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On to a winner

Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell tells us how the University of Bath has come out on top

By Rebecca Paddick 

When I was invited to interview the University of Bath’s Vice-Chancellor a few weeks back, my first thought was, where would I start? Do I ask her about the University’s success in this year’s REF (87% of Bath’s research was defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent,’) do I bring up the enviable student satisfaction rates (90% of students said they were satisfied with their course at Bath in this year’s National Student Survey), or do I go in with something like, how does it feel to be at the helm of one of the UK’s leading universities for excellence in teaching, learning and graduate prospects? Tricky.

The fact that Bath had already filled all of its available places and so didn’t enter clearing this year, along with the likes of Oxford and Cambridge I should add, speaks for itself. A significant rise in the number of applications enabled the University to manage its planned growth through the normal offer cycle, rather than using the clearing process to ‘top-up’ on numbers.

ABOVE: Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell  was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath in 2001

But my visit to the VCs office, which, just to paint a picture for you, is up a flight of stairs, over a bridge and through a door with a large, imposing brass plaque, isn’t just about listing Bath’s achievements and marking its milestones, it’s about asking the woman who’s been in charge for the past 14 years, what she thinks of it all. 

Right place, right time

“We’ve been in the right place, at the right time, with the right people,” states Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell when I ask her the secret to Bath’s success.

“We do science, engineering, social science and management; these are the core activities of this University. These are exactly the activities that nationally are needed – they are the things that will provide solutions to many of the grand challenges that we face not only as a nation, but internationally as well. So, we are a university of our time, because the things that we do well are the things that people need,” she says, almost beaming with pride.

‘We are a university of our time, because the things that we do well are the things that people need’

Breakwell goes on to highlight that much of Bath’s success is due to a “symbiosis” between research and the teaching and learning experience the University provides. “The two things go hand in hand,” she explains. “Too many times there is the separation and that’s not good for the students or the research.” 

Student central

And speaking of the students, Bath certainly ticks the box for ‘student experience’ – a phrase that doesn’t sit well with the VC, but we’ll come back to that later.

Facilities and estates management seem to be another thing that Bath gets very right. Earlier this year it topped the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, having moved up from second place in 2014. It rated highly by students in all 21 aspects covered by the poll, performing particularly strongly on the quality of its academic staff, degree courses and teaching facilities.

Around a quarter of Bath’s student intake are from outside of the UK, and represent over 100 nationalities. Breakwell credits some of the University’s success to its ability to accommodate international students, and to expand it’s international connections. “We are really concerned with being present internationally, and strengthening the partnerships that we develop around the world. As I’ve said, we are a university of our time, and of course, this era is about internationalisation.”

ABOVE: The Chancellors’ Building provides students with large lecture theatres and seminar rooms in a bright and airy atmosphere

Bath also scored an overall satisfaction rate of 90%, in this year’s National Student Survey (NSS), four points above the UK national average. “You have to remember that it is very difficult to get into the University of Bath,” explains Breakwell. “It is a highly selective university, so really talented people come here, and we are obliged to provide them with the best education that they can possibly have.

“But you have to do that in an environment where the physical infrastructure is supportive as well. Over the last few years we’ve seen a complete renovation of the University estate.” This isn’t an understatement on Breakwell’s part. I passed more building sites than budding undergraduates on my walk up to her office – but it was the summer holidays after all. “Sometimes I’m accused of not being happy unless there are at least four cranes on the campus, but it’s not really like that,” says the VC. “What we tend to do is make sure we build to the purposes we need to pursue without interfering with the life of our students, so we try to do a lot of the work outside of the normal academic year.”

Bricks and mortar

Breakwell then proceeds to tell me about the key developments across the campus in recent years, starting with one of the University’s more significant investments. Costing £26m, The Chancellors’ Building provides students with large lecture theatres and seminar rooms in a bright and airy atmosphere. It includes facilities ranging from twin 350-seat lecture theatres to 30-seat group lecture rooms with state-of-the-art audio-visual provision.

The 8,000sq m building doubles the number of large-scale lecture theatres on campus and up to 2,000 students can use the building at any one time.

Another major new build on campus is The Edge (pictured above), which offers a 220-seat theatre, performance studio, rehearsal studios, three galleries and a contemporary café. It is also home to the School of Management’s executive education training suite – offering an extended programme of short courses, masterclasses, speaker events and seminars.

