We visited Aston University, and asked new VC, Prof Alec Cameron what he thinks of the 121-year-old institution
Q. You have been in post for three months now – how are you settling in, and what are your first impressions of Aston?
I still feel I’m at that early stage in some sense where everyone’s very open and things seem to be going well. Our anniversary year, our 50th year, is coming to its end. It’s been a good celebration, and a great time to join such a wonderful institution.
I suppose my first impressions in terms of Aston as it currently is, is that it’s a university that has seen great growth and improvement over the last decade, and certainly in the last few years. It’s a university that is on a very positive trajectory. It’s a university that I believe is in very good shape, so I feel I am coming into an institution which has been well-led, well-managed, and, is as highly regarded and highly ranked as it’s ever been.
This year, we’ve had another good recruitment round and another good round of enrolments of students, we’ve got more students coming to Aston this year than ever before.
Q. When you come into a job like this do you weigh up the short-term and long-term problems, the challenges and goals?
I think you do. I think most people come into universities thinking in multiple years. If you come in you say, “Look, what do I want Aston to look like in five years’ time? What are the significant things we need to do, initiatives to continue to maintain, develop and improve?” You want to run a health check, to help you understand what needs to be done, and when.
We need to be talking about the university developments in a two–five year timescale, not 10 years or more. That’s not to say that the university isn’t going to last way beyond 10 years, it certainly is! But with the rapid pace of change in the UK HE sector in recent years, we need to think about what is happening right now.
The area which has most traction for students is employability, and it is our business relationships and our ability to have the number of industry partnerships that we have, providing placement years and other employment opportunities for our students, is what leads to our great graduate employability outcomes
Q. You’re referring to things like the HE Bill and Brexit?
There are big things in the environment that are happening and clearly the Higher Education Bill is one of those that will have a multiple-year impact. I think people see Brexit as being one of the hot topics at the moment, but in my view Brexit is going to take a couple of years to negotiate. So to me, Brexit is a big issue, but it’s really not going to change the immediate situation.
Q. Having spent the majority of your career in Australia, do you feel you are getting to know the UK HE system?
I am. My previous experience of the UK HE system was when I was a PhD student, so that was a while ago. But having said that, policy environments between the UK and Australia are quite similar, so a lot of the initiatives here came from Australia and, similarly, a lot of initiatives here have been picked up by Australia.
Q. So they’re on a level playing field when it comes to policy?
I think so. The Income Contingent Loan Scheme, which underpins the £9,000 student fees, was something that Australia established in 1989. The uncapping of places at undergraduate levels was something that was done in Australia about half-a-dozen years ago, so those sorts of interventions I’m familiar with.
I always say ‘Watch this space’ in Australia because the government has exactly the same concerns around the quality of education, and how they make sure universities are focused on students and the student experience. I think it’s fair to say that UK institutions are well known globally, but particularly well known in Australia, and there has been a lot of interchange of people at senior levels, from Australia to the UK, and vice versa. There are certainly several Vice Chancellors in Australia whose previous appointment was in the UK and there are now a few of us in the opposite direction.
Q. Do you think there’s much more saturation in the marketplace here, though, than perhaps there is in Australia? There is so much choice for students, so many different institutions and paths you can go down. How do you compete in that arena?
I think it’s a really good thing for there to be choice. I think in some sense what you worry about is if all universities aspire to be the same. It’s not realistic if everybody wants to be Cambridge University.
What Aston has done well is to seek to define itself distinctively from other universities in the sector. The university aspires to be the lead in the UK for business and the professions. Aston’s saying, ‘Actually, business is what’s important to us’. The area which has most traction for students is employability, and it is our business relationships and our ability to have the number of industry partnerships that we have, providing placement years and other employment opportunities for our students, is what leads to our great graduate employability outcomes.
I want students to have a fantastic experience and enjoy their time at Aston, and I want them to get the outcome that they came to this university for, which, I would argue, for the vast majority of our students, their principal motivation for coming to university and for coming to Aston is to get the great job and the great career on graduation.
I think every decision we make is in some sense a strategic choice. We need to decide as a university what do we really want to be known for? And what I really want Aston to be known as is the place you can come to maximise the opportunity of getting the job and career you want. If we are best known in the market for graduate outcomes, then I’m happy with that.