Kathryn Mitchell: ‘I can’t think of a single cabinet minister who didn’t go to university’

The vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, Prof Kathryn Mitchell, tells James Higgins her views on lifelong learning, graduate employability and university autonomy. And why she’s a stickler for good writing.

Behind her, an incredible 180-degree view of Derby and the county beyond. Before her, an ever-so-slightly cluttered desk. Prof Kathryn Mitchell can’t find her glasses. “I know I just had them,” she says, turning pirouettes in her office. The vice-chancellor of the University of Derby happens upon her spectacles, then gestures to the view beyond the window. She is out of the habit of enjoying it, she says, having only recently returned to regular on-site working. It is a scorching day, and the windows are wide open to encourage a non-existent breeze.

With restrictions lifting, Kathryn has found her calendar filling up. She has just come from lunch with local MP and research minister Amanda Solloway, who doesn’t, Kathryn insists, talk about the Whitehall side of her job. Solloway is a “very good” local MP, great at “engaging with students”, and won back her seat in 2019 “with great dignity”, Kathryn remarks. “I don’t know if she ever sleeps! I don’t think she will lose that seat; I think she’s worked so hard.”

The University of Derby enterprise centre sits in Solloway’s Derby North constituency. Despite the apparent university scepticism of some of her government colleagues Solloway is, says Kathryn, “quite an interesting character because I’m not sure I’d say she’s a traditional Conservative”.

She says she writes to both local MPs (the main campus sits in Pauline Latham’s Mid-Derbyshire constituency) “almost weekly, it seems”. The two are “incredibly supportive” of their local university and region.

The University of Derby sits on Kedleston Road on the north-west fringes of Derby

Despite these cordial relations, Kathryn recalls with frustration the conversations with the government as higher education waited in anticipation for the signal to reopen – the wait stretched longer than HE would have liked. “Pauline and I requested a meeting with Michelle Donelan. I challenged the minister when we didn’t get the full release in April. I was frustrated not that students could go to the pub or have a tattoo, but why higher education should take a different position than schools and colleges – particularly when we also run an FE college in Derbyshire that was permitted to open. Pauline was frustrated that she didn’t know what the government was about to say on those announcements.”

Reporting suggests vice-chancellors and the Conservative party are diametrically opposed – but perhaps not here in this East Midlands city. Why has that gulf emerged?

“I think what they’re rightly worried about is the 60% of people that are not accessing higher education,” Kathryn begins. “But they haven’t come up with a better solution, so the easiest thing is to say, ‘what the hell are universities doing?’ But in one sense, we’re doing OK.

“I think we could do something about that problem. Most would say we probably need more people to go to university. But, what funding regime will enable that? You might not need to do a full degree course, but you do need higher-level, digital skills that many people don’t have. Universities possibly have got to accept some blame that we didn’t promote what we did well enough to those in government.”

I don’t mind someone challenging the quality of my provision, but I don’t think you can value quality on graduate salaries or if we’re a bit short of engineers at the moment

Could another possible explanation be that standards have slipped? “I don’t believe in low-value degrees,” Kathryn retorts. “But I do think universities need to be assuring that the quality of each of their degrees has effective and robust transferable skills that enable all students to be able to access graduate employment.” It is a diplomatic answer and perhaps an acceptance, hypothetically at least, that the quality of graduate employment is a legitimate key performance indicator.

There will always be some “underperforming” degree courses, but those “could be a STEM subject”, Kathryn muses. “I don’t mind someone challenging the quality of my provision, but I don’t think you can value quality on graduate salaries or if we’re a bit short of engineers at the moment.”

The white paper proceeding through parliament – Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth – summarises the government’s post-18 priorities. Skills for jobs is the mantra: its case for change rests on data compiled by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), which shows that men with a level 4 qualification earn £5,100 more at age 30 than men with a degree; ergo, in some quarters, lots of degrees are a false economy. Incidentally, the authors of the NIESR report noted that graduate earnings tend to catch up and overtake those of their peers later in life – a trend that is noticeable even in countries like Switzerland with far more extensive and well-funded FE than the UK. The report urges caution to those eager to compare the economic fortunes of two different cohorts that vary vastly in size.

