The new president of Universities UK, Dame Julia Goodfellow, wants to “keep the sector together” to maintain its reputation overseas in the face of political currents pulling British institutions in different directions.
Speaking in one of her first interviews since beginning her two-year term on 1 August, the University of Kent vice-chancellor also had a succinct answer when asked why it has taken almost 100 years for UUK to have its first female president, a role voted on by university leaders.
“Perhaps you should ask the other vice-chancellors,” she said.
Dame Julia takes up a role that involves acting as a public voice for UK universities and representing them in talks with government on crucial funding and policy issues.
She was a professor of biomolecular science at Birkbeck, University of London before becoming vice-master of the institution. She then became the first woman to lead a UK research council when she took over as chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Why did she want the UUK post? “I think it’s important that we keep the sector together,” Dame Julia said. “I think with my relatively wide experience…I was in a reasonable position to represent the sector as a whole.”
A 100-year wait for a female leader
Asked if the policy direction towards greater differentiation between different types of university would make it more challenging for UUK to speak for a single sector, Dame Julia said that “breadth and diversity” was “one of our strengths”.
She continued: “Obviously now with devolved administrations and England working in very different political environments, that again is something we have to take into account.
“So I think the reason to keep the sector together is that UK higher education has a high reputation [abroad], both for teaching and for research.”
Since UUK was established in 1918, under its former name of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom, it had only ever had male presidents until Dame Julia took up her post.
Expanding on the question of why it took so long for a woman to become president, Dame Julia noted that there are “relatively few female vice-chancellors” and that just a fifth of UK professors are women.
“It takes time for that leaky pipeline to come through. But it’s only been 100 years,” she joked.
She continued: “I just think it’s sad that in the 21st century we’re still talking about being the first woman to do a job.” Dame Julia added that “making sure that women can progress through university life and through their career structure is obviously important to me personally – it is at Kent – and I think it is for universities generally”.
UUK has a key role in lobbying the government on funding. Does Dame Julia have a personal view about the level at which tuition fees should be set?
“I think changing the [current] system would be even worse,” she said of the immediate future. It was important to recognise the “balance between public and private good” arising from an individual entering higher education and there needed to be debate on that issue, she continued.
Is that balance right in the current £9,000 fee system? Dame Julia noted the government’s most recent estimate of the resource accounting and budgeting charge – the proportion of loan outlay that will never be repaid by graduates and will have to be written off by the government – is at 45 per cent.
“If that was a realistic figure, that is quite a balance between public and private,” she said. “It’s just very difficult to explain to people what a RAB charge is.”
UUK has often been accused of not protecting the interests of students, a charge that may have been exacerbated by the government switching maintenance grants to loans, a policy outlined as an option by a UUK-convened panel on university funding.
But asked about this, Dame Julia pointed out that the policy meant that the government had increased the overall amount of money for student living costs, “and that’s what students have been asking for”.
Meanwhile, the teaching excellence framework – shortly to be the subject of a government Green Paper – is also likely to be a key priority for Dame Julia.
“I think we’re all agreed that we need strong assurance on quality of teaching, both for home students and obviously for international students as well…we’ve had the QAA [Quality Assurance Agency] for a long time,” she said. “But we have done it through co-ownership, co-regulation, and it’s been across the UK. Because, if you like, the market’s a UK market.”
Dame Julia was set to have a chance to make her points to Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, at the UUK conference at the University of Surrey on 9 September, when they are both scheduled to deliver speeches.