Interview: Paul Boyle: ‘We’ve got to make sure that we learn from this experience’

Vice-chancellor of Swansea University Paul Boyle says the pandemic has sped up decision-making at his institution and strengthened community relations. And he has good news for needle-phobes…

Like most of the world, Swansea University had a lockdown birthday in 2020. And not just any birthday, either: a centenary.

Established in 1920, as part of the University of Wales, Swansea University had a raft of celebrations planned across its sweeping, seaside campus. But, along with the Olympics, Eurovision and your cousin’s wedding, Covid-19 swept it all away as briskly as a spring tide in Oxwich Bay.

Among the myriad other challenges of 2020, Swansea’s vice-chancellor, Professor Paul Boyle, now had to figure out how to mark an institutional landmark within the shackles of coronavirus restrictions. It’s the kind of curveball that demands a cool head, considered approach and good humour. Speaking to Boyle over Zoom at the end of January, it’s clear he has all of those qualities.

 

When you look back on the pandemic, and its impact on Swansea University, what will be some of your sharpest memories?

First of all, it’s the way our community of staff and students responded to what were obviously unprecedented times.

They stepped up within a matter of days to completely change the way that we teach, the way that we research, the way that we engage with our students, the way we engage with our local community. It really was a remarkable achievement.

And, of course, during that period, we’ve had to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of students, staff, and also of our local community and make sure that everyone is kept safe during this pandemic.

The vast majority of our students have given us very positive feedback about how that’s all been done.

“The pandemic taught us how we can take decisions in a far more rapid and progressive way”

I think the student support that we’ve provided has been really remarkable. We’ve put in place a whole set of new initiatives: a new, 24/7 digital mental health resource, for example, free to all of our staff and students; a peer-support service called Connect; proactive signposting to get people to the NHS and other areas they needed.

We’ve done a huge amount in areas to really try and protect the community.

From a research point of view, we’ve had a huge impact on this pandemic. In our laboratories, we’ve been producing thousands of litres of sanitiser; we’ve been donating huge amounts of PPE to hospitals and elsewhere; we came up with a unique way of cleaning ambulances, which is still being developed as we speak, for future problems. We’ve come up with the first coronavirus vaccine smart patch – a really novel piece of medical engineering.

Staff and students enjoy stunning green spaces and views across Swansea Bay

 

Are there any particular moments that really sum up that period?

I think it’s when we were sitting in our Gold group, right at the beginning of this – members of our staff both from the academic and professional services side, the student body as well. Just seeing the way that we were able to dynamically respond so rapidly to the pandemic. And I think it taught us something about decision-making within the organisation.

It taught us about how we can actually be far more agile, when it’s really necessary. How we can take decisions in a far more rapid and progressive way.

Also, some of the conversations I’ve had with stakeholders in the community, like the leader of the City Council, and how pleased they’ve been with the way not only the university has stepped up, but also the way that the students have acted extremely responsibly. It’s been hugely appreciated in the community.

 

2020 was your centenary year. Did you have to cancel every one of your planned events, and what did you do instead?

We did take a firm decision quite early on to repurpose the funding that we originally set aside for our centenary celebrations and put that into student hardship funds and support for our ongoing Covid research. So we did make sure that those funds weren’t sitting there idle.

And we did carry on with a lot of the events that we had planned. So we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the laying of the university’s foundation stone in July 2020. That was the key moment. We had a day of events, including our annual Callahan lecture delivered by Hillary Rodham Clinton – our law school is named after her. I interviewed her for an hour about her views on a range of different topics. And she did an absolutely fantastic job. A lot of the discussion that she brought to the fore was very relevant to what it’s like to be in a university in general, but also in particular, at a time of pandemic.

We also were lucky enough to have a special birthday message sent from His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

And we launched the centenary book, Swansea University: Campus and Community in a Post-War World, 1945–2020 by Sam Blaxland.

We still managed to conduct our annual Science Festival in partnership with the National Waterfront Museum, that went ahead in October, and brought some big names together: Brian Cox, Steve Backshall and a number of others. So there’s been an awful lot of events that have worked extremely well. And we’re very proud of them.

Paul was the first in his family to attend university – Image by Martin Ellard

 

What was the most painful decision you had to make in 2020?

We’ve had to take some tough decisions, rapid decisions. But I don’t think that we’ve had to take decisions that I felt concerned about or that were painful. In the main, I felt really pleased with the decision-making process. As I say, we felt like we’ve been pretty agile, that we’ve managed to respond.

When students were allowed to socialise in their bubbles and we wanted to discourage students from socialising in the town, we funded some outdoor meeting space for students, to encourage them to stay on campus and to socialise in an outdoor environment when that was possible. Suddenly the lockdown rules changed and the students were unable to use that facility. It wasn’t a painful decision, as it were, but it was painful to watch.

 

Welsh government is giving £40m to support students in hardship, calling it “the most generous student support package in Europe”. Has the Welsh department for education handled all this better than its English counterpart?

I’ll be careful what I say. I wouldn’t say necessarily that it’s handled it better than its English counterpart. I think they’ve taken different approaches.

