My imaginary university

I felt (quite literally) honoured recently to receive an invitation from the man who puts the ‘great’ into Paul Greatrix – none other than the Registrar of the University of Nottingham, the blogger, the podcaster and the chronicler of all things higher education. 

He asked me to appear on his podcast My Imaginary University.

If you’re not familiar with it (where have you been?), this is the closest thing the HE sector has to Desert Island Discs. It’s a ingeniously simple format in which Paul interviews someone, invites them to make some seemingly fantastical choices and, in the process, of course, they reveal as much about themselves as they do about the choices they’ve made. 

Rather than picking eight tracks, a book and a luxury, in My Imaginary University the interviewee conjures their fantasy institution using a series of prompt question that Paul emailed me in advance. 

At the start of each show, he explains that he hasn’t a clue what’s coming and, to my surprise, this was literally true. You have to hand it to him: he’s a class act. He conducted the interview slickly, probingly, and genuinely without notice or notes.   

I, on the other hand, did need notes. And I thought, with Paul’s permission, I might share his advance questions with you – as well as some of my own prompts to myself – and the notes that I made since, inevitably, not everything I had thought about made it out of my mouth and into the show. I do hope you’ll also listen to the podcast itself and subscribe (because there are some excellent previous episode by far more worthy and knowledgeable guests than me).

Q: Tell us about your history. Where does your university sit? Are you ancient? Redbrick, plate glass? Post-92? A new challenger? 

I decided to make life easy for myself with my imaginary university, by choosing the well-established and highly prestigious Camford University, which I was delighted to be appointed to lead an unspecified number of years ago. And when I was appointed I was really clear that I wanted to radically change the university so that it meets the priorities of today rather than merely the rather narrow sector of society that it has served so brilliantly for centuries.

Q: Your location: are you a campus uni? Urban? Rural? And what is your specific location? Are you even in the UK or are you perhaps a tiny liberal arts college in New England? Or even a thrusting start-up in Asia.

As you know, Camford is one of the nation’s great and ancient universities, but unlike Oxford and Cambridge, it isn’t in the wealthy southern half of the country. The city of Camford has largely built up around the university over the centuries, but the surrounding region is basically post-industrial and, while traditionally we’ve welcomed some extremely well-heeled students, within 30 miles of the university there some of the country’s most deprived areas. 

So, we’re keeping many of the features that make Camford such a special institution, but we’re turning it into a powerhouse of opportunity for all and a central driver for regional revival. 

There are three parts to this: who studies here, the student experience, and the relationship with the local community and businesses

Q: Who studies at your university?

Our access policy is based on potential not attainment. Our admissions policy is based entirely on contextualised offers, with a preference for students from within the region. 

We’re investing heavily in our outreach team and teaming up with some of the excellent third sector organisations working in access. We’re building up these long-term relationships with schools and colleges in the region to play a part in raising attainment, but also to help us recognise which pupils they have who would flourish in the environment we can provide, if only they had the chance. 

We organise teaching days at the university for students from those schools and we bus them in. When they apply here, we send admission staff to them to do what we call ‘interviews’. The point of the interviews though is not solely about us selecting them or them selecting us, it’s about working out with them how best to support their idea of success in life. 

The aim of these – and our whole admissions process – is to search for evidence of the potential to succeed rather than seeing if they can navigate a filtering process that’s designed to exclude. We try to ensure that, even if we can’t accept everyone, we always help them to hone their understanding of what would be the best match for them and also improve their self-presentation. 

Being the best match is really important to us and some of our genius academics from our AI research centre have developed this incredible software that hunts for signals about what kinds of people are most likely to pass various milestones on the path to a good outcome. This is heavily based on comparisons with control data about people with similar backgrounds: we’re not looking to find the people most likely to ‘succeed’ – because that’s likely to be the people with the biggest head start – but rather the people who will go on the longest journey, the people where the kind of education we can offer will add the most value and be most transformative. 

We could take the easy path and simply admit demonstrably brilliant students with loads of social capital, stamp them with a Camford-approved label and send them out into the world. That’s what we’ve been doing for centuries and, to be honest, it’s hard to say that we changed the course of those graduates’ lives greatly. So we’re not doing that any more. Instead, we’re looking at the taxpayers’ investment in higher education and we’re sweating it to maximise the return. Meanwhile we’re doing the same for our students so that their effort and investment gets them the biggest possible return. 

