Q&A with Maddalaine Ansell

We speak to the new chief executive of the University Alliance group

April 2, 2015

I came from a very ordinary background - not connected to people who could get me exciting professional jobs through the back door. University enabled me to come in through the front

Maddalaine Ansell is a former lawyer and civil servant who served in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – where she worked on the 2010 higher education White Paper. Latterly, she held the post of deputy director for international knowledge and innovation in BIS. In January, she became chief executive of the University Alliance group.

Where and when were you born?
Cagliari, Sardinia in October 1972. But I grew up in Northampton.

How has this shaped you?
I still support Northampton Saints [rugby union team].

You’re two months into your position. How has it gone so far?
Very well. The Alliance vice-chancellors have been very supportive, and I’ve really enjoyed getting out to see the fantastic research and teaching going on at Alliance universities. I have also inherited a really strong team.

What is the value of university mission groups?
A strong university sector is essential to the success of the UK, but there is debate about the policies to best support it. Mission groups improve decision-making by providing evidence and analysis to policymakers and by identifying expertise within their membership. They also provide a platform for collaboration. For example, about half our members have set up a doctoral training alliance in applied biosciences for health. If the model works, we will explore using it for other subjects of strength across our membership.

Does it feel strange to be lobbying, on behalf of your member universities, the government department you previously worked for?
Not really – I still feel very at home in BIS and enjoy working with former colleagues. Overall, we have the same goals – to ensure that the university sector delivers excellent research and teaching for individual enrichment (of all kinds), societal benefit and economic growth.

Knowing the sector from both sides, what would you say is the most pressing concern ahead of the general election?
Maintaining sufficient investment. The UK needs universities that can deliver excellent research and provide world-leading education to the many and not just the few.

When the White Paper was published, were you surprised by the negative backlash it received from some quarters?
No – although the principles that underpinned the White Paper are broadly right and the new fee regime was intended to be progressive, it represented a major change. It wasn’t surprising that people had concerns – particularly that poorer students [might] be deterred from applying. It is really great that this hasn’t been the case.

Is the sector better off with its reforms?
Higher education has maintained a level of investment in difficult times that many other sectors envy.

How do you see the tuition fees structure developing? Are £20,000 fees a real possibility in the future?
There should be a mechanism to allow tuition fees to increase in line with inflation.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000-a-year fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
That’s easy. I would go to university. I came from a very ordinary background – not connected to people who could get me exciting professional jobs through the back door. University enabled me to come in through the front.

Do you worry for the sustainability of university finances?
The UK can succeed only as a knowledge economy. Universities are essential to this. The competition for public funding is fierce, but we have a good case and should keep making it.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
A gymnast, then a vet.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Fight for what you want – don’t worry so much about being nice.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Finding a note in my pigeonhole from a boy I fancied asking me for coffee. I went to an all-girls school, so this was very exciting!

What keeps you awake at night?
My cat asking for an extra meal.

What do you do for fun?
I like country walks and watching rugby.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce immediately?
The more equal a society is, the better it is. Universities could play an even greater role in this. I would confirm the removal of student number controls and look again at levels of maintenance grant. If I were the home secretary, I’d reintroduce a post-study work route for international students.


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