I would support the Welsh government. I think Kirsty Williams’s encouragement to find this money to support students at this time is really welcome. It’s not the first tranche of money that’s come into the sector from Welsh government – since Covid has broken out, there’s been a couple of tranches of money that have come through. We’re still yet to work out exactly what the parameters are for this £40m, and exactly how we’re going to administer the support of that. So that’s still yet to be firmly pinned down. But she has come out quite clearly making the case that this should be to support students who are in hardship and make sure those students do well as a result of that.

“We did take a firm decision to repurpose the funding for our centenary celebrations and put it into student hardship funds and our ongoing Covid research”

And how does the Welsh higher education sector feel about the changes being brought about by Brexit?

Brexit is a very interesting one. You’ll know that universities across the whole of the UK were united in their view that we should not leave Europe.

And I think the vast majority of our staff and students would support that position. So we were very disappointed that Brexit happened. And that that’s a great shame. We were obviously worried about the cultural implications of leaving Europe and everything else, but specifically for our sector.

We were particularly worried about Horizon Europe and the planned funding streams, and also Erasmus and some of the other mobility schemes, the Marie Curie scheme, and so on.

We’re still rather disappointed that we’re not involved in Erasmus. We think Erasmus was a good scheme. And you’ll know that Kirsty Williams, of course, is enthusiastic about that, and is talking with Scottish government and others about whether there’s a possibility to retain participation – I’ve not heard any update from that. So at the moment, we’re assuming that we would be participating in the Turing scheme.

But we are very pleased that we will be associated partners to the Horizon Europe scheme, being able to participate in the European Research Council and various other elements of that. We would have been very disappointed if we would not have been able to, and I know that the negotiations went very close to the wire.

 

Paul traded academia for leadership – and admits he sometimes misses the former – Image by Martin Ellard

 

Could we go back to talk about that coronavirus smart patch developed at Swansea, which monitors the body’s reaction at the same time as delivering the vaccine?

It’s very early days in the work that they’re conducting. But it’s a global first so we’re really excited because we think this may actually have an impact if the pandemic carries on for a long period of time.

The really interesting thing about this smart patch is it monitors the vaccine’s efficacy, as well as providing a needle-free delivery. So it’s not just about a way of administering the vaccine; it’s about understanding how well that vaccine is working. And so that brings a really interesting and different approach.

We’ve also been involved in a lot of mental health research, physical health research wellbeing research, looking at the impact of lockdown on these elements. We’ve also had studies looking at public views on the contact tracing apps, examining the risks faced by frontline medical staff during the pandemic.

We were commissioned by the Senedd to look at the public’s experience of test, trace and protect in Wales.

So there’s been quite a range of different types of project that we’ve been involved in, which will help us understand an awful lot more about the pandemic, not just from a medical point of view, but also from a social point of view.

 

Singleton Abbey grounds, Swansea University

 

What was your route into university as a young person?

Well, I was a first in family into university. I studied at a comprehensive school in Suffolk and ended up going to study geography at Lancaster University.

And I had a fantastic time – I was very fortunate to spend the second year of my studies overseas in Boulder in Colorado on an exchange programme.

And then, I had a year off travelling and so on, and then went back to do a PhD in Lancaster. And that was the beginning of an academic career, I suppose.

 

Who guided you on that path?

I had a couple of teachers who were very inspiring. One was a chap called Stuart Widd, who was a young English teacher, who we related to, and he was inspiring and really encouraged us.

Derek Livingstone was my geography teacher.

At university, I had some very inspirational colleagues that I worked with when I was there. Robin Flowerdew, who sadly passed away last year, was somebody who, when I was an undergraduate, I was taught by, and then he supervised my PhD studies. He guided my career to a great degree and was a lovely man. It was a great loss last year that he sadly passed away.

 

“The students have come together and will look back fondly on the relationships they’ve developed”

What were you like as a student, did you ever have an essay crisis? Or were you really organised?

I think I did work fairly hard. I did have the odd piece of work that I maybe got in a little bit late, but it wasn’t very common. I tried my best to get things in on time. I had a good group of friends. We did enjoy university life a lot, played a lot of sport, socialised a lot, but also tried our best to get the work done.

I had a fantastic time at university. It really was a wonderful period in my life. And I think that’s true of anybody who goes to university. Everyone knows that those few years are really special years.

 

As someone who enjoyed the full experience, then, you must feel sad for the students of 2020, despite the excellent things that have been put in place for them.

Obviously, for students this year, the university experience hasn’t been what they were expecting.

I do think that there have been elements of it, though, where the students have come together and will look back fondly on the relationships they’ve developed. They have been living in bubbles, where they’ve got very close to their friends, perhaps as a result of that, possibly even closer than you might otherwise do.

For most of our students, of course, this is just part of their university experience. They will be with us for three years in the main, some of them longer. Either they’ll have already experienced what it’s like to be in university in more normal times, or they’ll go on to experience that.

 

Was the move from academia into leadership a natural one for you?

I moved out of my academic role, when the role of chief executive at the Economic and Social Research Council (ESCRC) came up. That was a big change in my life.
It’s a fascinating role. And so it was very difficult, once I’d been offered that, to turn it down.

