Q&A with Sir Nigel Thrift

We speak to the newly knighted vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick

January 15, 2015

Source: University of Warwick

Sir Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick since 2006, was knighted in the New Year Honours. This year he will oversee the 50th anniversary year of his institution before standing down. His knighthood follows an eventful year for Warwick. It was named University of the Year by one domestic league table but faced criticism over the suspension and reinstatement of English professor Thomas Docherty and staff anger over redundancy plans.

Where and when were you born?
Bath in 1949. Real men smoked Woodbines, dentistry was terrifying, and the creamy Bath stone walls were blackened by coal smoke.

How has this shaped you?
My parents moved around a lot and I was more influenced by their frequent moves than any starting point. Maybe that’s why I became a geographer.

What was your immediate reaction to being awarded a knighthood?
A deep sense of unreality. But my parents would have been very proud and that’s a good feeling.

What is the significance of being given such an award?
It shows that Warwick’s achievements are being noticed. The award is a wonderful way of helping to mark the university’s 50th anniversary year and the numerous successes that its staff and students have achieved over the past few years.

It could be said that 2014 was a challenging year to be Warwick’s vice-chancellor. What lessons did you learn from being at the helm?
All years are challenging for any vice-chancellor but, overall, 2014 was a very good year for Warwick: The Times and Sunday Times University of the Year; rises in nearly every league table, including Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings; a Fields Medal; a good National Student Survey result; the groundwork for the National Automotive Innovation Centre laid; the new WMG Academy for Young Engineers opened; the business school setting up in the Shard, all topped off by a great research excellence framework outcome.

What should happen post election in terms of the funding of higher education?
We need a stable funding system that can deliver quality teaching and excellent research. We will not achieve this until England understands that higher education needs to be treated as a long-term investment in our common future, not just as a short-term cost.

Excluding fees, what is the most pressing higher education policy the main parties need to address?
It’s actually further education which is too often treated, in our still sadly class-divided society, as a poor cousin of higher education. Every person of student age needs to be treated equally. They’re not.

Vice-chancellors have come in for a lot of criticism for their rising salary levels. Is this fair?
Warwick is coming up to a half a billion pounds turnover, has to land its finances on a coin year after year, gets less and less government funding and so must earn more and more of its own income, has to continue to invest in its infrastructure, and must keep on improving. University councils will look for people able to rise to challenges like this.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
Probably the link to economic growth. Universities are now recognised as major economic players. If it’s done right, it can be a boon for both universities and the nation.

If you were a prospective student facing £9,000 fees, would you study or go out to work?
All the evidence shows that going to university works for most people most of the time. But I think that we shouldn’t put fees any higher, allowing for inflation. There are issues of intergenerational justice that need to be faced.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Keep going.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best things are meeting interesting people and trying to do new things. The worst are facing things rather than hoping they’ll go away. In the current higher education environment, there is no other choice.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not making a speech at my father’s funeral. I was upset but that was no excuse.

What do you do for fun?
Write, write, write.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I can’t remember but I am quite sure it wasn’t what I’m doing now.

Have you had a eureka moment?
No – I wish I had. I’m a slogger.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Average.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I would do something about the amount of government money flowing into for-profit providers. It can’t carry on without affecting the rest of the sector. There needs to be parity of regulation and scrutiny.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Please sign the petition to rescind the knighthood of Sir Nigel Thrift: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/rescind-knighthood-of-sir-nigel-thrift Current # signatures = 460 (10:22 on Thurs 15th Jan 2015)
I just don't see why being greedy is synonymous with being "able to rise to challenges like this"

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