Northampton University vice-chancellor to stand down

Prof Nick Petford is leaving to pursue opportunities in “international education”, the university said in a statement

The vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton, Prof Nick Petford, is to retire at the end of the academic year, a statement from the chair of the university board of governors has revealed.

Prof Petford will retire in summer 2022 after 12 years in the role. A statement from the University of Northampton said he was leaving “to pursue opportunities in the field of international education”.

The 60-year-old academic is a geologist and moved from Bournemouth University, where he was pro-vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, to lead Northampton in 2010.

Northampton University chief operating officer Terry Neville will also retire in 2022 – he joined just after Petford, 11 years ago.

Together, the two “spearheaded the University of Northampton’s bold decision to relocate the university from its previous campus to a purpose-built facility within Northampton’s Enterprise Zone”, the statement continued.

Northampton – which gained university status in 2005 – formed from successive amalgamations of regional training colleges. But the university leadership said the buildings it inherited were not fit for the future. The £330-million relocation to the 24-hectare Waterside site in 2018 won the university plaudits, including the Royal Society of Chartered Surveyors ‘Design through Innovation’ award.

I arrived at Northampton in the knowledge that universities looked set to face unprecedented challenges, and I am proud that we have risen to each challenge and overcome it
– Prof Nick Petford

But the hefty price tag of the move, supported by public bonds, has increased university spending, its latest annual report show. The university’s 2020 accounts reveal that Waterside required loans worth £292m to be repaid over four decades, costing almost £10m per year in repayments. The 2020 financial report records a £15.1m operating loss in 2019-10, after a £16m loss in 2018-19.

The Treasury supports the public bonds “under an agreement with certain financial covenants”. The covenant requires the University of Northampton to generate cash surpluses worth one and a half times the annual cost of servicing the debt. If its cash surplus falls below 1.25 times the cost of the debt, the Treasury will impose sanctions that would restrict its future operations.

The university accounts state: “Having successfully completed the build of the new Waterside Campus in September 2018 within the required borrowing covenants, the ongoing focus is to ensure the university remains sustainable and able to continue to service its debt borrowings each financial year within the covenants. The budget model in place is sensitive to levels of student recruitment.”

The local branch of the University and College Union opposed the Waterside development, passing a vote of no-confidence in Prof Petford and the senior leadership team in 2015 for taking on “significant debt based on risky assumptions about future student numbers and fee levels”.

Professor Petford said: “I arrived at Northampton in the knowledge that universities looked set to face unprecedented challenges, and I am proud that we have risen to each challenge and overcome it – particularly in these most recent, difficult times.

“I look forward to ensuring a smooth transition for the new university leadership over the next year, and wish them and our students every success.”

Mark Mulcahey, chair of the university’s board of governors, said: “It has been my pleasure to work alongside Nick and to witness key success milestones during his 11-year tenure. In addition to realising the vision for the Waterside campus, he and Terry Neville have led the university to the vanguard of using higher education as a catalyst for social impact.

“That progressive thinking has become the hallmark of the University of Northampton – and a worthy legacy for these remarkable colleagues.”


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