In October 2010, Professor John Hughes left his role as President (equivalent of a VC) at the National University of Ireland to become Bangor University’s Vice-Chancellor. A lover of both Mathematics and Manchester United, Professor Hughes has worked hard to put his personal stamp on the University in the last two years. This month Seren’s Editor, LJ, met up with him to find out what his role actually involves and what he’s working on for us students.
A lot of students have heard of you but are a little unsure what your role actually involves?
The Vice-Chancellor is essentially the Chief Executive. I run the University. The reason my title is “Vice-Chancellor” is because there’s an honorary Chancellor. In our case it’s Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, he doesn’t take anything to do with the general running of the University, but he comes to Graduations, sits on University Council (the University’s governing body), and he gives me advice.
The VC is the Chief Exec and there is a senior team made up of Pro Vice-Chancellors for Research, Teaching and Learning, Students and Welsh Affairs. We also have the Registrar who looks after a lot of the formal aspects of the University. Essentially this team runs the University, but all the senior officers report to me. I make the final decisions.
A VC tends to set the tone of a University, in terms of policies that you introduce. It’s a bit like a headmaster, I suppose, in the sense that you set the tone of the place; the way in which we deal with certain issues.
Who are you accountable to?
To the Council of the University. That has our Chancellor on it and is chaired by Lord Mervyn Davies, formerly Minister of State for Economic Development under the last Labour government. He has vast experience of institutions and the Council consists mainly of people from outside the University.
They meet every few months and many of them have very strong opinions. A lot of them are local people: teachers, doctors, people from local businesses. The Council really is the most powerful body in the University. They would monitor all the important things, particularly our finances, but are also given reports on quality assurance, student satisfaction and our building programs. They don’t get involved with the management, but they monitor and oversee the strategic level. Effectively they are my boss.
What main changes have you made since coming here two years ago?
Well the first thing I did was stop the closure of five departments. They were on the verge of closing departments like Modern Languages, Linguistics and Social Sciences. I stopped that because I feel that a University with any value needs to offer a broad range of subjects. I’ve also tried to handle the difficult situation that we have regarding cutbacks, cuts from the government and so on, through negotiation and talking with unions and students.
Unlike a lot of English universities we haven’t had any compulsory redundancies, we haven’t closed any departments. In fact we’ve just opened a new department in Philosophy and Religion and we’re going to start another one next year in Mathematics. According to a recent staff survey, people generally enjoy working here. In fact, 91% said they enjoyed working here. I think generally speaking it’s quite a happy place.
Things like closing departments – that can have a really bad effect on morale right across the University; for both staff and students. Even those departments that aren’t affected are going to sit back and think “well, if they can close Modern Languages then they can close me”, so it has a very bad effect on morale. I think morale has definitely improved quite a bit despite the difficult circumstances that a lot of universities find themselves in. Bangor is doing pretty well, we’re attracting a lot of students, things are going quite well.
Bangor had a really good recruitment this year, despite the worries that the increase in fees and cuts would put people off university.
We’ve been great, there was a lot of worry about £9,000 fees There were things happening in England; universities are allowed to recruit as many students with grades of AAB or above as they can, and universities with lower fees could recruit as many students as they want. So, we were worried that it would have a big impact on us and it did have a big impact on some of the universities in South Wales, some of those have done quite badly in terms of recruitment. But at Bangor, we recruited extremely well, we increased the number of international students by 13%.
We do seem to have a great number of international students here in Bangor.
It’s an attractive place for them. International students want to come somewhere safe, somewhere pleasant and for Chinese students, in particular, Bangor isn’t out of the way at all. We’re an hour and half from Manchester and that’s nothing to them. They would think nothing of taking a 5 hour train journey in China because of the vastness of the country; so they consider us to being right next door to Manchester.
Would you consider yourself a quite hands-on VC?
I think I’m pretty hands on, yeah. I go to everything that I’m invited to in terms of talking to staff and students if I can. I am currently the Chair of Higher Education Wales, which is a group representing all universities in Wales, and that takes up a lot of my time. It means I sit on a lot of Boards in Cardiff and in London, so I’m there at least a few times a month.
I do think that I need to interact more with students and I’ve said this to the Students’ Union President. I would welcome the chance to speak to students more. I have given a few talks, I gave a talk on Pontio in Academi last year that quite a lot of students came to, and I’ve done a few other things with the students, but yeah I think I’m pretty hands on.
There is the difficulty of getting people to come along to things. Thats a problem with staff as well, they are quite happy to have an easy life but getting them to turn up to things to give their opinions is pretty difficult, and then people complain a bit that they don’t hear about what’s going on. Come to the events and you will hear!
Would you say you are in touch with real experiences of students?
