Interview with Wendy Thomson

The University of London’s new vice-chancellor reflects on her Canadian working class roots, leadership lessons from local government and her time in 10 Downing Street

September 19, 2019
Source: University of London

Wendy Thomson started her role as the University of London’s vice-chancellor in July, having spent four-and-a-half years as managing director of Norfolk County Council. Her career started in the charity and local authority sectors, where she held leadership positions in the London boroughs of Islington and Newham. She was also chief adviser on public service reform to UK prime minister Tony Blair and professor of social policy at McGill University in Canada.

Where and when were you born?
Montreal, Canada, in October 1953.

How has this shaped who you are?
Quebec was going through its “quiet revolution” as I was growing up, when a modern welfare state and generation of new intellectuals emerged from a legacy of church-governed education. It was a radical departure from what had gone before, one that gave rise to Quebec nationalism, the electoral success of the Parti Québécois and the Charter of the French Language that made French the official language. I was born in a working-class anglophone neighbourhood during this period, so I have a lived experience of being a minority among a minority and the complex relationship between class and national identity. Growing up in Montreal gave me the opportunity to learn and speak French, which has been great.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was rather awestruck by McGill, but excited to take up the many opportunities it made available. I played hard and took my politics seriously, but I also worked hard, graduating with straight As. My mother was widowed when I was in my teens, so I worked part-time in a department store to pay my way. Being a part-time shop floor assistant was a formative experience, for my bosses probably as much as for me. On reflection I may have had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when meeting the privilege and wealth that characterised many McGill students at that time. Fortunately some wonderful faculty at McGill overlooked the “attitude” and were very generous with their support and encouragement. Many faculty and peers have remained lifelong friends.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
There were actually two: meeting my activist husband on a Children’s Defense Committee demonstration and attending lectures by Nobel prizewinner and philosopher Charles Taylor.

Several UK vice-chancellors started their careers in local government. Does this background help would-be university leaders?
These days, leadership in public services is all about working across systems; engaging people, harnessing energy and hope, finding new ways to develop solutions for tough social issues that cut across traditional boundaries of function or jurisdiction. At its best, local government leadership has been good at engendering a sense of community, realising the value of diversity and then getting the job done; whether it be floods, snow storms, civil emergencies, or terrorist attacks. Managing sensitive politics and balancing budgets in the full glare of publicity are core skills, an intense challenge with the 40 per cent reduction in central government grant since the onset of austerity. By recognising universities’ distinctive culture and modern collegiality, universities can benefit from this kind of local authority leadership experience.   

In your early career, you worked alongside many politicians in London who would later rise to prominence in the Labour government. What leadership lessons did you learn from them?
I worked closely with Margaret Hodge, when she was leader of Islington Borough Council. It was great to work with an intelligent and pragmatic woman politician. When I met Margaret she was raising a family of four young children, and her experience and leftist feminism gave her the insight to introduce small but important changes that facilitated women’s participation in politics. She was ambitious for her community, very clever but pragmatic, yet not afraid to stand up to developers or government, if they stood in the way of doing right for Islington residents. In her subsequent roles in the Labour cabinet and as chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret showed the value of diligently embracing her brief and calling people to account. These are valuable lessons for public service leadership.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
It’s difficult to choose just one. I’ve always admired my doctoral supervisor Peter Townsend, who was author of landmark empirical poverty studies, devised the concept of relative poverty and was an anti-poverty activist to his dying day. He was chair of the department of social administration when I was at the University of Bristol and, although he would be horrified to be considered a Fabian, I think you could trace the origins of his work to the social policy traditions of the London School of Economics, Richard Titmus and even to Beveridge. Engaged scholarship is what I admire and a principle that I have tried to emulate when chair at McGill and director at the School of Social Work. With its record of widening access and strengthening public engagement, the University of London stands firmly on these progressive traditions; ones that I will cherish and enrich as its vice-chancellor.

What keeps you awake at night?
If anything does it would be worrying about my 17-year-old daughter and how best to help her find the right education pathway to a happy and fulfilling life. And just now, planning the logistics of my move from Norwich to London.    

What do you do for fun?
Tennis is my passion and I play many times a week. When I’m back in Montreal I have fun getting together making harmony and playing ukulele with my “singing buddies”.   

Tell us something we don’t know about Tony Blair.
Not everyone may know how conscientious a parent he is. As I was heading off to China to adopt my daughter, Tony took private time to talk to me about parenting – the joys, the worries, the practicalities of juggling a public life with family time. Impressive.


Michael Wesley has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor (international) at the University of Melbourne. He is currently professor of international affairs and dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. He has worked on international strategy across higher education, government and the private sector, including as executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy and as director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University. Professor Wesley said that he was “looking forward” to joining the university and to “building strategic partnerships with some of the world’s best universities and contributing positively to our academic and research communities”.

Alex Pryce has been announced as the University of Cambridge’s transition year course director. She will lead the transition year pilot programme at the university, which aims to provide students from a disadvantaged background with teaching, support and guidance to raise their attainment and allow them to succeed in admission to leading universities such as Cambridge. Previously she was head of outreach development (undergraduate admissions and outreach) at the University of Oxford. Senior pro vice-chancellor for education Graham Virgo said that Cambridge was “delighted” Dr Pryce would bring her “extensive experience of widening participation work and innovative engagement with schools” to benefit the new initiative.

Jeff Blackford has been appointed the first dean for Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, a role designed to strengthen the collaboration between the two institutions and promote educational opportunities for both UK- and China-based students. He will retain his position as dean of the University of Liverpool in London.

Lymari Morales has been named associate dean for communications and market at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Ms Morales most recently served as chief editorial adviser at Atlantic 57, the strategic communications consultancy of The Atlantic.

Maurits van Rooijen has been announced as rector of the University of Applied Sciences Europe. He will continue in his current position of chief academic officer of Global University Systems.

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