Stephen Marston: ‘If this is to mean anything, it’s about the life chances of individuals’

Stephen Marston is the University of Gloucestershire’s vice-chancellor. He tells Anna Britten about swapping Whitehall for the West Country, how working at the highest levels of education policymaking has helped him lead, and why young people should always be encouraged to study their passion

Next time you find yourself in a dinner party argument about how universities are out of touch/elitist/hiding away in their ivory towers, can we suggest you start talking about the University of Gloucestershire?

It’s taken over the old Debenhams in Gloucester city centre – putting its money where its mouth is, as part of a wider city regeneration, and bringing the university right into the main square of a city that’s seen its fair share of deprivation and disaffection. It’s thereby ensured that, unlike most other abandoned chunks of Britain’s high streets, this 1930 art deco building doesn’t get turned into expensive flats and yet another Costa. It plans to open up free, public literacy and health programmes right where the Clarins and Dior counters used to stand.

The Debenhams story made the national press back in March – a happy ending to the sad saga of a once-titanic retail giant. “We were able to say, and show, this was not just a one-off building project,” says vice-chancellor Stephen Marston.

“There was something more significant that was going on here. This particular building has a position in Gloucester that makes it more than just another shop. So although for the university this is about giving us a fine, large new teaching environment, it’s doing something significantly beyond that for our local community. I think that’s partially why it did receive the attention that it did.

“We’re talking, for example, with the county library service about whether they would join us in a shared library, fully visible to everybody walking to and fro.

“We’re talking with our NHS partners, similarly, about a shared wellbeing centre, screening, rehabilitation.

“You could then be thinking about family literacy programmes, family health programmes, family nutrition programmes, because of the Schools we will be moving in – the School of Health and Social Care, which covers all about nursing and allied health, and the School of Education and Humanities.

“So what we’re trying to do is take advantage of that city centre position to really drive public service partnerships in a meaningful way that brings benefits to families, individuals, communities, right across the city.”

International students help expand the horizons of local young people, says Stephen

 

The architects have been appointed and are starting work on plans for phase one: “This would be the point in Grand Designs where Kevin McCloud looks worried,” chuckles Stephen, not entirely seriously. His confidence in the project is absolute.

In fact, he likes and believes in Gloucester so much he’s bought, and is renovating, a house there – rather than in leafier, wealthier, nearby Cheltenham, home to two of the University of Gloucestershire’s three campuses, and Stephen’s own office, where we meet today.

Something approaching a mid-life crisis on the cusp of 50 made this former, high-level civil servant swap Whitehall for West Country academia 10 years ago.

It’s an important part of our role to help our students expand their horizons, both literally and metaphorically, and being an international community is part of that

“You ask yourself some difficult questions at that point. Is this what I want for the rest of my working life or not? And you still have the chance and the opportunity to say no, I want to do something different.

“There came a point where, for a whole set of reasons, choosing to move, to do something different, actually seemed just a good thing to do.”

Stephen worked in the civil service from 1983 to 2011, serving five different governments – those of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron.

He says that of the education secretaries he’s worked with, he believes Kenneth Baker and Charles Clarke had the biggest impact. (On Nadhim Zahawi he will only say: “He has significant background both in education as a minister and across a number of different government roles, which I hope and believe will make him a highly effective Secretary of State for Education.”)

Students need to care passionately about the subject they study – “because that alone is quite a good stepping stone” Picture by Clint Randall www.pixelprphotography.co.uk

 

Stephen’s career included four years at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and he rose to become director general for lifelong learning and skills and then for universities and skills, working for both David Willetts and Vince Cable.

This final job, he says,“meant that I felt – partly rightly, partly wrongly – I knew something about universities, university policy, the university sector. So that looked like a manageable jump.”

The impressive CV has, he says “to some degree” helped him as a vice-chancellor “maintain an understanding of how the wider policy environment gets shaped”.

“How do these decisions actually get taken? What might be the drivers that are going on in the debate? I was there for some decades, I was involved in that policymaking and the legislation and the white papers and the comprehensive spending reviews. So I think that that may help me still retain some understanding of how all that works.”

From every window in Stephen’s tranquil office you can see trees – the campus is situated in the city’s former zoological, botanical and horticultural gardens, and comprises acres of parkland (including a lake and ‘elephant walk’ for an elephant that remained forever in the Victorian architect’s imagination) and views of the surrounding Cotswold hills. It’s 10 minutes’ walk from the chic Montpelier district and one of the prettiest campuses we’ve seen.

Perfect spot, then, for the university’s creative students – those studying design, media and technology. Fashion design students’ catwalk designs are displayed on boards outside, left over from an in-person summer degree show – “despite lockdown, we still thought it was really important to have a degree show”.