My father was working class, I come from a very big family. I was the first generation in my family to go to university and so when I went to Queens (in Belfast) I remember being terrified of the place. In those days you didn’t have to pay £9000 fees, there were grants available but they were pretty miserable; you had to work hard. I’ve had more jobs than you could possibly think of. I’ve been a barman, a taxi driver, a waiter, a hotel porter, a postman. You name it and I’ve been it.
Throughout undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I’ve had to work and I know what it’s like, I can relate to that. I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge and I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth. I think I know the kind of challenges that students face. I can remember particularly as an undergraduate having to stretch £2 over three or four days in order to eat, waiting for my next pay cheque. I can’t relate to the current situation regarding fees and what students think about that. I was lucky, when I went to university free education had just come in, the Labour government had just introduced it in the 60s and I went to university in the late 70s so in that sense I suppose I can’t.
Who were your role models?
Like most people my mother and my father were big role models. They pushed me all the way. They were particularly strong on education and even though they didn’t know what a PhD was, when I came and told them that I was going to do one, they were very supportive and they did what they could, even though I came from a big family. Other than that I’ve worked for some people during my time in universities, people who have impressed me and I’ve learnt a great deal from other academics.
If you weren’t a VC what would your dream job be?
I would have been playing football for Manchester United. Certainly as a young man football was my great passion and I’ve supported Manchester United since I was a kid. Mainly because of George Best at the time.
If I hadn’t been a VC, I would have stayed as a Professor of Mathematics so that I could do my research and my mathematics.
I was a Professor of Mathematics and then a Professor of Computer Sciences, and I do sometimes regret having to give that up. I also enjoyed teaching a lot. Generally speaking I think I was quite good at it but you really have to give a lot of that up in this job, it simply is too busy.
You’ve been learning Welsh. How is that going?
I’ve been learning Welsh at some pace. I’m on the higher course now. I’ve just agreed, and I might regret this, to start the A level course in January. So its come on quite a bit, I can get by now. I can certainly give speeches in Welsh, I’ve done quite a few. Its not a particularly easy language, I do speak Irish quite well and thats a little bit of a help. Although they are not similar in vocabulary the structure and the grammar are quite similar.
When I came here I agreed that I would learn Welsh and quite quickly I learnt that it was very important. It’s a very strong bilingual university and area, I gave an undertaking that I would learn. I mean I’ve never had a problem with languages, I speak German, at least I used to speak it fluently. It’s a bit rusty now but when I go back to Germany I can speak enough of it to get by. I lived in Austria for a number of years, in Vienna. I can also speak a bit of Chinese because my wife is Chinese. I do find languages quite enjoyable.
We’ve been hearing talk of a Science Park, can you tell us about this?
This is something I’ve been discussing with local politicians for maybe the last six months. The Plaid Cymru politicians managed to persuade the government to give £10 million towards a Science Park here in North Wales.
The current plan is that it’ll be on Anglesey somewhere, close to the bridges and near to the A55. They are quite important issues for a science park, it needs to be accessible, you can’t just stick it out in the middle of the countryside somewhere.
Its quite a challenge because there is a relatively low population here and Bangor is a small university. I was strongly involved in developing a science park in Northern Ireland. So I’ve got quite a good experience of it, I’m quite excited about it, its one of the best things that’s happened to us recently.
What exactly is a Science Park?
Well, a Science Park is different. We have an industrial park out in Llandygai. An industrial park will have things like plumbers and Autoglass, building merchants and so on. A Science Park focuses very much on what they call knowledge-based industries, which are high-tech businesses, so we’re trying to attract a few big high-tech companies. Hitatchi for instance, who’ve taken on the building of the new power station, might be interested in doing something there and that’s the kind of company you need: research orientated, and employing mainly graduates.
We need something like that here, most of our graduates would struggle to find work in this area. There aren’t that many high-tech companies and so that’s what we’re trying to do. The University will put something there initially, a research facility from possibly Ocean Sciences, possibly Electronic Engineering, and then what we hope is that we will attract some big companies.
What would you say is the value of higher education?
Well, I don’t think you can put a value on it in a sense of all the advantages that it gives you. The experience of going to university in itself is something that certainly I look back on with a great deal of pleasure. Without any shadow of a doubt it was the best time of my life. The friends that you make often stay with you for life.
On a practical level it has been shown many times that a university degree is worth well, I’ve seen figures of well over £100 000 in your lifetime. Actually I would argue that, depending on the degree, it could actually be significantly more than that. So if you think that borrowing £27 000 over three years is a relatively small sum in comparison to, let’s say, a mortgage. The loans pale in significance and the fact that you can pay it back over a lifetime is very advantageous. To tell you the truth, I’m sorry that it has been introduced, I think that university education should be free and I think that the Welsh Government have the right idea about how – the way in which governments should support students. But we are where we are, and we’ve tried everything to prevent this coming in.
