10 minutes with… Reverend Richard Coles

Pop star, radio presenter, CofE priest and now Northampton's Chancellor; Rev Richard Coles talks tuition fees, mental health and the art of listening

How have you found the role of Chancellor so far, and what attracted you to the role?
There’s no training for the role of university chancellor so you discover as you go along. Universities are complex places, so I’ve been investing my time in getting to know more about how it all works. I’m a very keen supporter of education and as someone who went to university late in life, at 30 years old, I am very keen on universities offering as many points of access to as many people as possible. My father went to Northampton. He had wanted to go to university all his life, but wasn’t able to. He joined the army and then ran the family business. When he retired he went to Northampton University, or College as it was then. And that was a great experience for him.

Do you think universities today are creating a great student experience?
Tuition fees change the relationship of the student to the university. But one thing higher education has always done is give energy and opportunity to engage people in all sorts of different ways. One of the ways Northampton has been able to get people geared up for opportunity is by connecting them. By being quick and fluent and getting people to connect, to experience opportunity, engagement in ways which I think are very characteristic of the new university that Northampton is.

What do you hope today’s students will get from their university experience?
I hope we can get them to think critically, to engage with learning, to arm their ambitions with pragmatism. Connecting them is really important – to each other, to other disciplines and giving people the power to realise their creativity, their visions about who they might be and about what they can do together. It’s about giving them some sort of reality, I think.

You studied theology at King’s College London in the 1990s, could you tell us about your university experience?
Gap years were rare then, but I suppose I had a very long gap, as I didn’t go to university until I was 30. I had some adventures in pop music first, which kind of worked for me, because if I’d have gone to study at 18, it would have been a waste of time for me, for the university and, indeed, for the generous public funding that was available in those days. So, I went when I was 30, when I was motivated and had a really clear idea about what I wanted to do, and that worked extremely well for me.

UoN introduced its new Chancellor in 2017

On that note, do you think there are more pressures on today’s 18-year-olds than there once were?
Yes – it’s much harder to be a teenager and a young adult now than it was when I was. I think the pressures are far greater. I think the effects of social media in creating really profound anxieties about your prestige and your achievements, make situations really tough. I also think it’s a less generous world, so when people of my generation were going to university, it was usually paid for, and there was a sense of it being a time when you could be experimental, you could imagine a future for yourself in a way which I think is harder now, because I think most young people just face a certain harsh reality. This is why they have to think much more seriously about making a living. I look at my nephews and nieces who are of university age and I think they are probably going to (materially) be worse off than my generation.

As someone who has a lot of experience with pastoral care, and in light of the recent figures exposing a sharp rise in mental health problems, do you feel that universities are doing enough to support students with such problems?
There’s been an extraordinary rise in the numbers of people who are reporting issues around mental health, but I think a lot of progress had been made. To use Northampton as an example, we have comprehensive pastoral care for students now. We have counsellors and mental health advisors available, we have drop-in centres that people can go to, we have by-appointment arrangements with students and members of staff. We have a really good relationship with our local health centre so we would be able to refer people to specialists and medical and mental health care if they need it.

What advice do you give your younger parishioners?
They talk, I listen. Firstly, I need to hear what they’re saying. Often I’m there to reassure. I try to give people a sense that they’re not the only person who feels that way. Secondly, the values that might seem terribly important to them at that moment might not be ones that prove to be enduring. And to try to reassure people that they have everything within them to pass any kind of muster of any significance. I don’t think we need to be Taylor Swift, or whoever it is, in order to create our place in the world.