When reciting this lengthy list of developments, the VC sharply breaks off with: “The student experience is not just about having a great beach volleyball court. Treating students as consumers works, but it is not consumerism in the traditional sense – picky, demanding, irrational, I want, I want – that’s not my experience of our students at all. Our students are partners in the creation of their experience. They are not buying an experience, they are helping to create it.”

The student experience is not just about having a great beach volleyball court. Treating students as consumers works, but it is not consumerism in the traditional sense – picky, demanding, irrational, I want, I want – that’s not my experience of our students at all’

How apt then that the next stop on the list was the student accommodation, known as The Quads. Plans for the build were developed in consultation with students and staff, and even a prototype bedroom was built on campus. The development provides an additional 708 en suite bedrooms to the existing accommodation on campus, divided into 75 flats across two buildings.

The University is also perpetually renovating its sports training village so that it is state-of-the-art. It currently hosts some classic activities like the modern pentathlon.

“These developments matter to our students to have that vibrancy of executive MBAs, the arts community, the sports training village, all these different people around them as they acquire their academic qualifications, because what they have is an all-round experience here. Our students are not just great academics, they also have to have this engagement, because that actually is what makes them so successful, later, when they leave here.”

In the DNA

I’m pleased that Breakwell brings up life after Bath, as it’s clearly an important part of the University’s offering. Alumni can expect above-average graduate salaries, placing the University within the top 10 for graduate earnings. When I mention this to Breakwell she quickly highlights that Bath’s four-year undergraduate programme is a contributing factor to giving their graduates an edge: “We encourage our students to take a professional placement on their third year of study. This is where they will have the opportunity to work at some of the best companies in the world that actually give them the chance to develop within the work environment.”

The University expects more than 60% of its students to go though the four-year process. “Most institutions don’t have that sort of commitment, yet we regard it as part of the DNA.”

Breakwell certainly isn’t exaggerating here. When Bath received its royal charter back in 1966, it launched with the placement schemes. “The University was built on the assumption that it wanted to produce graduates that were excellent academics that also knew the world of work,” she states.

 ABOVE: Plans for The Quads were developed in consultation with students and staff, and even a prototype bedroom was built on campus

Breakwell goes on to highlight that this four-year formula, although successful for Bath, will be difficult for other universities to replicate. “It is incredibly expensive to run a four-year programme in the way that we do, with the connections that you have to have with industry and commerce and public services. You need a long time to develop relationships with those people who will be working with your students.”

The cost of keeping a student’s place open while they learn elsewhere for a year, is something Breakwell believes other institutions will find difficult to cope with. “You don’t get the sort of tuition fee for the person on the placement that you get if they are at the University, and so there is a commitment from us to subsidise those students,” she explains, before confidently adding: “While people might be paying lip service to the importance of creating that experience that leads to the marketability of a graduate, very few institutions are going to be able to do what we currently do – they just won’t be able to afford it.” 

Sit back and relax?

So what’s next for a university that appears to be going from strength to strength? It’s certainly not a time to sit back and relax, says Breakwell: “Things won’t stop, they can’t stop. The real stumbling block is any sense of complacency. In my opinion you must never say, oh it’s finished, it’s done, everything is OK now. No. Never. There is always the next thing to do.”

In my opinion you must never say, oh it’s finished, it’s done, everything is OK now. No. Never. There is always the next thing to do’

The University is next going to build the Milner Evolutionary Science Centre. Dr Jonathan Milner, who graduated in Biology & Biochemistry at Bath in 1988, is donating £5m towards establishing the new centre, which will be the first of its kind in the UK and only the second in the world to focus on evolutionary research.

Breakwell concludes our chat with a special mention of appreciation. “We are as attractive as we are partly because we are excellent, but also partly because we are where we are. Bath is a wonderful, beautiful, safe city. We need to maintain that relationship with our neighbours in the city, and we need to give back to the area. That relationship is vital, and it’s something we will continue to grow and strengthen in the future.

Over the last 10 years, Bath has turned itself into a vibrant and innovative centre for learning. Its approach to focus on all aspects of the university offering is rare. It excels in student satisfaction and graduate employability as well as research and innovation. The idea of creating the ‘symbiosis’ between these areas has seemingly proved to be a winning formula. Bath was undoubtedly ahead of the pack with its placement programme, and can now reap the rewards of its appeal as the graduate job market becomes more and more competitive.

After 14 successful years at the helm, it’s unlikely Breakwell’s winning streak is going to be broken any time soon. With her sights set on the international HE market, the skys the limit for Bath, and its students. 

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