Liz Barnes: ‘Don’t have boundaries. Get your hands dirty’

The Staffordshire vice-chancellor talks about retirement, student finance, ‘getting over yourself’ and why the regulator should dial back on interventions

The April showers that have hung over Stoke-on-Trent for hours begin to disperse suddenly. Damp pavements start to dazzle as shards of spring sunlight illuminate the campus of Staffordshire University from the gloom.

The propitious turn in the weather prompts Prof Liz Barnes to begin a campus tour. As she walks, she extends her arm, gesturing towards the workmen hurriedly completing a monumental structure: The Catalyst Building. It is a new centre for apprenticeships in the west Midlands: a jewel in the Stoke-on-Trent campus that can trace its origins back more than a century to the Central School of Science and Technology, which opened its doors for late-Edwardian Stoke in 1914.

Liz Barnes: 'Don't have boundaries. Get your hands dirty' Catalyst Building Staffordshire University
The soon-to-be-opened Catalyst Building, a new centre for apprenticeships in the west Midlands. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography, www.claralouphotography.co.uk

Apart from the banging and clattering of the building site, the campus is quiet. We pass one of the student social buildings; there should be crowds of lunching students refuelling for the afternoon, but it is now home to the student Covid-19 testing site. Although the campus appears very subdued, nearly three-quarters of students have returned to in-person teaching here, in part because so many at Staffordshire study practical or key-worker subjects. The restrictions on other students will end shortly in May; the testing will not.

The vice-chancellor takes long, confident strides through the campus towards the sunniest corner, an ideal spot for photographs. As we walk, we pass an assortment of buildings in every architectural hue. The campus recalls the shifting fashions and favours in grand designs since the millennium.

The university’s Stoke-on-Trent campus: rarely this quiet in non-Covid times. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography, www.claralouphotography.co.uk

Liz Barnes has been vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University since 2016, having filled senior roles at Sheffield Hallam and Derby. Here, she is on home turf in more ways than one: she is a born-and-raised Staffordshire girl and speaks with irrefutable pride in her institution and role. She is beginning to approach retirement age, she admits, but Covid has hastened her plans to retire this December.

She is about to become a grandmother – and the enormous grin across her face is enough of a clue to her excitement. “But the pandemic is part of the reason I’m going,” she continues. Is it any wonder? From the A-levels grading fiasco to the pressure over student returns and the financial concerns that lurked behind each twist and turn of the uncertain saga, vice-chancellors have balanced a lot this year.

As we walk, Liz describes the early days of the pandemic: 11-hour days, back-to-back meetings and the unyielding pressure to make the right decisions. She recalls being in constant communication with colleagues but feeling “incredibly lonely at the end of the day because what you’re not having is any good quality conversations”. Stories of struggling staff and students left her feeling “quite helpless and hopeless”.

“I’m a very, I would say, resilient person; my resilience comes from those around me. So when nobody’s there with you to bounce things off, test your thoughts, test those big decisions, it’s tough. I think that was the hard part. The realisation that your hands are quite tied. There was so little we could do at that time. We did as much as we could online, but you’re still limited.”

Student tuition fees is not a sustainable model. All the tinkering we’re doing at the moment, ultimately, is not going to be the solution

She heads to retirement at the same time as many of her compatriots. The vice-chancellors of Loughborough, Durham, Birmingham, Cranfield, Winchester and Lincoln universities have also announced their departures in recent months. A “wave” of exits will now come, Liz predicts. Some vice-chancellors feel, like her, ready to retire after such a bruising year. Others postponed their plans to “steady the ship” through the worst of the storm. “These things come in cycles, though,” she adds, a note of contemplation in her voice.

That elite group of university leaders, who will gather together at the Universities UK conference in September, will discuss only one thing, she says: “how to get the sector through the pandemic and out the other side”. These leaders – the custodians of institutions and reputations stretching back centuries – have grown closer during the pandemic, she mentions, all of them bound together through mutual provocations and responsibilities.

Other vice-chancellors tell Liz they have been “caught up in the moment”, unable to progress because of the pandemic. Executive boards aren’t “functioning as effectively now”, she continues. The distractions of home working and multi-tasking have taken their toll on meetings, she feels: “I am not convinced that papers necessarily get the scrutiny that they deserve or need because people aren’t reading them properly.”