The University of Gloucestershire sits in a county with “seriously disadvantaged communities” sitting cheek-by-jowl with areas of wealth. The university works hard to reach disadvantaged students on its own patch, which covers some of the most deprived areas in the UK, and a significant proportion of its students are the first in their families to go to university, Stephen tells us.

“I’m sure you will know this – it’s probably a little-known fact elsewhere –that the south-west has one of the lowest higher education participation rates in the country. And you wouldn’t think it from average living standards. But we do.

“We could and should have a much higher university participation rate than we’re actually achieving. And that’s as true for Gloucestershire as for the rest of the region.

“We do lots of outreach programmes, we’ve got very close effective partnerships with some of our local FE colleges as well as with pretty much all of the schools in the area.

“Kind of related is apprenticeships – we decided some years ago that we did want to develop apprenticeships as part of our long-term strategic portfolio. Last year, we got something over 500 apprentices – this year with any luck, we’ll get to about 800.

“We do believe that apprenticeships work as a route into higher education for people who wouldn’t otherwise have considered it, wouldn’t otherwise have thought it was for them, wouldn’t otherwise have thought they could afford it.

“So apprenticeships for us are also significant in terms of making the opportunity of good higher education available on a much broader basis.”

The University of Gloucestershire’s international-standard sports arena is a big draw for students Picture by Clint Randall www.pixelprphotography.co.uk

 

What are his thoughts on the West Country and levelling up? It feels like too often such conversations are exclusively about the north-south divide, and the red wall, and that the West Country unjustly never gets a mention. (We’re speaking before the chancellor announced in his Budget that Gloucester’s £20m Levelling Up Fund Bid had been approved, one of just six funded projects in the south-west, which got 8% of the total funding.)

“Levelling up doesn’t just happen at the level of large conurbations. Within Gloucestershire, we have coexisting areas of significant disadvantage. Gloucester itself has some really disadvantaged wards. And there are significant pockets of rural disadvantage in the Forest of Dean, coexisting in the same county with Cheltenham, which undoubtedly is economically flourishing, very well off. Tewkesbury, I think, has one of the highest economic growth rates currently in the country. And, of course, the Cotswolds is famous for its quality of life, and its very expensive housing.

“So you can’t do levelling up by averaging across a county like Gloucestershire, you’ve got to dig down several levels to say, ‘Well, what is it that we’re trying to level up?’ Because we have some seriously disadvantaged communities, and within them, further variation when you get down to the individual level.

“So surely the agenda should be about supporting those communities and even those individuals who have talent, they have potential, they have ambition, they want to do more with their lives, and they need their aspirations and their chances to be levelled up as much as anybody else.

“So just to rule out Gloucestershire because on average we’re a relatively wealthy county doesn’t make sense. If this is to mean anything, it’s about the life chances of individuals, and you have individuals who need levelling up in terms of their life chances right across the country. We certainly do here in in Gloucestershire.”

Stephen says that “probably about between a quarter and a third” of his students are living within Gloucestershire.

Only 7% or 8% are international, though they’ve seen rising demand and applications from overseas over the last couple of years, and Stephen says it’s “an area where we’d like to grow – primarily because of the significance and importance for all of our students of being an international community.

“That’s, for us, the primary driver. Because a high-quality higher education programme these days has to include opening people’s eyes to global issues and what’s going on in the wider world. And given that a significant proportion of our students are first in family to go to university and probably about between a quarter and a third are living within Gloucestershire when they come to us, actually, it’s an important part of our role to help our students expand their horizons, both literally and metaphorically, and being an international community is part of that whole wider educational purpose.

“They then – possibly for the first time in their lives – become part of a community that is diverse in its ethnicities, its backgrounds and cultures.”

Unlike its precursor HEFCE, the OfS sometimes seems to not trust universities to do ther best for students, says Stephen

 

Stephen is aware that his own route into university – he studied classics at Cambridge – was very different to that of the typical University of Gloucestershire student.

When he was 18, Stephen says, “for someone in my sort of educational setting, it was all very straightforward. A whole set of expectations was created that I would go to university and firm guidance was given as to which university it was going to be and what I was going to study.

“The choices were really quite managed for me. I didn’t object at the time at all. It kind of made it easier.

“I do think students these days have such a wide proliferation of options and choices, different types of courses, different places to go, different types of university settings.”

His own degree subject choice seems quaint in 2021, in an era where ‘employability skills’, graduate outcomes and STEM are government obsessions.

“It certainly does make me aware that there is no clear simple correlation between the subject you study at degree and your future occupation. And I believe it to be the case even now that the vast majority of graduate jobs that graduates go into do not require a named subject or disciplinary degree.

