Q&A with Lady Frances Sorrell

We talk to the new chancellor of the University of Westminster

August 20, 2015
Lady Frances Sorrell, University of Westminster

Lady Frances Sorrell (née Newell) is the co-founder and co-chair of the Sorrell Foundation, which was established in 1999 to foster confidence and creativity in young people. With her husband, Sir John Sorrell, she founded Newell and Sorrell, one of Europe’s biggest design businesses. She has held a visiting professorship at the University of the Arts London and is an honorary fellow of Falmouth University. In June, Lady Sorrell was announced as the University of Westminster’s new chancellor.

Where were you born?
I was born in Woking, Surrey. I am the second of four children, and both our parents worked so we had to organise things for ourselves much of the time.

How has this shaped you?
I think it gave me a sense of responsibility.

What do you hope to achieve as chancellor of Westminster?
I would like to help shine a light on all that the university achieves. They have a very diverse student population with a high proportion from local, low-income backgrounds, and they also have diverse provision. I would like to help them communicate this achievement far more. In addition, I want to help young people at school to understand the possibilities open to them at university.

What role did higher education play in bringing you to this point in your career?
I did not go to university. I left school at 15 and started attending Epsom School of Art [now part of the University for the Creative Arts] at 16. It was a period of great social mobility. I was lucky enough to go to Saturday-morning classes there from the age of 14, and I realised that it was the right direction for me.

Do we do enough to help young people from more challenging economic backgrounds into higher education?
We could do a lot more. We need to start at a younger age – finding young people’s strengths and talents, creating pathways through primary and secondary education before we get to the entry point of higher education. For many young people, further education is a vital stepping stone into higher education, or an alternative pathway to work. I know that a great many of these institutions are struggling with changes to funding and policy. We need to safeguard this link in the chain.

With such a strong emphasis on improving the nation’s science, technology, engineering and maths provision, do you think that young people are losing their enthusiasm for creativity?
No, I don’t think that; but without strong creative education in schools, young people will not have the opportunity to develop their skills. The UK needs to incubate talent. Our creative industries are booming and are hungry for home-grown talent and ideas, so we need to put arts into the mix – put the “A” into “STEM” so it becomes “STEAM”.

What was it about Westminster that convinced you to accept the chancellorship?
The university has an impressive heritage, and its founding vision of innovation, creativity, engaging cultures and outreach is very much alive today. They also are interested in working outside the box – for example linking arts and science, and combining research with working practice – so it’s a very exciting and diverse place to be involved with.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The introduction of [£9,000] tuition fees and the removal of the education maintenance allowance have made it harder for university education to foster widespread social mobility as it did between the 1940s and the 1980s. In addition, the vast increase in international students is a major change.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 fees, would you go or head straight into work?
I would go to university. It’s a vital step, to develop skills, take risks and nurture innovation – things you cannot do in a job. 

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to make things, to create. It was what I was best at.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not keeping up my piano playing.

Have you had a eureka moment?
My eureka moment was my first art school experience at 14 years old – completely different from school. I felt a sense of excitement about my future.

What kind of student were you?
Enthusiastic! My foundation year gave me a taste of so many different media and skills; it has been a lasting influence on my work.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Keep your sketchbook going.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
My work with the University of Westminster is very enriching, and I’m learning new things all the time. I am very lucky because I have more than one role and I am always busy, but it is sometimes hard to keep all the plates spinning.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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