Interview with Nigel Healey

We talk globalisation, internationalisation and Marmite with the future head of a South Pacific university

March 10, 2016
Nigel Healey, Nottingham Trent University, Sichuan University

Nigel Healey is head of the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences and pro vice-chancellor (international) at Nottingham Trent University and adjunct professor at Sichuan University in China. He has held senior positions in UK and New Zealand institutions as well as visiting professorships at numerous other universities worldwide. Earlier this year, he was announced as the next vice-chancellor of Fiji National University.

Where were you born?
Royal Naval Hospital Haslar, in Gosport.

How has this shaped you?
Being the son of a naval officer meant that we moved naval bases and sometimes countries every few years. It has left me with a sense of wanderlust and a yearning to see the world.

You’re about to swap the East Midlands for the South Pacific, that’s quite a departure. How do you think they’ll compare?
Apart from the climate, the geography, the culture and the economy, there is a lot about working in a university that is the same the world over. Whether in Nottingham or Suva, our job [as university leaders] is to give students an education that transforms their life chances and to undertake research that improves society.

What were your motivations for taking a position not just overseas, but in one of the remotest parts of the world?
I have worked and taught in many parts of the world, including the United States, the former Soviet Union and all over the Asia-Pacific region. I love the thrill of the unknown and coming to grips with new cultures and alien ways of working.

The announcement of your appointment came a month before Cyclone Winston, which damaged some of Fiji National University’s campuses. Are natural disasters something that you considered when you accepted the role?
It’s a fact of life in that part of the world. You know that there are going to be earthquakes and cyclones; it’s something that you live with and plan for, and you take the reasonable precautions. When I was at [the University of] Canterbury [in New Zealand] we had very sophisticated emergency planning systems, and when we had the earthquakes, we managed them really well and professionally, because we had all the plans in place.

You’re moving to be head of an institution. Was becoming a vice-chancellor the next logical step for you, or did the opportunity come out of the blue?
Like many colleagues who operate at the level below vice-chancellor in a well-regarded university, I regularly get speculative telephone calls from recruitment firms trying to hire vice-chancellors. I had hoped one day to have the opportunity to lead a university as vice-chancellor, but only if the job came with a new and exciting challenge. And Fiji National University checked that box.

You’ve held positions in universities all over the world, with all sorts of different types of politics. How important is higher education to countries’ governments?
Higher education is a truly global sector. There are 200 million students enrolled in the world’s 21,000 universities, and one in three 18-year-olds globally now goes to university. The dominance of English as the language of scientific research, and increasingly the medium of instruction for teaching, means that there is unprecedented international mobility of faculty and students. This globalisation undoubtedly brings challenges, particularly when principles such as academic freedom threaten undemocratic political systems or religious orthodoxy. But all countries recognise the importance of a thriving higher education sector for their economic development.

What are your priorities for Fiji National University?
Fiji National University is a very young university, founded only in 2010. However, like the UK polytechnics, it was created through the merger of existing tertiary institutions, some of which were founded in the 19th century. These are now the six constituent colleges of FNU, and the priorities are to build a unified university community, upgrade the skills and qualifications of the faculty, invest in a multidisciplinary research programme – which addresses the government’s development priorities for the country – and to build a flexible learning platform that extends the reach of education to people in the less-populated areas.

Are there lessons that UK higher education could learn from Fijian higher education?
Small countries such as Fiji and New Zealand tend to be very outward-looking and, rather than inventing everything themselves, they look for best practice internationally and learn from others. UK higher education can sometimes forget that it is part of a global system and become unhelpfully introspective and self-referential.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was an approval-seeking swot who handed everything in on time, never missed a lecture or tutorial and had panic attacks that I wouldn’t ace every exam. Except on Friday and Saturday nights, when I loved the nightclubs in Nottingham.

What do you do for fun?
Ride anything with two wheels. When it is cold and raining in Nottingham, I read motorcycle magazines. When it is warm and sunny, I ride my BMW. I have a cruiser and a dirt bike in a shed in New Zealand, waiting for my return.

What’s your biggest regret?
I don’t do counterfactuals. Life is series of forks in the road. I don’t see the point in wondering what would have happened if I had turned right instead of left at some point in the past.

If you were the UK universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to our sector?
I would make universities repay the loans of undergraduates who fail to complete their degrees. This would transform the way that universities support their undergraduate students, especially those from less advantaged backgrounds.

Is there a creature comfort from the UK that you think you’ll miss?
No. BBC Radio 4 is available on the internet, and I don’t like Marmite.


Peter Hahn has been appointed Henry Grunfeld professor of banking at ifs University College. Professor Hahn, who takes up his position at the specialist banking and finance institution this month, will be pivotal in developing ifs’ strategy, especially in research and thought leadership activity. He is joining from the Faculty of Finance in City University London’s Cass Business School. “I am honoured to be associated with Henry Grunfeld, who was so influential in the establishment of the City of London as the leading global financial centre,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to contributing to ifs’ vision “to be a pioneering institution delivering outstanding financial education”.

Debi Hayes has been made provost of GSM London, the UK’s largest independent higher education institution. Since 2013, she has served as GSM’s deputy provost and then its acting provost. Before that, Ms Hayes held positions at the University of Greenwich and at the University of the Arts London. “I am delighted to be formally named as provost of GSM London,” she said. “It is a forward-thinking institution that prides itself on making higher education accessible to everyone.”

Chris Bennett, a journalist and academic who reported on the war in the Balkans in the early 1990s, has been made an honorary professor of history at De Montfort University.

Susan Lapworth has been appointed director of regulation and assurance at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Simon Haslett is taking up his position as pro vice-chancellor with responsibility for international and enhancement activities across the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the University of Wales.

The University of the Highlands and Islands has appointed two new readers. Peter Varley has been awarded the title in recognition of his contribution to tourism research, and David Worthington for his contribution to historical research.

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