Q&A with Lord Puttnam

We speak to Lord Puttnam, the chair of Pearson College’s academic board

October 9, 2014

Source: Martin Argles/Guardian News & Media Ltd

Lord Puttnam is a much-decorated film producer. His films, which include The Mission, The Killing Fields and Chariots of Fire, have won Oscars, Baftas and the Palme D’Or. He retired from film production in 1998 to focus on public policy work, of which education has been a substantial part. In May, he was appointed chair of Pearson College’s academic board. The college is part of Pearson, the first FTSE 100 company in the UK directly delivering degrees.

Your association with higher education is well established, but this is a departure from some of your previous roles, for example, as chancellor of The Open University and the University of Sunderland. What were your reasons for taking up the role?

Pearson College is providing innovative learning opportunities specifically tailored to the needs of the creative industries and other sectors. Given my background this was of particular interest.

With the rise of private institutions and Moocs, etc, how do you envisage the future of the higher education sector?

I now teach film to master’s students at universities in Brisbane, Singapore and the UK through live interactive seminars from my studio in Ireland. Online learning, whether of this tailored kind, or at scale, is unquestionably an important and growing aspect of the future landscape.

Private and for-profit higher education institutions have attracted a fair degree of opprobrium from some in the sector. What do you say to these detractors?

In an increasingly complex environment there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to higher education. A variety of public and private providers can comfortably sit alongside one another responding to the different needs and ambitions of the learners they serve.

Does the government’s focus on STEM graduates pose a risk to future success in the creative sector, if it results in a dearth of skilled arts graduates?

There is no question that the UK needs to attract far more people – especially young women – into science and technology if we are to retain our strengths in a world that is becoming increasingly digital. But this absolutely should not be at the expense of more traditional craft and technical skills that are still needed to ensure we have a flourishing cultural and artistic sector. It’s simply a question of securing the right balance.

In working with policymakers, do you find they listen enough to lobbyists, especially within education?

Policymakers need to make decisions that reflect a broad range of views, even diametrically opposing ones. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. In a well-run political environment – one that seeks evidence-based rather than ideology-driven solutions – “lobbyists” should be only one aspect of that mix, and a relatively unimportant one at that when compared with the informed views of parents, teachers, governors and, of course, young people themselves.

If you were a prospective university student today facing £9,000 fees, would you apply for a place or go straight into work?

I would almost certainly apply. There is no substitute for learning as a means of developing a fulfilling life. I’ve always regretted leaving school at 16 – that’s why I later went to night school, with a “working day” so long that I spent four years in an almost permanent state of exhaustion.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?

The (continuing) development of the internet has changed everything. And we’re only just at the very beginning of exploring the ways in which it can transform learning. It’s like the early years of the movies: nobody could have foreseen the fantastically transformative effect that film would have. People thought that moving images simply consisted of silent comedy skits and a few travelogues from faraway lands. It took the best part of 20 years to discover their true 100-minute narrative form!

What are the best and worst things about your job?

I wear a number of different hats, so my work is exceptionally varied. Dealing with the resistance and inertia of incumbent forces – whether political or economic – is probably the most challenging and frustrating thing I confront on an almost daily basis.

Of your many accolades, what would you say is your greatest achievement?

Unquestionably my proudest achievements are winning the Best Picture Oscar and the Palme D’Or (for Chariots of Fire and The Mission, respectively) and creating the teaching profession’s own teaching awards.

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