Interview with Ruth Kelly

The former Labour Cabinet minister talks about her foray into the world of university senior management

October 29, 2015
Ruth Kelly, St Mary's University, Twickenham
Source: Corbis

Ruth Kelly is a former politician who served in numerous Cabinet positions – including secretary of state for education and skills and then for transport – in the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. After resigning from government in 2008, she served as global head of client strategy at HSBC Global Asset Management. In July, she was appointed pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Limavady Cottage Hospital, County Derry, Northern Ireland in 1968, the daughter of a local pharmacist and a teacher.

How has this shaped you?
My family left Northern Ireland when I was very young as a result of the Troubles, moving first to the Republic of Ireland and then later to England. My family never settled anywhere for long, and I changed school every couple of years. The experience has made me more resilient to change; it also, of course, made me particularly aware of the significance of religious identity as well as the importance of an open, democratic society with respect for minorities.

What do you hope to achieve at St Mary’s?
St Mary’s wants to become known for a real commitment to student-centred teaching and learning. It also aspires to be an outward-facing university, producing original research and having a strong presence in public debates. I hope to contribute to that vision by leading the university towards research degree-awarding powers, building on the recent granting of its university title, and by developing the impact and reach of that work nationally and internationally.

You’ve joined a Catholic university as a pro vice-chancellor. How will your faith inform your work there?
My faith has always been a strong part of my identity, and I have a strong belief in the uniqueness and dignity of every human being. I also believe that universities are places where real dialogue can take place between the disciplines, as well as between faith and society, and hope St Mary’s will be able to add a strong and distinctive contribution to those debates.

As societies further secularise, will there remain a place in higher education for faith-based institutions?
Yes. Faith remains a huge motivating force in society, and Britain is in a minority for trying to squeeze religion to the margins. I believe there is a role for institutions based on the highest standards of academic rigour, but which include a healthy dialogue between faith and reason.

What are your views on your former party’s position after May’s general election and Jeremy Corbyn’s becoming leader?
Labour has to be able to win support from the moderate majority if it ever hopes to be able to govern. For me, that means the drive for social justice has to go hand in hand with support for a strong and efficient market economy. I can’t currently see the leadership showing a full understanding of how the market economy can be harnessed to support human potential and aspiration – but I live in hope!

You were part of the Labour government that introduced top-up fees. How do you view the current fees situation in comparison with the opprobrium Labour faced when introducing fees?
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats suffered from their positions on tuition fees. My view is that day-to-day living costs are a more serious issue for students, as the maximum level of the student loan is insufficient for most to live on. The recent shift away from maintenance grants to loans, set at a lower than replacement level, will just exacerbate that problem. It is surprising to see that the current government has not faced a more severe reaction to the changes, but I would expect opposition to mount over the coming year.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
The landscape has become much more diverse. Higher education in this country is no longer dominated by a body of full-time undergraduates on campus. Large numbers of students have paid jobs and work their way through university, possibly even studying mainly at home or in the workplace, using distance learning as well as face-to-face teaching.

What keeps you awake at night?
Oscar – our new puppy!

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Quite fun-loving. I loved partying and, together with a friend, ran the “ents” [entertainment] function at my college. I was also fairly conscientious though, so I tried to do as much reading ahead as I could in the holidays to free up time during term at college.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
One of the earliest is when I walked into an anatomy lab in my first week at university and realised that medicine was not for me. I was made to wait two terms and take my prelims before [being allowed to take up] philosophy, politics and economics. After I switched, I never looked back.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not being able to spend more time at home when the children were young.

Tell us about someone you admire.
My husband. He has been an unfailing support throughout my career, and as well as working he also takes care of all the shopping and cooking!

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I would love to reintroduce a real focus on teaching and scholarship. Scholarship is the practical link between research and the student experience. There is a tendency for university staff to think that the only way to be promoted is to excel in research. That needs to change.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com


Appointments

Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, has been appointed to the board of trustees of the Nuffield Foundation, the research funding and education and social science innovation organisation. Professor Vignoles has advised numerous government departments, including those of education and business, innovation and skills. Her experience as a research and policy adviser will aid the foundation in its grant-making and help to ensure that its funded work has impact on policy.

A leading marine scientist from the Scottish Association for Marine Science has been appointed to a professorship at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. Finlo Cottier, head of SAMS’ physics and technology department, was awarded the adjunct position in recognition of his decade-long work on Arctic research projects and his encouragement of closer links between Scottish and Norwegian researchers. He has also helped to develop the Arctic science degree run by SAMS through the University of the Highlands and Islands and alongside the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).

The University of Sussex has made two high-profile, independent appointments to its council. Angela Smith, interim chief risk and finance officer at the London Pensions Fund Authority, and Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, are the new members.

Keith Zimmerman has begun his role as the university secretary of the Open University. Mr Zimmerman, who was previously the OU’s director for students, becomes the fourth holder of the position since the institution’s establishment.

Elizabeth Passey, non-executive director of VPC Specialty Lending Investments, has been made the University of Glasgow’s new convener of court. She will take up her role officially next August.

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