Interview with Chris Day

We talk about growing up in the North East of England, alcohol consumption advice and international cricket aspirations with Newcastle University's new head

October 20, 2016
Chris Day, Newcastle University
Source: Mike Urwin

Chris Day was brought up in North Tyneside and studied medicine at the University of Cambridge before returning to the North East to practise at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. A liver disease expert, he moved into higher education in 1987 at Newcastle University before being made head of the School of Clinical Medical Sciences. In 2007, he took over as pro vice-chancellor for the high-performing Faculty of Medical Sciences. In July, he was announced as Newcastle’s next vice-chancellor, a job he takes up at the beginning of next year.

Where were you born?
Darlington, County Durham.

How has this shaped you? 
I was brought up in Tynemouth, eight miles from Newcastle. I think that the people of the North East are characterised by a strong work ethic, a profound sense of fairness and a deep loyalty to family, friends, colleagues and the region. I would like to think that some of these characteristics have rubbed off on me.   

What is the best way of ensuring that more children from a similar background make it as far as you have? 
Schools and teachers that encourage children to be aspirational coupled with universities committed to developing strategies and policies that constantly seek to find new ways to recruit the most able students whatever their background.   

Should Newcastle University’s focus be more local or global?
Absolutely both. Excellence in research and teaching should be locally relevant but be of sufficient quality to have global impact. We have numerous examples where this is already the case from our work on digital cultures and cities, smart energy grids and the prevention of rare, inherited mitochondrial diseases.       

Much of your research over three decades has focused on liver disease (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). How prescriptive should governments be in warning people about the risks of drinking alcohol?
The most important thing that we can do is to give people clear and easily understandable information on the risks of drinking at different levels to enable them to make informed choices. In addition, I believe that the evidence supporting minimum unit pricing as a way of reducing drinking in the youngest and heaviest consumers provides a persuasive argument for legislative action, however unpopular this may be.    

Is there ever justification for withholding, or charging more for, NHS treatment for people whose conditions are caused by life choices?
Not in absolute terms, but in some instances, in the context of a cash-strapped NHS, I believe it is appropriate that patients are required to demonstrate that they have addressed the harmful “life choice” before being offered an expensive treatment, particularly where failing to do so would significantly reduce the chance of the treatment producing long-term benefit. Heavy drinkers with alcohol-related cirrhosis being required to become abstinent from alcohol prior to undergoing liver transplantation would be an obvious example from my own field.      

If you weren’t working in the university, what do you think you’d be doing?
A full-time NHS consultant hepatologist, although if ability was no bar, I’d prefer to be opening the batting for Durham and England.

Tell us someone you admire.
I have met so many impressive individuals during my career, many of whom I admire greatly. Selecting one of these for “special mention” is extremely difficult but I guess Sir John Tooke, former vice-provost (health) at University College London and president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, stands out for his warmth of character, fairness, sense of humour, humility and “normalness” despite his numerous achievements and high-ranking positions. Outside academia, Sir Paul McCartney, Glenn Hoddle and David Gower are people I would travel miles to see display their unique talents.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Try to put as much effort into your home life as you do your work life, however hard that may be at the time.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Best? The amazing, talented and dedicated individuals who I get to work with, teach and meet in various walks of life in and outside academia. Worst? The, thankfully, few individuals who are resistant to change, progress and the pursuance of excellence in a largely publicly funded system.    

What keeps you awake?
A recurrent fear that one day I will be “found out” and deemed to be not ”up to the job”. This fear has motivated me ever since I arrived at Cambridge as an 18-year-old and discovered that I wasn’t even close to being the cleverest person in my peer group. 

What do you do for fun?
Sport and music. Watching sport, running, boot camps three times a week, playing tennis with my daughter and playing the guitar (badly!).    

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Walking out on to the pitch at Wembley Stadium to play Oxford in the football Varsity Match in 1980 – even though we lost 2-0 and the Times report the next day blamed me for their winning goal.

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
Probably coming up with the “two-hit” hypothesis for the pathogenesis of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in 1998. The article has had almost 2,000 citations and it provided the framework for numerous groundbreaking studies that have brought a safe and effective treatment – for what is now the commonest form of liver disease – close to clinical practice.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I would press for a policy that allowed free movement of scientists across Europe post-Brexit.


Lesley Giles has taken up her position as director of the Work Foundation, a not-for-profit independent advice body focused on improving people’s working lives that is part of Lancaster University. Ms Giles, who was formerly deputy director of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, began her role at the start of October. “I’m excited to be joining the Work Foundation and the university at a time where there is such potential for us to influence how ‘good work’ is at the heart of rebuilding a more productive and dynamic economy in the UK post-Brexit,” Ms Giles said. Cathy Garner, who was previously director, will take on a new role as partnership director.

Richard Butt has begun his role as deputy principal of Queen Margaret University. Formerly dean of QMU’s School of Arts, Social Science and Management, Dr Butt has more than two decades of experience in the sector. He is currently a member of the Universities Scotland international committee, the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities board and executive, Scottish Drama Training Network Board, and a trustee on the board of Newbattle Abbey College. “My vision for the university is that by 2025 we will be recognised internationally for our high-quality teaching and learning, as well as the world-class status of our research,” he said.

Tobias Berg has been appointed associate professor of finance at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.

David Ashton has taken up his position as chief operating officer and secretary to the council of Royal Holloway, University of London.

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington has been announced as Writtle University College’s founding chancellor.


Print headline: HE & me

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