Kathryn is a voracious reader and a stickler for grammar

If the inference is that degrees lack skills, how does a vice-chancellor seek to convince learners, employers and ministers otherwise?

“My big challenge is that industry says that institutions don’t create graduates or FE students with the right skills. If you ask employers what skills they need in two years, which is what I’m training for, they tend to want the skill for today, and not the skill for the future.”

Kathryn sees her job as surmising the skills of tomorrow – and reminding employers, “actually, you’re going to have to accept that they need to train on the job”.

“One thing I learned when I worked in Switzerland was that employers are prepared to skill-up graduates. The worst phrase in the world is an ‘oven-ready graduate’. Why would I have trained somebody to be able to walk into every company in the globe ‘oven-ready’?” she says wryly. “I think that’s rather weird.”

Her chief concern with the government direction on lifelong learning is that “it’s only attached to a productivity issue”. She suggests more people were involved in adult education when it offered knitting and sewing lessons. “Lifelong learning might be someone learning to read,” she says, pointing out that literacy rates in England are low by OECD standards. “While learning about local history,” she continues, warming to her theme, “engages and interests people.”

Lifelong learning shouldn’t become a byword for STEM subjects deemed necessary by ministers, with other courses “segregated into elitism”. The professor of psychology says she is “quite nervous of a dichotomy that the public have taken up that STEM skills are more important than any other type of skill”, adding: “I want a clear definition of what they mean by lifelong learning.”

“I don’t know how they think [ministers] are going to deliver lifelong learning with the model that they’ve presented. And there doesn’t appear to be any more money,” she summarises, somewhat ruefully.

Teaching at Derby is as much about research as it is knowledge exchange, says Kathryn

Institutes of Technology are a more promising platform for innovation, though, she continues. Derby is submitting a bid to launch its own. IoTs can offer flexible learning that allows learners to gain as much training as they need, free from the restrictions of traditional level 4, 5 or 6 qualifications, she says. It enables learners to access what they need and addresses the immediate requirements of employers. But, she says, “I think ministers need to have industry driving lifelong learning.”

The University of Derby Group includes Buxton & Leek College, which provides further education and university level courses in the north of the county. The relationship is a “bonus” to each, Kathryn says, “because you can learn from each other”. She wants universities to take notes from FE. More degree programmes should include “work experiences and internships” to help students “understand how to apply their transferable skills”. Kathryn says she wants simulation centres across more Derby degree programmes – “We have these great simulation centres for nursing students; why wouldn’t we be doing that for all students?”

The pandemic has convinced Kathryn there is another way to approach teaching to address these concerns. “The challenge that industries put back to us over the years is that graduates don’t have the skills because we’ve taught in a seminar and lecture set-up. I do think that the thing that we haven’t got right in the past is thinking that the traditional methodology is the only route.”

She also thinks universities must give businesses the chance to learn how to upskill their existing workforce and incoming graduates by inviting them to learn how best to teach. “We have to make that happen.”

The worst phrase in the world is an ‘oven-ready graduate’. Why would I have trained somebody to be able to walk into every company in the globe ‘oven-ready’?

Two peers – the vice-chancellors of Aston and London South Bank (LSBU) – recently published a report that called on the government to fund ‘Universities of Technology’, like theirs, in its levelling-up mission. These post-1992 institutions can best support SMEs, transferable research and vocational training, they argued.

Self-knowledge and wisdom are said to go hand in hand, and Kathryn speaks with pride and pragmatism about the institution she leads. “I’m not fighting for the ground that [the University of] Birmingham is on, such as the primary understanding of hydrogen. But I have teams that can use that foundational research quickly and in partnership with SMEs.” She explains that grants and funding must adapt to stoke university research projects that comprise a “breadth” of delivery partners, including those universities best placed to deliver benefits “regionally, or nationally and internationally”.

In her opinion, the large research-intensive universities in the cities should make a habit of working with universities like Derby to transfer blue-skies research to towns and regions with business links and graduates well-placed to spark enterprises and production lines.

