Professor Debra Humphris on perspective, privilege and the prime minister

University Business interviews the University of Brighton vice-chancellor about her career and worldview


Thoughtful, considered and courteous, Professor Deborah Humphris has been vice-chancellor at the University of Brighton since 2015 – a job she describes as an “extraordinary privilege”. What has brought her to this point in career? How has she driven her institution through the pandemic? And what does she think about the issues facing the higher education sector right now?


On her nursing background:

I spent most of my childhood thinking, the last thing I want to be as a nurse like my mum. But when you foul up your A-levels, you’ve got to find something else to do. At a young age, 18, I got exposed to all of human life and death. It just gave you a sense of perspective about life.

On leaving Imperial College for the University of Brighton:

I remember distinctly the moment – sitting at a desk, signing off all these scholarships for students who had come from probably quite reasonably privileged roots anyway. And it just felt, you know, here I am. My parents didn’t go to university. My younger brother was the first to go to university in our family. And in terms of my core values about helping others, about enabling people to succeed… It just felt like if there was an opportunity to exercise my leadership in a different place, that was probably more aligned with my values, that would seem more appropriate for me.

On support for LGBTQ+ students and staff:

There are people who are profoundly and utterly wonderfully tolerant, engaging and supportive of diversity and all the richness that brings to society. And there are other people in society who’re less so. We have to work every day in universities to address the issues that are just reflecting through from society into our communities. My ambition is that we should be better. We should always be better. There will always be challenges there. My first act as vice-chancellor was to take over chairing the equality and diversity committee, and I will continue to do so until my last day as vice-chancellor. That was a warning.

On the divide between academic and technical education:

If we want a workforce and economy and a society for the future that embraces all the challenges set out in the interim review then we will need a combination of all of them. I remember working with a colleague at Southampton who was a psychologist. His comment was always, you can make the best machine but if you don’t make the button the right colour the human being won’t push the button.

On freedom of speech:

We need a culture in academic institutions, which is about appropriate and intellectual challenge to ideas and convention. And I think when we cease to hear other views, then we start to close down perspectives. There’s no law that says you can’t be offended.

On Boris Johnson:

It would be really great to genuinely hear from the Prime Minister on a regular basis, or even the Secretary of State, just how proud they are of all the universities in this country. None of us know who’s got the next Sarah Gilbert in their undergraduate cohort, but somebody has.

On vice-chancellors:

It’s not always acceptable to say they are working incredibly hard – you’re the vice-chancellor, you’re paid lots, you should do – but they’re incredibly devoted to their institutions and to their staff and students. I’ve just been so grateful to my colleagues for their advice, their guidance, their support when I’ve when I’ve asked for it and I hope in some way I’ve been able to reach out and support others because it can be a lonely job.

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