Interview with Julie Mennell

We talk about the social responsibilities of universities, crime scene investigation and attracting talent to the North East of England with the vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria

February 2, 2017
Julie Mennell vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria

Julie Mennell is vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria, having taken up the role in August 2016. She is a leading academic in forensic science, and spent a period in the police force before returning to academia. Before becoming vice-chancellor of Cumbria, she served in deputy vice-chancellor roles at the University of Sunderland and was president of the North East Association of Science Education.

Where and when were you born?

Middlesbrough, 1970, at the former Parkside Hospital, which is now part of Teesside University’s student residences.

How has this shaped you?

I’ve spent most of my life living, studying and working in the North East at Teesside, Northumbria and Sunderland universities, in roles from PhD student to deputy vice-chancellor over a 20-year period. It has shaped my values set and given me great pride and respect for the region’s talent and achievements. But, most significantly, it has instilled in me the significant contribution that universities make to individuals, place and communities.

What do you want to have achieved by the end of your term as vice-chancellor?

We have much to be proud of and to build on, but it’s not without challenge. We cover a huge geographic area with low population density, low educational attainment and low participation in higher education, set against a requirement for considerable growth in higher-level skills over the next period. I want the University of Cumbria to be a thriving and respected anchor institution for Cumbria, developing our region’s talent and capability and attracting new talent into our region to study and work.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?

The need for us, quite rightly, to demonstrate value to our students during university and on graduation and beyond. Unfortunately, [this has been] coupled – to their and our detriment – with the dilution of the role and impact that universities have in developing social capital for wider benefits.

What kind of undergraduate were you?

Distracted! My most significant criteria for university selection were the need for a running track coupled with a course that I would find challenging. So, I read mathematics and physics at the University of Leeds. In hindsight, I spent the first two years coming to terms with the reality that I wasn’t going to make a career from athletics, and then the last six months sprinting to the line to get a good degree, which fortunately I did.

What event divided your life into “before” and “after”?

At the very start of my academic career, I was a lecturer in physical measurement science, teaching across a range of science and engineering degrees, and I seized an opportunity to spend six months at the National Centre for Scientific Support to Crime Investigation, now part of the College of Policing. I gained a real hands-on understanding of crime scene investigation, education and training at a national and international level, and was very fortunate to interact with practitioners, policy and strategic leads from across the criminal justice sector. What came next in my career was inspired hugely by this opportunity.

Why did you decide to join the police force after finishing your degree?

I was interested in two career roles post degree: police officer or nuclear physicist, both of which I thought would challenge me, but for different reasons. The job offer for the police service came in first with a starting date soon after my marriage, so I took it. It was a great experience and I learned a lot; but ultimately I wanted to stretch myself more academically so I left to pursue a PhD in applied physics.

What did you learn during your time with the police that was useful when you returned to higher education?

Even during my limited time in the police, I was exposed to dealing with lots of different kinds of people, situations and environments. It taught me a lot about life, and aspects of how people live and interact with the world around them.

Has the popularity of TV crime dramas had an impact on the field of forensic science?

On a positive note, it has served to attract more students, particularly women, into science and higher education, which is great, with the best forensic science degrees providing a solid grounding in applied science and preparing students for a wide range of career roles and options.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000-plus tuition fees, would you go again or go straight into work?

Absolutely I would go again to university, with more of a determination to make the most out of the experience and the environment as well as gaining a degree.

What is the worst thing anyone has ever said about your academic work?

My PhD supervisor wrote the word “why” against one sentence of what I thought was a well-advanced chapter of my thesis. It took me another four weeks to provide the answer! I still have the draft.

If you were the higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?

One that recognises – in student fees and in terms of university standing – the role that universities have in developing social capital for wider benefit. Students aren’t the only beneficiaries, and we need to recognise this.

What do you do during your days off?

As little as possible! Any or all from [activities including] spending time with family and friends in the Lake District or watching football.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Supporting others – students and staff – to succeed and reach their full potential.


Anthony Julius, a practising lawyer and scholar, will join University College London as its inaugural chair in law and the arts. This collaboration between UCL’s Faculty of Law and its arts and sciences (BASc) degree programme intends to develop teaching and research in an unexplored interdisciplinary field. Professor Julius – who previously taught at UCL’s Faculty of Law – will lead a research project into censorship of literature and the visual arts in liberal democracies. “This is a unique opportunity for me to teach and champion literature and the visual arts, which is extremely important at a time when artistic freedom is facing increasing censorship in many countries across the world,” he said. He will remain in his role as deputy chairman of legal firm Mishcon de Reya.

Karen Cox has been named the University of Kent’s sixth vice-chancellor and president. She is currently deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham. As a professor of cancer and palliative care, her research has focused on the experiences of cancer clinical trial involvement, clinical trial management and decision-making in palliative care. She is a registered nurse and a member of the board of the Nursing and Midwifery Council. “Universities are facing a time of unprecedented change,” Professor Cox said. “However…Kent is well positioned not only to respond to inevitable challenges but to seize new opportunities.” She will take up her post in August.

Rachel Isba has become the new head of Lancaster Medical School. She will continue in her duties as a consultant at the North Manchester General Hospital as she takes up her role at Lancaster University.

Lung disease specialist Augustine Choi has been named dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell University’s provost for medical affairs. He has been interim dean since June 2016.

Lee Sanders, registrar and secretary at the University of Birmingham, has taken up the post of chairman of the Association of Heads of University Administration.


Print headline: HE & me

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