Kathryn has little patience for a ‘class’ structure within HE. “I was a Wellcome fellow for 15 years, and when I moved to modern universities, I didn’t get any Wellcome money; it doesn’t mean to say my brain changed. I think we’re in a system that thinks, ‘well, how would Derby know how to do that?’”

Derby has found research niches to fill. The forthcoming Facility for Omics Research in Metabolism (FORM) investigates how foods, vitamins, supplements and drugs impact the human body. It follows the Rail Research & Innovation Centre, which will generate new manufacturing methods, forms of propulsion and applications for data analytics and AI. The two projects are a nod to the old and new economy of the east Midlands – Derby, the historic home of one of Britain’s prodigious railway workshops, is now attracting bioscience companies to the region.

A psychologist by training, the vice-chancellor still has PhD students and says its important to keep teaching even when in senior management

On arriving at Derby, Kathryn says she made transparent her desire to see the university realise its research potential. So much so that she says its recent submission to the Research Excellence Framework is her proudest achievement as vice-chancellor to date. “When I arrived, Derby wanted to portray itself as a teaching institution,” she recalls. “My response to my top team at the time was ‘fine, but we’re 90th in the league table for teaching, and we’re almost bottom for research. So, which one is it that we’re good at?’”

On reflection, she admits, not the best way to frame her appraisal. “I wasn’t trying to be cruel. I just thought it was easier to be blunt. I might have got more people moving quicker if I’d done it a bit more subtly. But I am straightforward and don’t like to play games.”

She recollects feeling an immediate connection with the university when she came for her first job interview, calling her husband to share her hopes that she would be appointed.

She might be a vice-chancellor, but she’s still a working academic – and still has PhD students under her wing. Research is as much a part of the teaching element of Derby’s mission as its knowledge exchange, she explains. “My concept of social mobility is that every graduate should have had an experience that taught them about a discipline, how new knowledge is created, and how that knowledge can be applied. Underpinning our teaching disciplines with a strong research agenda is a core element to delivering the skills our students need.”

Although she might critique the tone of the debate, Kathryn is no defender of the status quo. She urgently wants apprenticeship levy reform. “The apprenticeship model is everything industry said they wanted, but we are £2bn short on using that levy.” She asks, why not redirect unused funds to support training students on degree programmes, “where they get a much broader experience than spending a lot of the time just in one particular job doing one thing?” Those funded learners would still return to a business committed, but better equipped and skilled, she opines.

The light at the end of the pandemic-shaped tunnel is brightening, which means events are back on – something Kathryn relishes as head of her institution. She feels it vital to attend as many civic events as possible, even those meetings for residents to complain about students’ parking. The ongoing Derby Book Festival is a highlight. It is a sign of the town’s flourishing culture – and it is one she wants to encourage, so she’s going along to take part in an event. A once committed, but now lapsed, reader-for-pleasure, she’s devoured four books in preparation for the event she is part of later.

Kathryn Mitchell at Derby Book Festival interviewing author Helen Lewis

She credits her maniacal love of reading for improving her early work as an academic because she brought her love of composition to her scientific writing.

Her grammatical standards are likely what rankle colleagues the most, she admits with a shrug. Discerning some sympathy in the room, she exclaims, “How you construct your papers and sentences matters because it displays the real concept of a university, and it is important to see well-written documentation, with precision and clarity.”

Her mother and father are responsible for these exacting standards. Kathryn Mary hails from Ecclestone, a parish of St Helens, in what was then Lancashire, part of “a big family and a strong Catholic community”. She spent her childhood in the ’60s and ’70s with her sister and three female cousins, all of whom clustered around the same ages; she recalls her mother, once a champion county sprinter, and her grandmother, who “wouldn’t watch it because it wasn’t ladylike to run”.

Her upbringing was “challenged” by the death of her father when she was young. He was an avid reader. They weren’t rich, but education and bettering oneself was prized. Her mother was a teacher and took her girls to London and Edinburgh to visit art galleries and theatres, not the new-fangled package holidays to the Mediterranean. Though perhaps a tad jealous of jet-setting, bronzed peers at the time, Kathryn sees the value of those trips and her mother’s attitude.

