, it’s a deferred tax obligation.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Very engaged. I played sport, got involved in politics, I was president of the Student Guild, I was in the debating society, the economics society; I gave everything a go. But I was also an unusual undergraduate; I married my childhood sweetheart at the end of my second year. I graduated in July, and gave my first lecture as an academic the following September, which means by the time I leave I will have been in the business for 42 years and married for 43.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
Light touch regulation from one place. I would sweep away the mindless accountability bodies that make me fill in forms and then charge me a fee!


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