Interview with Lord Sainsbury

We talk with this year’s winner of the THE Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award about the decline of student politics, what Michael Gove is getting wrong and bacon sandwiches

December 1, 2016
Lord Sainsbury of Turville, University of Cambridge, speaking at Times Higher Education Awards 2016

Lord Sainsbury of Turville was awarded the Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award at the Times Higher Education Awards 2016. After five years as chair of supermarket giant Sainsbury’s, he was created a life peer in 1997 and served as minister for science and innovation for eight years during Tony Blair’s premiership. He has been chancellor of the University of Cambridge since 2011.

Where and when were you born?
Montreal, Canada, 1940.

How has this shaped you?
When I came back to Britain aged two, I liked to eat marmalade with my sausages.

What were your thoughts when you heard that you were to receive the Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award?
Pleasure that the work I have done in the field of education has been recognised, as I thought that it had gone largely unnoticed.

What professional achievements are you most proud of?
As a politician I set up [England’s] Higher Education Innovation Fund and got it to work effectively. This led to a rapid improvement in the knowledge transfer activities of universities, which became as good as those of top American universities.

Why did you choose to donate money to set up a laboratory in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden?
In recent years, it has become technologically possible to study the development of plants due to advances in genetics, microscopy and the application of mathematics. This is a research agenda that could help the world deal with the problems of food security and climate change, and I thought the UK could play a leading role.

If you had not entered the family business, what would you have done after graduating?
I think I would have been a history teacher or done research in psychology. But it is difficult to say because I think I would have taken a very different approach to my time at Cambridge if I had not known that I had the opportunity of joining the family business.

How has student politics changed since you were an undergraduate?
We were much more concerned with the big issues of the day such as apartheid, nuclear disarmament and the Cold War. But the world looked a more dangerous place, and undergraduates knew that they could get jobs relatively easily. Today’s undergraduates have to spend more time thinking about their careers and how they can earn enough to pay back the loans they have taken on.

You have a long history with the Labour Party. Are you concerned about its current direction?
I think all political parties in Britain are in a bad way, with tiny memberships that can easily be captured by extremists. We need to find a way of building them up so that once again they represent the views of the electorate, if we are to restore our democracy to health.

As minister for science and innovation, you highly valued the advice of experts. Do you think it’s true that the public and politicians have “had enough of experts”?
I don’t think the public has had “enough of experts”. [Conservative MP] Michael Gove [who famously said this during the referendum campaign] does not speak for the British people, though clearly he thinks he does.

What keeps you awake at night?
Brexit. No arguments I heard during the referendum campaign altered my long-held view that it will be extremely bad for the British economy, particularly if we come out of the [single market]. I also worry that the harmful effects of Brexit will hit hardest the people in the old industrial areas who have already suffered as a result of globalisation, and that we will hand over to our children an isolated and slow-growing economy with few opportunities for them.

How might UK universities be affected by Brexit? What policies would lessen its negative impact on universities?
If we come out of the European Research Council, it will lead to a major reduction in the research money available to universities. We should try to stay part of it for financial reasons and because I believe the collaborations involved have been beneficial. Brexit will also lead to a reduction in the number of European Union students wanting to come to British universities, and we need to stop treating foreign students as immigrants who are unwelcome in this country.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Hard-working, intellectually excited and talkative.

What do you think has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
The emphasis on research by the university funding system has meant that in some universities, teaching has been neglected.

What is something that has changed your way of thinking?
My time in government convinced me that the machinery of government in this country is seriously dysfunctional, which is why, when I came out of government, I decided to set up the Institute for Government.

If you were the higher education minister today, what policy would you immediately introduce?
I would try to bring back polytechnics. We need to strengthen our system of technical education, not create more universities.

What one piece of advice would you give to undergraduates today?
Make certain that you do a course that you think will both enable you to get a job that you think is socially valuable, and will help you pay back the loans that you have had to take on.

Do you have any book recommendations?
Erik S. Reinert’s How Rich Countries Got Rich… and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor. This is a brilliant book about the history of thinking about economic growth, which makes clear why neoclassical thinking about economic growth is unrealistic.

What’s your favourite type of sandwich?
A home-made bacon sandwich, made with bacon from Sainsbury’s.


Graham Miller has taken up the role of executive dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Surrey, having served in the role on an interim basis. In 13 years at Surrey, Professor Miller has served as head of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and as chair of its Sustainability Group; he has also served as an adviser to the European Commission on sustainability and tourism. His research is focused on the transition to a sustainable tourism industry, and it has led to the development of a system to indicate the sustainability of tourist destinations that is now in use across Europe.

Maria Fasli will become the first Unesco chair in analytics and data science. She is currently based at the University of Essex, where she is director of the Institute of Analytic and Data Science, and she has previously served as head of the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. Among her responsibilities will be research into new techniques for data collection, analysis and dissemination. “I was attracted to the role because many developing and transitioning countries have an acute lack of skills in data science and analytics, creating a barrier to economic growth and becoming knowledge economies,” Professor Fasli said.

Malcolm Kirkup joins the University of Westminster as dean of Westminster Business School. He moves from the University of Edinburgh, where he was director of educational innovation.

Sally Shortall has taken up the role of Duke of Northumberland professor of rural economy at Newcastle University. She has carried out research for the United Nations, the European Parliament and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Claire Carney has been announced as the first associate vice-principal (education) of the University of the West of Scotland, moving on from her position as executive strategist.


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