Exclusive Interview: Professor Andrew Atherton

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Following his appointment as Lancaster’s next Deputy Vice-Chancellor in August, Professor Andrew Atherton agreed to a telephone interview with SCAN Assistant Editor Ronnie Rowlands.

Currently Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research, Innovation & Enterprise) of the University of Lincoln, Atherton studied Chinese & Economics at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), before moving on to undertake a Masters degree in Development Economics at Yale University in America. After a string of jobs in America; a research assistant at Yale University and a non-government organisation working in private sector development, Atherton worked for the small business centre at Durham University before moving to the University of Lincoln and rising to the rank of Deputy Vice Chancellor.

During his tenure, the University of Lincoln has risen by 60 places in the university league table, and has been described the The Times as having “the most dramatic transformation of a university in recent times.”

Asked about his attraction to the role, Atherton described Lancaster as “one of the great success stories of the higher education sector,” citing its trajectory in the university league tables over the last ten years. He sees this progress as impressive, but added that Lancaster “can achieve more than it thinks it can at the moment.”

Atherton attributes Lancaster’s success to the “intimate campus experience” that the university offers.

“It [the campus] will be increasingly special in the world of higher tuition fees… the nature of that experience is going to become so important with regards to which university students choose,” he said.

The dicussion shifted to specific ways in which the university can position itself to prosper in the future. Unsurprisingly, the introduction of increased tuition fees came up, but Atherton believes that Lancaster can continue to grow in a new financial climate.

“It’s challenging for students and staff, because it [higher tuition fees] can bring a lot of uncertainty”, he said, and stressed the importance of his role in making sure that such changes “don’t distract from the day job which is providing a world class education and producing world class research, and making sure that staff feel motivated and empowered to do that.”

When asked how best to deal with such uncertainties in the future, Atherton responded; “It’s about keeping confident about the quality of British universities,” before making a comparison with higher education in the United States; “If you look at research productivity per academic, or degree completion rates, they [UK universities] are much much better than in the US. The university system in the UK is world class and we need to be confident and clear about that.”

The reign of Vice-Chancellor Paul Wellings was seen by many to bring about the polarisation of academics and managers in relation to university policy, with the view that the two should be strictly separate. SCAN asked Atherton for his view on the involvement of academic staff in important decision making. Whilst acknowledging the importance of confident management dealing with university affairs, he was quick to add; “strong managers need to understand the core business which is teaching students and doing research. If they don’t, it’s difficult to manage.

“A good manager is a practising academic and understands that side of the business,” said Atherton, adding; “if there is a sense of polarisation between academics and management, then work needs to be done to address that.”

Atherton agreed that his strong academic credentials (he has almost a hundred publications to his name) holds him in good stead for positive relations with students as well as staff, and told SCAN of his insistence upon continuing to teach whilst serving as Pro-Vice Chancellor of Lincoln University; “when teaching, you actually get to understand what students are thinking about the university… it’s important to understand their aspirations and ambitions so that you can help to fulfil them.”

Despite his ongoing academic career, Atherton was quick to point out that this should not prevent him from considering the views of academics across all university departments.

He said; “The art of management is listening, understanding and responding, rather than thinking that you know all of the answers just because you’re an active academic yourself,” adding that a fully shared vision for Lancaster amongst students and staff is “far better than saying ‘thou shalt do this’.”

An ongoing concern of students and staff has been a growing tendency for the university to consider centralising its services in the name of improved efficiency, vindicated in recent times by the dreaded Business Process Review and the ongoing discussions regarding the college deaneries.

Atherton is skeptical towards the notion of blanket centralisation, stating that “a more sophisticated conversation about what works best on what level should be had.

“While there are some services that work very well at university level, bits of admissions for example, there are some services that work far better on a local level… the opportunity is to get that balance right, rather than go one way or the other.”

He was also keen to take the quality of the student experience into account before making any such alterations to student services; “I’m mindful that the university is important, but also as important is the course itself, and the tutors and lecturers around the course are a big part of that student experience… that’s where the richness of that experience is most important.”

The conversation moved on to the collegiate system, something which, like Lancaster, is employed by Durham University. With the recent restructuring of the college bars, as well as the potential changes to the college deaneries, there exists a growing fear across campus that the collegiate system may soon cease to exist.

Atherton, however, sees the strong benefits of individual colleges, and displayed cynicism towards any moves to dismantle them, saying, “the cost of the colleges is always a conversation that will come up. That doesn’t mean that there should be a conversation about whether they exist or not.”

SCAN quizzed Professor Atherton on his approach to involving students in university discussions at Lincoln. He responded; “We have students on almost all of our substantial comittees, and I spend a lot of time talking to sabbs (Sabbatical Officers, known as Full Time Officers at Lancaster) about graduate employability.

“Not just hearing, but understanding where students are and where they want to be, and involving them in the decision making process is absolutely the right way to go.”

He was particularly proud of his work with Lincoln’s students’ union on setting up a job shop that specialised in finding part-time work specific to a student’s subject area; “if you’re doing law for example, we would try to find work in a law firm… not only are you on a better part-time wage, but you’re buttering up your CV for when you seek employment upon graduation.”

Atherton summed up his outlook on student relations, saying; “The students can’t do it without us, but we can’t do it without the students.”

Andrew Atherton will take up the role of Deputy Vice Chancellor upon incumbent Bob McKinlay’s departure in January, 2013.

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