She feels it has brought things to a standstill in some ways, “but speeded it up in others”, like in the case of remote learning. She is proud that, unlike other universities, Staffordshire has not put its capital spending plans on hold: the 2030 strategy has not faded from her view.

2030 vision: despite the pandemic’s distractions, Staffordshire’s commitment to its strategy for the future remains unwavering. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography, www.claralouphotography.co.uk

The 2030 vision is about a lot more than bricks and mortar. Staffordshire aspires to be “the UK’s foremost digital university”, capable of delivering “hyper-personalised learning” to every student. The new building fits into its aspiration to create a strong pipeline of qualifications from level 4 and 5 through to growing numbers of postgraduates. It will focus on three areas: the creative and digital economy; the foundational economy (like emergency services, education and the armed forces); and business.

The plan also sets out how senior leaders will measure progress. Staffordshire had hoped to improve satisfaction scores in the National Student Survey from an already above-average 85%. A review of the national poll might leave this key performance indicator in doubt. The university also wants every course to be in the top 50% for graduate-level employment after the first six months and 20% of full-time undergraduates to undertake study, work or exchange abroad.

The institution scores an above-average 85% in the NSS satisfaction survey. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography, www.claralouphotography.co.uk

Back in her office in University House, Liz sits behind a wide conference table. After a challenging year, does she have regrets? “No, I don’t think I have regrets. You make decisions for the right reasons. The key thing in this job is making decisions, being resolute and seeing them through. And that is tough at times.” After reflecting on her five-year tenure at Staffordshire, she says the Gold Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) award is the achievement that inspires the most pride.

Liz started her career as a maths and PE secondary school teacher but, she says, always had more of an interest in the arts when she was in school. A competent writer and speaker, she was “never a creative”. Tasked with writing a sonnet for Staffordshire Week, Liz says the experience took her back to a moment in class when her eyes “filled with tears” after her English teacher gave her “two out of 10, see me” on her poem in the style of Beowulf. She says she was a “do-everything-at-the-last-minute” type of student that liked partying and “never really focused on studies”.

Liz says she was a “do-everything-at-the-last-minute” kind of student. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography, www.claralouphotography.co.uk

On joining the teaching profession, she aspired to be a headteacher. She ended up in university “purely serendipitously” after her husband sent her an advert for a job in a university recreation department overseeing sport. The role left her “braindead” and, in turn, led to a postgraduate course in physiology and a realisation she needed to get back in front of students. During her studies, she took shifts filling in on some physiotherapy lectures. It gave her the confidence to knock on the door of the dean’s office and ask for a full-time teaching post. “It wouldn’t be as easy to do now,” she admits with a shrug of the shoulders. “Universities were so much smaller then”.

Jo Johnson – the former universities minister – said last year that he thought university scepticism had replaced Euroscepticism on the Conservative benches. He warned that frustration with the higher education sector was a broader phenomenon and should not be “simply dismissed”. Last month, UUK chief executive Alistair Jarvis told delegates at a virtual civic university conference that he thought it was a “misreading” to assume ministers and MPs opposed the sector.

“I’m just saddened that there’s a narrative currently that suggests that there’s an underperformance because I don’t think that’s the case. In any large organisation, there will always be parts that are not doing as well as you would like them to, but there are all sorts of ways we tackle that,” Liz says.

“I’m just sad that the media and government share quite a negative perspective on what universities are doing and I am disappointed because I think that universities are one of the country’s greatest assets.”

Swab story: Staffordshire’s Covid-19 testing site. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography, www.claralouphotography.co.uk

Before being prompted, Liz exclaims that the National Student Survey – currently under review by the Office for Students following ministerial concerns it encourages ‘gaming’ and grade inflation – remains important to HE and was “a great thing when they introduced it”. The census is useful because it is “a good signal” for managers if things are, or are not, working. Liz points out that around 85% of students leave Staffordshire satisfied. “There are not many services, either private or public, that get that level of satisfaction,” she adds. The term ‘satisfaction’ is to be scrubbed from future surveys, the OfS has announced, because it is not an HE outcome government feels should be a metric of success.

Liz says there are powerful stories behind those statistics. “Students who’ve lived on the streets, who then leave us and go on to be good citizens, get good jobs and contribute more broadly to society,” for example. Asked what challenge ministers should instead concentrate on, the vice-chancellor says social mobility. “In Stoke on Trent, about 17% of young people go to university – but go to some of the places in the south-east and that figure is over 70%. That can’t be right.”