Those returns, by the way, aren’t always financial. Thanks to Camford’s reputation, our graduates do tend to be higher earning on average, but we’ve also seen that our approach tends to turn out graduates who’re very focused on the communities they came from, on lifting others up and on creating things rather than pursuing extrinsic markers of ‘success’. We’re trying to make sure that social mobility in a deprived region doesn’t have to mean geographic mobility.

Q: Tell me about your foundation years

We extended our foundation year programme accordingly and, while most of these courses are integrated into a full degree programme, we’ve also been building up strong partnerships with other universities in the UK and around the world to channel students wherever they feel they’ll be best suited. We’re finding, however, that most do want to stay. 

Q: Are there any novel aspects of the student experience your new recruits should expect?

Our education is radically holistic. On the one hand, you could say it’s based on what makes our graduates employable, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about producing rounded people. 

Employability is made up of various ingredients: 

  • Firstly, there are skills, both transferable, so-called ‘soft’ skills and more job-specific skills; 
  • Then there’s knowledge; 
  • Thirdly, there are more character-driven attributes, such as attitudes, values, behaviours and even personality; 

There’s a fourth ingredient that I’ll talk about in a moment. But those first three are what our education is designed to develop. You might call it ’employability’, but back in the 1990s, people used to talk about ‘graduateness’ and it was the same idea. At Camford, we call it ’roundedness’ and we talk about having a unique individual ‘mix’ of these ingredients.

Becoming rounded is something that students hear about from day one… and before. It’s built into everything we say about our courses and the student experience. It runs through our partnerships with schools. We talk about it in interviews as a way of getting applicants to think about whether this is what they want and expect from their student experience. 

Students do self-reflections and appraise themselves at key points to understand what skills, knowledge and attributes they have in their unique mix. Academics are explicit about what different course components are intended to add to students’ mix and students complete reflections afterwards to see if their mix has developed in the way they – and the academics – had hoped and expected. 

This kind of self-appraisal is as important to academic progress as any summative assessments. We do have some exams, but we also have assessment through extended essays, presentations and projects. We have lots of project-based learning, often in teams. These teams are almost always interdisciplinary. As often as we can, they’re driven by practical, real world examples, providing free solutions to business challenges faced by employers, mostly from the region, but sometimes all over the world. They’re assessed by a mix of the external ‘customer’, the academic who facilitates the scheme, and peer assessments by the team. 

Students are also really encouraged to engage in activities that elsewhere would be beyond their studies, but at Camford, through reflection, if you can demonstrate you’ve added to your mix, you can gain credits. So, activities like social action in the community, student representation, sports, even a part-time job can all contribute to academic credits. But you’ve got to be able to demonstrate relevant learning. 

Whenever we can, the university either employs students or sets them projects that support the running of the university. For example, our timetabling every year is a major project undertaken by an interdisciplinary team. And students do most of the work planning and running open days, graduation etc. 

This really helps solve some of the conflicts for students, especially our students from disadvantaged background who might otherwise feel there’s a trade-off between their work, their need to earn money and wanting to make the most of the opportunities of student life. 

I mentioned that there’s a fourth ingredient to employability. That’s social capital, which is often less fair or meritocratic, but we can’t ignore it. Through our fantastic alumni network and the relationships we’re building in employers, we encourage our students to build the connections that help make up for not necessarily having the old school tie networks that Camford used to rely on.

Q: You described the university as a regional hub. Tell me more about what that means.

I’ve already mentioned the way we are partnering with local schools and colleges and the relationships with businesses in project-based learning. In everything we do, as far as possible, the relationship between town and gown – or more particularly county and gown – is less of a divide and more like a constant thoroughfare. 

We have a lot of visiting professors from local businesses and from the public sector in the region. We also regularly do placements or secondment of academics into businesses to help them with specific challenges. There are lots of labour market gaps in the region and we helps to fill those in a flexible way that helps everyone. 

We are of course also one of the great global research institutions and so we can attract funding from all over the world to our corner of the UK. We have specialist research centres in pataphysical genomics and quantum psychology – both very innovative and successful. 

We have a special alumni-backed venture capital fund for research-based spin-outs that set up in the region. 

Q: What’s in your prospectus and and what are some of the more interesting courses you might offer?

Obviously, we’re very lucky that our prospectus and website can show off lots of beautiful pictures of our stunning architecture, but the key messages are about our openness. There are no minimum requirements for any course at Camford, except being able to show the potential to thrive in our environment.