I really enjoyed being an academic, I love doing research, I love teaching.

It’s fantastic being an academic, you could come up with a bright idea in the morning and go to work and start analysing and studying it. So I lost that, but I gained an awful lot. In the sort of administrative role I was in, there were an awful lot of challenges that needed to be solved, you could be very imaginative in the ways that you could think about funding activities. So there was a lot of potential there that changed the way I thought about my career. Because at that stage, I started to learn that there were exciting things to do other than within academia.

I could easily still be an academic. If the ESRC job hadn’t come along, I suspect I would have carried on working very happily at the University of St. Andrews.

 

Does being an academic make it easier or harder to be a VC?

I think it definitely makes it easier. You’ll see that the vast majority of vice-chancellors are academics.

You do need to understand what academic life is about, what the things are that drive people’s thoughts, and what drives their ambition. There’ll be some fantastic vice-chancellors out there who haven’t come from an academic background, but for me, personally, I think it has helped. I do understand the academic context and relate to some of the issues that academics are going to be concerned about.

Not forgetting, of course, that as a vice-chancellor, you have responsibility also for a professional service community.

 

Speaking of professional services, towards the end of last year, we were hearing that professional services staff felt that they enjoyed a higher profile within their universities this year because of their response to the pandemic. Is that something that you recognise?

Absolutely. All groups of staff across the institution have really stepped up – be that our catering services continuing to provide services to students who’ve been isolated, the security staff who maintain safety on campus… Across the whole institution, every group of staff, whether they’re supporting students through the student welfare services, whether they’re thinking hard about how to restructure the admissions process to deal with the challenges that we’re going to face, because students don’t have the same exam grades they used to have, in every area, there’s just been a huge amount of extra effort and work that’s had to go in. I wouldn’t want to pick out one group of staff – every individual has done a great job.

 

Paul believes more collaboration between universities will be a silver lining of Covid-19 – Image by Martin Ellard

 

Do you think, in the future, that we may see a more joined-up way of thinking within the university sector?

One of the things I’ve really noticed is that universities have been collaborating well during this period, learning from each other, sharing best practice. Certainly the eight universities in Wales – or nine, if you include the Open University – have really been sharing their views, talking to each other a lot about how we’re going to manage things, trying to make sure that we’re all supportive of each other. So I think collaboration across universities, is going to be improved for the better as we go forward.

From a research point of view, you’ll have seen all the work that’s going on around the pandemic. That obviously happened before, but I think this has also encouraged more of that sharing of information. So I do think this is a moment for universities, which will be very interesting, and lead to some changes in the way that we work.

 

Do you ever miss teaching?

Yes, I do. I enjoyed teaching very much. I found it exhilarating and challenging. And, of course, when you teach, you learn a lot from your students – it’s a two-way process. But that’s one of the areas that, sadly, I don’t do as much of. I do have to occasionally stand up and, in a sense, use some of the same skills that you might use in teaching. But it’s not quite the same. When you can see that you’ve managed to inspire them, or you’ve really got them interested in an issue, that’s extremely gratifying.

 

Are you still as fascinated by geography as you were?

Yes, I think I am. I don’t spend my whole time studying maps and trying to remember the names of capital cities and things like that, which a lot of people seem to associate with geography. The geography I was involved in was really demography, understanding population change, understanding migration, mortality, fertility, disease clusters, health inequality. I still remain fascinated by that. And, of course, having watched the way that the pandemic is developing – I wasn’t an expert at all in pandemics but I did work on a number of diseases. And so I have a general interest in public health areas.

The story that’s interesting at the minute is the decision about the delay between the first and the second vaccine. From an epidemiological point of view, it’s very interesting. We don’t have the evidence in front of us, we can’t make a decision based entirely on objectively peer-reviewed evidence on this, because we’re in the middle of it. We’ll obviously find out in a matter of a few months, I suspect, whether or not the call they’ve made is the right one.

 

And finally, what are your top priorities for 2021?

Well, the top priority still has to be the safety of our staff and our students.

Secondly, making sure that the education or provision that we provide our students is absolutely top class. And even if we have to provide a lot of that through a blended approach, that that blended approach will be an excellent approach.

Also, making sure that the community around us is safe as well. And that we are a living part of that community.

The other thing that I’d like to see coming out of this is that we maintain our agility, and that we continue to learn from the fantastic research results that we’ve been able to come up with during this period.

We mustn’t lose sight of all of that, we’ve got to make sure that we learn from this experience. It’s not impossible that this will happen again, so we need to make sure we’re in a position where we can cope, perhaps even be more prepared next time it comes along.

Paul Boyle – The CV

Vice-chancellor of Swansea University – 2019–present

Awarded CBE for services to social science – 2016

President and vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester – 2014–2019

Chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – 2010–2014

Professor of human geography, University of
St Andrews – 1999–2014


 

Catch up on Swansea University’s centenary celebrations, including the Hillary Clinton lecture and interview, here: www.swansea.ac.uk/centenary2020/public-events/swansea-university-birthday-celebration/

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