Staffordshire University, which also has satellite campuses in Stafford, Lichfield, Shrewsbury and London, operates step-up programmes that support mature learners. “Many that never went to university at 18 do not realise they have the intellectual abilities, they just have not had the right support in life, or just didn’t get on with school,” she continues. University should be an option for everyone, she maintains. “Sadly, at the moment, I think social mobility is only translated as more people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to the more selective universities, rather than recognising you should choose a university that suits you and has the right course for you.”

Team player: Liz works closely with colleagues in an open-plan office. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography, www.claralouphotography.co.uk

Higher education has changed hugely since Liz first started working as a part-time lecturer – and not always for the better. “It is the constant interventions. Between the last university governance meetings, which would have been between November and March, we dealt with 14 consultations from the Office for Students. And now there are more following, and they’re all about changes. I agree we do have to change, but it’s just constant. I think now it just feels that it’s quite difficult to get on and do what we need to do.”

Alongside social mobility, Liz says one of the top priorities for higher education must be reforming student finance.

“It’s not a sustainable model. All the tinkering we’re doing at the moment, ultimately, is not going to be the solution. I want to see really concentrated work on this, which is what the Browne review tried to do in the first instance. I am still really uncomfortable that our students carry the burden of the cost. The one area where I think we could make a big difference is the interest rates on loans.”

I would hate to have that level of debt hanging over me; on top of a mortgage to have that level of debt sits uncomfortably with me

Liz accepts that debt is written off after 30 years but explains: “I would hate to have that level of debt hanging over me; on top of a mortgage to have that level of debt sits uncomfortably with me.” In its interim response to the Augar review, the government suggested a lower salary threshold for student tuition fee repayments at the Comprehensive Spending Review later this year, hiking repayments for hundreds of thousands of young adults.

“I think there should be a contribution, but I would like a greater distribution of the cost for the individual,” she continues, speculating that policymakers could explore a similar model to the apprenticeship levy so that “more employers perhaps contribute something towards university education”.

Universities are powerful local actors, challenged with local innovation, public sector partnerships and regeneration: all are reasons, Liz says, that university funding needs to be put on a more equitable footing. “I am having meetings about supporting more startups and accelerators and we want to provide a business village and develop a big focus on local productivity. If you think of us in those terms, then it is right that not all of the contribution to universities comes through the student rate.”

Liz hopes to provide a business village within the university. Photo: © Clara Lou Photography, www.claralouphotography.co.uk

Liz warns ministers that Brexit has robbed universities, perhaps only in the short to medium term, of the funds that supported many knowledge exchange programmes. These substantial grants have yet to be replaced by British alternatives. She also notes that unlike the West Midlands Combined Authority to the south or the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to the north, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire in the middle lack devolution deals and the routes for “monies to flow into levelling-up those areas”.

Discussion of the Comprehensive Spending Review leads us to the elephant in the room: the government response to the Augar review and where it might leave the sector.

University Business knows HE lobby groups are keen to put forward the sector case but are tight-lipped on exactly what changes government might enact (because so much of it still remains undecided). The efforts, though, reflect deep unease. Liz summarises her view as “somewhere in the middle”. The lifelong learning accounts and promise of funding for further education are “really positive”, Liz reflects, but the mooted £7,000 tuition fee cap much less so. The sector has not “creamed off profits” at the current rate, while wages and pensions have pushed some institutions to the financial brink. Liz is concerned that those courses defined as ‘low value’ by government assessments will attract lower tuition fee loans, or no loans at all, thereby rendering them unviable for many students and providers.

Her successor, whoever they may be, “should get involved at every level”. Liz’s desk sits in a cluster of six in an open-plan office of 13; she hopes her replacement will maintain that sort of working environment.

“You’ve kind of got to get over yourself,” she says slowly, of senior leaders, contemplating as she utters each word. “Don’t have boundaries. Get your hands dirty.”

What does retirement hold? Universities have approached her to serve on their governing boards, and she plans to remain a member of the five multi-academy trusts with which she is already involved, though there is not – at the moment, anyway – a role she hankers after.

“I haven’t finished, though – that’s for sure.”

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