Q&A with David Greenaway

The new Russell Group chair on the looming spending review, criticism of elite universities and their leaders, and cycling from one end of the country to the other

September 3, 2015
Interview: Sir David Greenaway, Russell Group, University of Nottingham

Sir David Greenaway is the vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, a position he has held since 2008. Before that, he served as Nottingham’s pro vice-chancellor for both research and infrastructure. A professor of economics, he was also the founding director of the Leverhulme Centre for Research on Globalisation and Economic Policy. At the beginning of September, he succeeded Sir David Eastwood as the chair of the Russell Group.

Where and when were you born?
Shettleston, in the East End of Glasgow, in 1952 (in a tenement that no longer exists).

How has this shaped you?
It was a tough environment, which engendered endurance and resilience; but the tenements were also like vertical villages – and that inculcated the value (and values) of community.

The late Sir David Watson described the Russell Group as a “dangerous” threat to the sector’s unity and not representing the best universities. What do you say to that? And how would you respond to charges from some parts of the sector that the group is aloof and self-interested?
I think he is wrong. Given the collective scale of our 24 universities, having a successful Russell Group at the core of the higher education ecosystem is fundamental to its overall vitality. As for self-interest and aloofness: we are all to some degree self-interested, that is normal; and I just don’t get the aloofness charge, the myriad relationships that Russell Group universities have belie that.

You’ve been a vice-chancellor for almost a decade. University heads get a lot of flak – is it justified?
Leaders of most organisations are exposed, and an easy target. If we get things wrong, we should expect to have flak. But I suspect there is a greater readiness to criticise v-cs than [chief executives] in the corporate world. But that’s life, and you know it when you take on the job.

What, in your view, is the single biggest concern facing the sector?
With an impending spending review, and with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) an unprotected department, there is obviously a degree of anxiety around funding. That anxiety is not, in my view, misplaced.

With the threat of uncapped tuition fees a real possibility, could undergraduate study become a preserve of the wealthy?
I do not think so, as long as fees are not payable upfront but are repayable as at present in the form of graduate contributions; and so long as we continue to invest in widening participation in innovative ways (like the Nottingham Potential centres, which we support, for children from age eight in disadvantaged areas of the city).

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I spent most of my spare time playing or watching football, so there was only ever one dream!

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Working in an environment where more or less everyone is younger than me, and most are smarter, is really invigorating. Confronting creativity in so many forms on a daily basis is stimulating and enriching. In all jobs, there are things you would rather not have to do, but nothing worth dwelling on.

What keeps you awake at night?
Occasionally, a dodgy hip grumbling about the effects of half a century of football. But that will be dealt with soon enough!

What do you do for fun?
These days, I do a lot of cycling. I started four years ago, to prepare for the first Nottingham Life Cycle [charity ride], from John O’Groats to Land’s End. There was supposed to be only one, but that has ended up as four completed so far, covering 5,000 miles, raising £1.5 million and stimulating a huge amount of community engagement. 

What’s your biggest regret?
Professionally, none really; personally, not attending either of my graduations. I now understand what they would have meant to my parents.

Have you had a eureka moment?
The first approach I had to consider a v-c position was almost 20 years ago. Between then and 2007, I was clear that I was not going to be a v-c. Then my predecessor announced his retirement, I found myself thinking about this job, and ended up applying for it. I am not sure that counts as a eureka moment, but it was a big surprise to me.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a “first in the family” student and went to Liverpool Polytechnic to study for a BSc (Econ), then to the University of Liverpool for graduate studies. My family knew nothing about higher education, so I had no idea what to expect. As a result, I was a bit starry-eyed about the whole thing and really enjoyed the experience.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
I am going to cheat here and pick a recent event. In June this year, the international economics community organised a Festschrift in my honour. The day was an unbelievable thrill: great speakers, lots of my former PhD students and postdocs, and all shared with family and friends. It will live long in the memory.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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