Its certainly not advantageous to universities. It now means that we have to rely on attracting the students, and if we don’t attract them then we don’t get the money, it used to be that you just got the block grant from the government. So, I have to say that I’m not happy to see the changes that have come in, but I would strongly encourage people to still consider university. There isn’t a lot of alternatives these days; if you don’t have a university degree then what is the alternative?
Is a Bangor degree worth £9000? Why?
Well one thing is the atmosphere in this university and particularly the commitment to excellence. We had a very successful quality assurance visit earlier this year where we came through with flying colours.
I think the commitment we have with having a Pro Vice-Chancellor for Students, the fact that we, for instance, involve the Students’ Union President in the appointment of senior officers.The former president, Jo Caulfield, sat on the interview panels choosing these people. I think that shows the commitment we have to involving the students.
We’ve also put a huge amount of money and posts into the Student Services department, which is overseen by the Director of Student Experience. We’ve got new people in Counselling, Careers, and in general support. There is a big commitment here, I think you’d struggle hard to find a university that has that level of commitment.
Are you going to spend more money on student experience?
Definitely. Its our big priority. In fact, I’ve had meetings just this week looking at what our priorities are this year. We’re going to continue to put a lot of money into the halls of residence. We are refurbishing Garth, we’re going to refurbish the St Mary’s site and we’ll also refurbish the halls up on Normal Site which are badly in need of it.
We are putting a lot of money into improving the teaching facilities. We have new laboratories in Electronic Engineering, we’re about to redo the labs in Bramble. We’ve been doing a lot of cosmetic work on the teaching facilities in Main Arts as well. We’re about to spend more than a quarter of a million on Maes Glas. We know that if we are going to continue to improve the student experience, and to continue to attract students, then we have to invest more in these things.
Do students graduating today have fewer life chances than say your generation?
Yes, I think that probably true. I think they have to work harder to get the opportunities, to get the kind of jobs that would have been open to me. Graduating with Mathematics I recall I probably had 4 or 5 job offers when I finished. So things are not as good as that.
What I would say to any student is you need to look, you need to be very flexible, and look beyond not only your own subject area but also internationally. International experience I think is hard to beat. If you’re prepared to look beyond these shores, and beyond what your ideal job would be then I think there are still plenty of opportunities. Its just finding it.
Last issue we reported on the £5 million of cuts that Bangor is facing. How is that going?
First of all, although £5 million sounds rather dramatic we’ve saved, jut through efficiency savings, nearly half of that. But we do have to find some further cuts.
The fact that we’ve attracted more international students this year, and (unlike most other Welsh universities) we’ve managed to recruit our full complement of students, means that we’ve more money in the kitty as well. So I wouldn’t worry too much, I don’t think the students will see the impact of the cuts. You’re not going to see people being made redundant. What we’re not going to cut back on is student experience. We have involved students in the process, and the current Students’ Union President is sitting on the body that is oversees the process.
We’re targeting a lot of areas: Finance, Estates, Registry, research and development, and a few others. Some of them offer more scope than others for savings but we will not be skimping on the important things. I think its important to get across the message that Bangor is in pretty good shape compared to a lot of other institutions. We have very low debt, we don’t have a pension deficit like many other universities do, we don’t have any significant borrowings. We will have a deficit on last year of around £2 million or so but this is an institution with a £135 million turnover so a £2 million deficit in one year is really nothing. Provided we know that we are going to come out of that in the next couple of years, then we’re pretty comfortable with that.
You are somewhat in charge of Pontio now?
I’m currently chairing the Pontio executive team. There’s three members of the team; Dylan Roberts who looks after the building, Elen ap Robert who looks after the artistic side and Debbie Hughes has been brought in to look after the general management of the facility. All three report to me.
What is happening with Pontio?
Well Pontio is now well under way after a bit of a delay because of problems we had with the tendering process. The builders are on site, if you look now you will see that there is a lot going on.
In January the Minister for Education is coming along to lay the foundation stone. So the actual building will be finished by the end of next year, then there will be a period of fit-out. Particularly the theatre, it takes time to do that. It will be fully ready for students by the summer of 2014. It’ll be September 2014 and those students who came in this year, will see Pontio in the sense that it will be there in their final year.
Pontio will make a big difference, it will be a fantastic facility. It’ll be a massive edition both to the city and to the University.
Isn’t Bangor University doing something in China?
We’ve opened an office in China and thats mainly to help Chinese students that are coming to us so they have a telephone number that they can ring to ask about Bangor, to help them with their visas.
We currently have plans to open a campus in China. Chinese students would go to this campus for the first 2 years of their study and then for their final year, or final two years, they would come to Bangor.
A couple of other British universities have campuses in China. Nottingham have quite a famous one in Ningbo and Liverpool have one just outside of Shanghai. We would only be the third British University to open a Chinese campus. Its a big development, and we’ve been taking it very carefully, making sure that there’s no risk to the university, but if it comes off it could be enormously beneficial and profitable.