V-c retreats in pursuit of a higher calling

July 30, 2004

When Bernadette Porter steps down as vice-chancellor of Roehampton University, the one thing she will not miss is her £103,000 a year salary.

This is because Dr Porter hands over every penny to the order of nuns, the Society of the Sacred Heart, to which she belongs. In return, in what resembles a model of redistributive Communism, she receives a personal allowance of about £3,000 a year to buy clothes and other personal items.

"I live simply," Dr Porter said, "I live off what I need. We all put our money into a central pot and draw out what we need."

In this, and many other things, Dr Porter is unique among university leaders who each February are forced to justify their six-figure salaries when The Times Higher publishes its pay survey.

As a member of an apostolic, not contemplative, order, Dr Porter does not shut herself away from society. "We live in normal houses and go to work.

But we do take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience," she said. While untouched by the materialistic mores that hold Western society together, they do bother her.

In a candid interview with The Times Higher a month before she relinquishes her post - and days before Roehampton becomes a fully fledged university - Dr Porter raised concerns about the increasingly utilitarian direction of higher education.

Dr Porter fears that there is a growing tendency to revalue degree courses in terms of their worth to the economy rather than their wider worth to culture and democracy, not to mention the wellbeing of the individual.

"For me as a committed human being, the bad thing about the change in higher education is how we have become so utilitarian. Listening to the rhetoric from the Government you would think that the only thing we do in life is get a job and earn money. What's wrong with 18-year-olds studying dance or music or whatever for the love of the subject without, at that age, thinking 'what job is it going to lead to?'"

Dr Porter's solution would be to use undergraduate degrees to develop analytical skills and broaden minds in the widest sense. More vocationally orientated training could then be completed at postgraduate level.

Dr Porter's own educational path started at a convent school in Guildford, from where she moved to Digby Stewart College, a teacher training college founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1884. Digby Stewart merged with three other colleges in 1975 to form the Roehampton Institute, which became part of a federated Surrey University in 2000. As of July 31, Roehampton will be a university in its own right.

Dr Porter taught in schools until 1982, completing her BEd at King's College London in 1978.

In 1982, close to taking her final vows as a nun, Dr Porter went to Uganda to teach in an all-girls school. There she contracted a severe strain of malaria that nearly killed her.

"I thrived in Africa and I might have gone back there had it not been for being bitten by that mosquito," she said.

Having regained her health, Dr Porter took her vows in Rome. And while in the Eternal City, she received a call and a job offer from Roehampton. She returned as a lecturer, gaining her PhD at King's in 1989 with a thesis on pedagogy. Promotion to college principal and senior pro-rector followed, crowned by her appointment as rector in 1999.

"I didn't see myself walking the academic route. I loved teaching. I think I came into it because I wanted to teach teachers to teach," she said.

Dr Porter has mixed feelings about the changes in teacher training over the past few years. She is worried that the balance may be shifting too far towards experiential learning with a possible loss of the pedagogical theory to back up the practice.

She is a strong supporter of top-up fees, which will replace upfront fees with a maximum £3,000 fee to be repaid after graduation, as well as the reintroduction of maintenance grants for poor students. She said: "The most important thing is to give a high-quality education to students and for that we need money. When (they) have graduated and are earning enough, it's payback time."

Her decision to step down as vice-chancellor, after five years in post and, at 52, of an age when most people are just being appointed to vice-chancellorships, could be seen as strange - doubly so because Dr Porter does not have another job to go to.

She believes she has achieved her goals at Roehampton - overseeing an increase in student numbers and the transition to university status.

She said: "I want a fallow time, a time of just being. So I am going to take a few months as sabbatical. I see myself working at the interface between education and social justice and perhaps the Third World experience."

She added: "There is a reaction from society that says we expect you as a nun to be this or that. As a newly appointed rector, I was cagey about introducing myself to fellow institutional heads as a nun.

"But what I have found is that what people value in me is stuff like honesty and integrity. That is very touching."

Paul O'Prey, director of academic affairs at Bristol University, will take over from Dr Porter as vice-chancellor of Roehampton in September.

alan.thomson@thes.co.uk

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