Interview with David Docherty

The honorary fellow at the School of Advanced Study discusses business-university links, running marathons and his planned book about higher education

April 5, 2018
David Docherty

David Docherty is chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business and chair of the Digital Television Group. He was the BBC’s first director of new media and deputy managing director of BBC Television, and has also served as chair of governors at the University of Bedfordshire. Dr Docherty will step down from the NCUB later this year. He was recently appointed an honorary fellow at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study for a period of five years, where he plans to complete a book currently titled Knowing and Doing: The Once and Future University.

Where and when were you born?
Glasgow, 1956.

How has this shaped who you are?
I was brought up in the Gorbals when it was called the worst slum in Europe, and then the Castlemilk housing estate. I wanted out! My three windows were the public library service, the BBC and university, and I’ve enjoyed working for all three.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I bobbed along enjoying myself, playing in a band, taking pleasure in reading Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Husserl, Nietzsche et al.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
I had two. In my first English essay, I misspelled “essay” and was generally dyslexic. In those days, I wasn’t offered help. I was told I was “functionally illiterate” and my professor questioned my right to be at university. He later apologised. The second, defining moment was when my favourite lecturer told me that if I worked hard, I could get a first. That fired me up.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Find a new band – and start running earlier. I never got below four hours in the three marathons I did.

How far do you feel that British universities have truly embraced collaboration with business?
When I first started in the job [at the NCUB], Richard Lambert [former director of the CBI and chancellor of the University of Warwick] told me that the problem is business, not universities. I think there’s a certain truth to this. Businesses need access to better information about what’s going on in universities and about how to prepare themselves to absorb university research. That’s why we launched our innovation brokerage platform, Konfer, with the research councils and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Business-university collaboration reminds me, in many ways, of my BBC new media days: some people get it, others don’t need to get it, and the next generation will take it for granted.

How have you been able to help them through your work at the NCUB?
We have worked hard across all sorts of networks to build shared understanding. Our policy work had demonstrated what works and why, and we constantly market and celebrate great case studies to show where success lies.

What were the key lessons you learned as chair of governors at Bedfordshire?
Respect academic freedom – and don’t meddle. Hire a great vice-chancellor (in our case, Les Ebdon) and back him or her. In some ways I hate to say it, but branding matters in higher education, and we made the transition from Luton to Bedfordshire.

What has changed most in global higher education in the past five to 10 years?
Continued globalisation is a major challenge. Technology may be part of the solution. What I really think is that the next 10 years could be really hairy. Very few people (and I include myself) really know the impact of machine learning and artificial intelligence on business, and therefore on learning and pedagogy.

You are working on an ambitious book about higher education. What are the key questions you are trying to answer?
Knowing and Doing will explore the future by examining previous dialectics and entanglements of higher education and research with business, the state, the third sector, educationalists and other actors. For more than a millennium, these interactions have also been a battleground for complex ethical and political questions, including the autonomy of the learner and institution, the moral responsibility of higher education, and the civic accountability of the academy. Knowing and Doing will not only weave these into the narrative but also explore how universities should prepare to develop new moral and political positions relevant to the next business wave.

You also write fiction. Can we expect a campus novel or exposé of university life from you any time soon?
God, no. Does anyone write campus novels any more? I’m currently working on one called The Medici Vendetta – about a 15th-century lawyer and his wife, an early feminist, who both fall foul of the Medici Godfather.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce into the sector?
I would incentivise, reward and focus on interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity. They are badly needed for solving our future problems.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000-plus fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I’d go again in a heartbeat. I paid the fees for my own MSc.

What would you like to be remembered for?
Knowing and Doing!

What one thing would improve your working week?
More time. And a desk at the SAS.


Henk Kummeling has been appointed rector magnificus of Utrecht University. ­Professor Kummeling, who will be responsible for ­education, research and ­students, has been ­professor of constitutional law at the institution since 1995, and was dean of the Faculty of Law, ­Economics and Governance for six years until 2014. “Our university has a strategic plan detailing wonderful ambitions: more interdisciplinarity in research and education, internationalisation, small-scale and intensive teaching and further embedding of the university in society,” he said.  “I look forward to contributing to achieving these goals.”

Nigel Harkness has been appointed pro vice-chancellor for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Newcastle University.  A specialist in 19th-century French ­literature, Professor Harkness has been head of the university’s School of Modern Languages for the past four years. He said that academics in the faculty were “really focused on collaboration across disciplines
to create something new and ­distinctive”. “I want to build on this as ­faculty head by creating an ­environment that fosters these ­connections within the university and also with external partners, as we have a real opportunity to enhance our international profile and develop our students as global graduates,” Professor Harkness said.

Melanie Welham has been selected to be the executive chair of the ­Biotechnology and Biological ­Sciences Research Council. Professor Welham was interim chief executive of the BBSRC prior to the formation of UK Research and Innovation. She ­previously served as the BBSRC’s ­executive director of science and as
a professor of molecular signalling at the University of Bath.

Adrian Parr has been appointed dean of the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the ­University of Texas at Arlington.

Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi has been appointed chancellor of Nelson ­Mandela University in South Africa.

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