Interview with Leighton Andrews

We talk government-university relationships, protecting Welsh students’ finances and the highs and lows of supporting Cardiff City FC, with the former politician

September 8, 2016
Leighton Andrews, Cardiff University business school
Source: Natasha Hirst

Leighton Andrews is a former Welsh government minister and served as Assembly member for the Rhondda between 2003 and 2016. He was minister for education in Carwyn Jones’ Welsh Labour governments from 2009 to 2016. Last month, he was appointed professor of practice in public service leadership and innovation at Cardiff University’s business school.

Where and when were you born?
Cardiff. I grew up in Barry before moving to England at the age of 11.

How has this shaped you?
I’ve been strongly shaped by my sense of Welshness – democratic, communal, anti-establishment, with a strong sense of place. As I say in my book Ministering to Education, throughout my teenage years and during my subsequent career outside Wales, I was always looking for those points of connection.

What do you hope to achieve in your role?
I want to help Cardiff develop its focus as a “public value” business school; contribute to teaching on a cross-disciplinary basis across the university, in areas of public leadership and public policy, government, media and devolution studies; publish research on such themes and develop courses relevant to aspiring public service leaders.

Some of your higher education policies – particularly your support for merging Welsh universities – were bold and controversial to some. Do you feel vindicated by the reforms you made?
The merger policy wasn’t mine uniquely – it pre-dated devolution. I felt that we needed to resolve it so that higher education in Wales could move on. I think that has happened and the merger debate is largely over. I’m also glad that I protected Welsh students against £9,000 tuition fees.

Do you worry about working with those who may have denounced your higher education policies?
I haven’t come across anyone at Cardiff University who disagreed with my approach. But I’ve often worked with people who disagreed with me and debate is creative.

Your merging policy stoked up the debate about governance and sustainability in higher education, which set you at odds with some vice-chancellors at the time. Do you think, with high executive pay commonplace in higher education, we still have a governance problem in UK universities?
We certainly have unresolved questions, but they go beyond the role of vice-chancellors. I was more concerned about the willingness of governing bodies of higher education institutions to act independently of senior staff – my time at the BBC in the 1990s taught me the importance of effective governance.

What has changed most in UK higher education in the past 10 years?
The drive to a more marketised system with the new fee structure and private providers. We need to reassert the public role of universities. It’s instructive that major European countries have taken a different approach from the UK – and the devolved administrations have a similar approach to mainland Europe.

Brexit threatens to destabilise higher education. What do you worry most about with regard to its effects on the sector?
There are practical issues in relation to international higher education collaboration and scholarship, although the UK government claims that it will plug the funding gap. I think the anti-intellectual, anti-evidence approach of the Brexiteers is deeply worrying for educational culture, and for our politics.

You have been praised for your public engagement as a politician. Public engagement is a problem for some academics. Do you think that this is something academics should be doing more of as a matter of course?
I have always tried to follow George Orwell’s advice on the value of plain, direct communication – the age of social media gives more opportunities for this (while raising many other issues, of course). Initiatives such as The Conversation website are really valuable, not least given the challenge to the sustainability of conventional media.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
When I finished my MA at the University of Sussex in 1980, the late Keith Middlemas brought up the possibility of a research assistant role, and maybe I should have done that rather than going straight into the third sector.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Ask me in 12 months’ time! I hope that in the new role I won’t be publicly sacked on live television at 5am.

What keeps you awake at night?
Plans, ideas, irritations, details.

What do you do for fun?
I’m a Cardiff City season ticket holder, although that doesn’t count as fun at the moment. I read voraciously, watch the best of international television, and I hope to have more time for cinema and theatre.

What’s your biggest regret?
I’m saving that for a future book.

If you were a prospective student facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or get a job?
A tough one. I was entitled to free meals at school, and went to university on a full grant in 1975 – in a different era with a smaller student population, of course. It’s impossible to say.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
We occupied the maths tower at Bangor University in November 1976, supporting Welsh-speaking students suspended for taking action over the language. I still have the legal notice served on us. The Stranglers played the union bar and their lead singer shouted “I hear you’ve got a problem with a bloke called Reggie – Reggie-strar!”

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
I suddenly “got” Coleridge while doing my laundry in the Bangor union launderette in the second year of my English and history [degree].

What one thing would improve your working week?
The ability to sleep for seven hours solid every night.

You will be unaware, but you are Times Higher Education's 150th HE & me interviewee. How does it feel to be part of history?
An unexpected honour, which almost compares to the luxury of having lived to read my “obituaries” [media coverage following his resignation in 2013 and election defeat in 2016] not once, but twice.


Jim Smith has been appointed director of science at the Wellcome Trust. Dr Smith, who will take up his position at the end of the year, is currently deputy chief executive officer and chief of strategy of the Medical Research Council. He is also director of research at the Francis Crick Institute. He has previously held leadership roles at the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute and the MRC National Institute for Medical Research. “As someone who has benefited personally from Wellcome support, I know from experience how important its generosity, flexibility and vision are to basic science and to individual researchers and their teams,” he said.

Lynne Williams has been announced as the new principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Ms Williams will take up her role early next year. She moves to Guildhall from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, where she has been director and chief executive since 2008. “The Guildhall School is one of the great conservatoires of the world,” she said. “I am excited to be joining the team and the wider Guildhall community to build on this prestigious reputation at a time when excellence and innovation in arts education and training has never been so crucial to ensuring a creative and cultural future for 21st-century society.”

Mitch Robinson, an international law specialist for the US Department of Defense, has been honoured as a fellow of Aberystwyth University.

Dame Suzi Leather has been appointed chair of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.

Lee Higgins, director of the International Centre of Community Music based at York St John University, has been made president of the International Society of Music Education.

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