The prospectus also explains our philosophy of roundedness and the huge range of opportunities every student has to develop it. It explains about interdisciplinary ways of working, so may find themselves working on a project with others doing engineering, English, sociology or psychology. We have a fairly traditional and recognisable range of courses, but we do also offer an Interdisciplinary Degree where you can move around different courses and non-course activities collecting credits. 

Q: Where do you sit in the rankings and what you are going to do about it or perhaps you don’t care?

Traditionally, Camford has always done very well in the rankings and when I was appointed I was very clear that we might slip with our new approach, but that it was never going to be a metric for us.

We don’t co-operate with any rankings and we actively use our position to speak out against their misleading and heuristic approach. The fact is that if a university like Camford starts to slide down in a ranking, it will undermine the ranking more than it undermines us. So I think it’s really important that institutions like ours use our position of privilege.  

I’m very fortunate that my governing body are 100% bought in to this approach. 

Q: What kind of VC are you in this university?

My main role is to help keep all my brilliant team together and heading in the same direction. There are always practical challenges, brickbats, and people who don’t get it. It’s my job to take any flak and turn it around by going out and spelling out our vision. I’m the one responsible for helping everyone else stick to our sense of purpose. 

Of course, that means I’m often a spokesperson, a negotiator or a motivator. Most importantly, it’s my role to bring in brilliant people who share the vision. For me VC stands for ‘Vision Captain’ at least as much as ‘Vice Chancellor’.

We have a proctor who is our academic lead and a chief executive who manages the operations side. 

Q: What about the students’ union?

The relationship is so close sometimes it doesn’t feel like the SU is all that separate from the university. As I mentioned, students are employed or involved wherever and whenever possible. Student reps sit on all committees and are partners in designing courses. If we have a major build project, students often represent the university in meetings with architects or contractors. They often earn both money and course credits doing this work.

Q: What is the regulatory regime? Do you even care?

We work quite closely and amicably with the OfS. The advantage of being a university like Camford is that we can have quite a lot of sway with the regulator and support them in being better at their job. 

Q: Do you have a voice on the national stage? Do you have politicians queuing up to speak or open new labs?

We’re in the powerful position of having excellent relationships with politicians and civil servants because, of course, many of them are Camford alumni themselves. That’s a privilege that we use to support colleagues across the sector. We’re trying to offer something unique here that’s appropriate for where we are and who we serve, but we fully recognise that diversity is a key strength of the sector.

Q: Are there any other distinctive features we need to know about your imaginary uni? You might have a great sports team, a notable Chancellor, your own brand of gin or a colourful mascot.

We’ve got many ancient buildings, including the largest castle hall in England – where we stage graduation ceremonies. And being ancient most of our buildings are haunted. In fact, Camford boasts the most haunted university building in the world, which now houses our Centre for Rational Research which debunks superstitious nonsense like the idea of ghosts. In recent years though it’s also become a really important centre for investigating and disproving conspiracy theories. Trump absolutely hates it. 

We’ve got other unique research centres in cutting edge areas, some of which are a little way from the rest of the university. For example the Pataphysical Genomics centre took over the buildings of an old Tate and Lyle factory and is creating new jobs in what had become a run-down small town.

The Chancellor is a student elected by both the students and staff. 

Q: Given that it’s an imaginary university, what are you not allowing?

We’re not in the habit of banning anything that’s within the law and we certainly don’t believe we should treat students like children. Instead we try to give them responsibility and support. That said, we do strongly discourage fixed mindsets. If something seems too difficult, it’s about turning to others for help to learn how to do it. 

Q: Finally, and this is a compulsory question, we need to know what your university song would be?

It was ‘I vow to thee my country’, but we put it to the students and staff and they voted for ‘change’, literally. So now it’s ‘Change’ by Taylor Swift from the Fearless album, which seemed appropriate enough. Personally I voted for ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie, partly because that also seemed appropriate, but also because it’s just about the best song ever written and I thought if I’ve got to listen to it endlessly, I’d rather it’s not something I get bored of.

Thanks again to Paul Greatrix (and Sophie Marshall). Do read his blog at Wonderful Higher Ed, where you can not only find links to the My Imaginary University podcast, but also to his other podcasts and blogs about True Crime on Campus, wacky rankings, and all manner of wonderful and occasionally important HE matters.

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