The product of an all-girls Catholic grammar school, Kathryn was, she says, proudly, raised by women. She headed to the University of York to read psychology in the later ’70s unburdened by gendered expectations. Her mother, who had done the gardening, cooking, DIY and helped with homework, showed Kathryn that there was no limit to what a woman could or should do. Quite an inheritance.

A few weeks ago, Kathryn signed off the civic university agreement. She fears many residents regard the university as separate from the city – marooned on a green island on Kedleston Road on the north-west fringes. Business engagement at the university is strong, with an increasingly structured approach replacing the ad hoc and often personal relationships academics and departments had with the network of SMEs in the region. The Knowledge Exchange Framework ranked the university among the top 10% in its cluster for business partnerships and local regeneration – and Kathryn sees the primary role for Derby as a translator of primary research to those SMEs that give the city a skilled, attractive workforce and economy. It reflects her ambitious but measured approach to transformation.

Artist’s impression of the new business school, which pivots the university towards the city centre and has fixed academic and business minds on what skills entrepreneurs of the future need from a degree.

The new business school, due to be constructed, has invited stakeholders to think from first principles what the city needs from the incredible building under construction in the city centre. The offer has piqued the interests of businesspeople from Derby and London, keen to inform a “business school of the future”. One of its chief concerns will be the business response to environmentalism. There are similar towns in the world to Derby – demonstrating success in this area could be transformative for a regional university pondering its international role.

But for every long-term hope there is a short-term concern. She wants to strongly rebuke any thought of dropping the cap on tuition fees to £7,500 without the promise of additional alternative funding. “The impact would be,” she pauses, laughing grimly, “huge.” The running costs for a bricks-and-mortar campus continue to rise – and the expanse of equipping students and staff with the requisite equipment for blended learning does not come cheaply. Derby offers bursaries – “some of the largest in the country” – which “isn’t sustainable” with lower fees. Such a decision would harm social mobility, she declares.

I don’t know how [ministers] think they are going to deliver lifelong learning with the model that they’ve presented. And there doesn’t appear to be any more money

She would like ministers to check their figures: “I would like the government to look at the value of graduates. What is their value over their life span to the economy? I think it will be way more than £9,250 a year.” Not just their loan repayments, but the businesses they attract to these shores, the tax revenues from their higher lifetime earnings, not to mention the education, healthcare and social services graduates help provide. As for ministerial ambitions for post-18 education, decreasing university funding will not make up for the lack of opportunities for the 60% of people in this country without a degree, she says. “I would challenge the government on why we are not using the unused apprenticeship levy to enable some of those 60% to go to university?”

The debate around university autonomy – irrelevant to the British public at large – is back in the headlines. Kathryn does not think it’s all hot air – “university autonomy is threatened”, she agrees, but it’s the corrosion of university credibility that most arouses her concerns.

“We have proven we can manage universities and deliver some of the best research, outcomes and graduates in the world, and we are still attractive to most countries. We don’t seem to have that sort of respect within our own country. I don’t think it’s just about losing autonomy.

“I think that we have created a society focused on celebrity culture rather than a culture of education. We’ve devalued that route for roles in society that seem to get very rich very quickly.

“I think even at a government level there’s a question about ‘why would you need all those universities?’

“I can’t think of a single cabinet minister who didn’t go to university. I find it interesting that they do not think that the role they’re in has anything to do with that fact.”

The post-war era seemed to offer more opportunities for lifelong learning than exist nowadays, Kathryn observes – but the need for skills in a fast-moving, high-tech economy has never been greater than it is today. “I feel that the erosion of higher education’s autonomy might lead to a misunderstanding of the value of education.”

Kathryn suddenly sits bolt upright in her chair. “I have another meeting!” A guilty expression spreads across her face. “Gosh!”

She nips around her desk in search of her calendar. “Oh, where are my glasses? I just had them,” she says, spinning around, eyes scouring every table.

She waves goodbye and begins scrutinising her schedule through newly found spectacles, the afternoon sun framing her perfectly against the window.

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