“So we keep advising our students that it’s really, really important to think about what their career ambitions are. But please be aware of the full breadth of occupations, professions and vocations you can go into from most of the courses that we offer.

“You know, the humanities have always been – still are – a good route into many professional careers. As was true for me.”

In other words, it’s OK to study something because you love it?

It is important that we continue to make it possible for students to study the things they’re passionate about

“The motivation to learn and get the best out of your own university experience is very powerful and positive – we really need students to care about what they’re studying; find it engaging, find it fascinating, because then they will learn best. If you’re really not interested in the subject matter, you won’t learn as well. So actually, I think it is important that we continue to make it possible for students to study the things they’re passionate about. Because that alone is quite a good stepping stone then to going on to a career that you’re passionate about.”

That Stephen’s priority, as with all good vice-chancellors, is to deliver for students is obvious – this brings us to the topic of the Office for Students which, it’s fair to say, he finds problematic.

Even the name of the regulatory body, says Stephen “sounds and looks and feels a bit kind of oppositional to the universities”.

Apprenticeships are part of the university’s long-term strategy Picture by Clint Randall www.pixelprphotography.co.uk

 

He says this from the perspective of one who spent four years as director for institutions at HEFCE – the precursor to the OfS: “a very different organisation with a very different type of ethos.
“On the surface HEFCE was a funder and was therefore able to shape and influence through the allocation of funding. More importantly, HEFCE believed that it could do its job best if, by and large, it sought close, constructive, well-informed partnerships with the universities that it was funding.

“I think it’s true to say that all of the chief executives during HEFCE’s lifetime have been university vice-chancellors and there were always a number on the board.

“Part of its whole approach was to keep close to universities and try to maintain their confidence – ultimately, although we had arguments, and we had debates, and there are points where we had to intervene, on the whole I think the sector believed that HEFCE was still trying to support them, help them flourish and succeed.

“Looking back, you could say that what HEFCE did manage to achieve over its lifetime was a significant expansion of the sector. So more students were able to get more opportunities, over quite a long period, in circumstances where most universities were also supported to survive and thrive and grow.

“It was important to us that, however hard we were working to try to get improvement, to get enhancement, make sure the quality and standards were good, it was with universities and working with the grain of universities and trying to help ensure that they were all settings within which the students would be getting a great experience. And I would like to believe – your readers may contest this fiercely – that HEFCE achieved that.”

“It’s been far less clear that that sense of overlap and common purpose is now here.

“And sometimes the OfS appears to feel that universities can’t really be relied on to do our best for our students. And that I do find fundamentally problematic because I am absolutely rock-solid confident that in a place like this, we exist to do our best for our students. And that for me, there’s quite a quite a marked shift in tone.”

And yet he holds back on judging the organisation just yet. “It’s very early days to start talking about results. They had spent an awfully long time on the set-up to organise the whole new approach – and it was a fundamentally new approach to registration and regulation. And then, of course, there was the pandemic. So judging impact is probably not yet something one can fully do.”

If I could get to the end of this year and feel, ‘Right, now this community understands what we need to do,’ that would be a good outcome

Our time is nearly up, so we ask Stephen if he can sum up his hopes for the academic year that’s just started, in which every HE stakeholder is investing so much hope after the dramas of the past two years.

“If I could get to the end of this year and feel, ‘Right, now this community understands what we need to do to create a viable, flourishing future for ourselves where we can serve our students and our community well’, that would be a good outcome.

“In other words: we will keep all of our systems going, we will continue to teach, we continue to do our best for our students, we will continue to do the best research we can, and work with our community – but actually, it’s the sheer uncertainty of the current environment that, for me, represents a goal. That if we could just sort out this year, some of that uncertainty, to give us a clear pathway forward to deliver our mission, that would be a big win.”

As well as a vice-chancellor, Stephen is also chair of the AdvanceHE board, and non-executive director for various bodies including the Care Quality Commission. Does this leave much time for relaxation?

“I enjoy getting out in the fresh air and there’s nowhere better than Gloucestershire to be able to do that. So cycling, jogging…” At the end of a difficult day he’ll listen to a Handel opera – he adds that he fears, in asking about his music choices, UB has set him “an elephant trap to cause cultural stereotyping” – and bursts out laughing.

There’s also, of course, his own, personal regeneration project which, in many ways, speaks to his professional one: “We’ve got a very rundown Georgian townhouse in Gloucester and have had a lot of fun doing that.

“The huge satisfaction that comes from taking something that’s looking a bit unloved and a bit rundown and turning it back into something wonderful…”


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