Q&A with Lord Myners

We speak to London School of Economics’ chair of its court of governors and of the council

January 22, 2015

Source: Getty

Lord Myners served as financial services secretary in the Treasury during Gordon Brown’s Labour government. He initially worked in the financial sector at investment bank Rothschild and was chair of Marks and Spencer from 2004 to 2006. In December he was appointed chair of London School of Economics’ court of governors and of its council, a role he will take up next month.

Where and when were you born?
I was born on 1 April 1948. I was adopted by a Cornish couple. My father was a fisherman and shopkeeper and my mother a hairdresser. I had no siblings.

How has this shaped you?
Independence and appreciation of the role of luck in life.

What is your most important responsibility as chair of governors/council?
To promote high-quality decision- making. The court and council are unambiguously and collectively accountable for institutional activities and reputation. This requires a focus on purpose, respect for values including academic freedom, and effective controls.

What should be the balance between the chair of the council and the vice-chancellor (or the director, in LSE’s case) in challenging and supporting them on major management decisions?
The chair should be a critical friend. A mentor. A supporting voice during tough times and a restraining influence when necessary. Although this implies a degree of intimacy and trust, the chair needs to maintain some distance in order to ensure impartiality and objectivity in reviewing the director’s performance.

Vice-chancellors have drawn criticism for their rising salary levels. Is this fair?
Widening disparity of income and wealth are facts of life. We can’t ignore it, although that doesn’t mean we have to like it. We have a duty to explain our approach to pay across the whole organisation from top to bottom, and evidence that money is well spent.

What are UK universities’ biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Strength in diversity and freedom of thoughts; weakness in institutional rigidity, silo structures and attachment to tradition.

Do you fear for the sustainability of university finances?
No. We have to cope with new realities. For the LSE this means listening even more attentively to students, being honest about all forms of cross-subsidisation and where necessary challenging them; developing new revenue sources consistent with our values. It has been far tougher for UK higher education than generally appreciated. Against that, we are now less beholden to government.

As we approach a general election, what is the state of the UK political landscape?
Exciting. But we will end up with a government for which nobody voted. Hopefully this will enhance the case for proportional representation.

What’s the best way to improve interaction between academics and government?
Speaking up – confronting truths. Seeking constructive engagements but not retracting into timidity or sulking if views appear to be ignored. Society is unhappy with the failure of many to whom we have looked for moral leadership. There is a role for academia to step forward.

If you were a prospective student facing £9,000 a year fees, would you study or start work?
There isn’t a single right answer. No child should be denied a relevant and appropriate education by financial or any other form of poverty. My generation has been very greedy in terms of inter-generational wealth transfer. We enjoyed free higher education but are expecting our children to pay. The question as posed also rather overlooks the dire state of the employment market for many young people, particularly in places such as Cornwall.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
Market forces have become more pronounced. There is greater focus on value for money, although this is often detailed in dangerously narrow terms. Leaving the market to decide can be an easy way out for the weak and lazy. Markets cannot answer all questions in the area of social sciences.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
A little unfocused! I spent a lot of time on student union leadership.

If you were universities minister for a day, what would you do?
Three things: persuade my colleagues to recognise the nonsense of pandering to concern about immigration by focusing on student numbers; sort out the current mess with study visas for non-EU students; and put in place a proper financial basis for quality postgraduate study and research.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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