Q&A with Paul Boyle

We speak to the new vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester and former chief executive of the ESRC

November 20, 2014

Paul Boyle is the former chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council and the first president of Science Europe. He is also the former international champion of Research Councils UK with responsibility for international strategy. In October, he succeeded Sir Bob Burgess as vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Felixstowe, Suffolk, on 16 November 1964.

How has this shaped you?
I enjoyed my time in Felixstowe immensely. A slightly remote Victorian seaside town, which was experiencing rapid economic growth through the development of the docks. Our group of friends was very socially mixed and we continue to meet regularly – the annual school team reunion cricket match is a highlight.

You’re taking over from Sir Bob Burgess: how does it feel to take the reins from such an illustrious predecessor?
Under Bob’s leadership, Leicester has risen to a top-20 league table position, based on world-class research and a dedication to delivering the best teaching. But Bob would be the first to say that you cannot rest on your laurels, and there is more to be done, particularly in building our international strategy and communicating the globally leading research we are doing.

Where does the UK sit in global academic research? Do we excel in some fields more than others and should we try to balance it out?
This is a topic I thought about a lot as the RCUK international champion. The UK punches above its weight as a research nation. It represents 0.9 per cent of the global population, yet accounts for more than 4 per cent of the world’s researchers, 11.6 per cent of citations, and nearly 16 per cent of the most highly cited articles. Our research output is also quite well rounded, and we have world-leading research across the entire spectrum of research disciplines. For example, the ESRC’s most recent International Benchmarking Review ranked human geography as number one in the world.

How does UK universities’ research compare with that of other key players globally, and what more could we do to improve the UK’s research reputation?
The long-term “flat cash” settlement for the research councils has resulted in a 10 to 12 per cent reduction in funding for vital scientific endeavour over the past few years, and universities need to continue to make the case for more investment so that they can compete internationally. One of the key strengths of the UK compared with much of Europe, for example, is the depth of research excellence across such a large number of universities. The dual support system [ie, Higher Education Funding Council for England quality-related research funding and research council funding] is one of the major factors in this success.

And where does the UK sit in terms of global higher education?
The UK continues to enjoy a global reputation for world-class higher education, and its share of the market is still second only to the US. The government needs to take care not to jeopardise this through poorly thought-out immigration policies that make us look unwelcoming to international students. Few other countries would undermine one of their most successful export industries in this way.

If you were a prospective student now facing £9,000 fees, would you go to university or go straight into work?
I would go to university, because both the financial and personal benefits are still great enough to warrant the investment. Also, the way the finance works means that graduates do not start repaying their debt until it becomes affordable.

What do you do for fun?
I spend time with my four children. I play football, run, swim and cycle. I like to travel, read and take long walks and I especially enjoy spending time at the coast.

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
I have had small ones (if that is possible): that is how research can feel when you solve a problem that has been badgering you.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a geography student at Lancaster and graduated in 1986. I was lucky to have the opportunity to spend a year at the University of Colorado Boulder on an exchange programme, which was not as common then as it is now.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
A seminar by [geographer] Peter Haggett who turned up late after a delayed flight, with no overhead transparencies, which were in his lost luggage. His presentation using chalk and a blackboard was inspiring.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Persevere with an instrument.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I would persuade the Home Office to change its rules on immigration and the Treasury to change its “flat cash” approach to research funding.

What would be the consequences for science and higher education if the UK left the European Union?
Leaving the EU would significantly hamper our ability to engage in research partnerships and compete in European research funding schemes. It would mean no longer benefiting from the progress being made to increase collaboration across the European Research Area.


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