Profile: UWE vice-chancellor Steve West CBE – ‘Students are partners in education’

Running one of the UK’s biggest universities, the aptly named Steve West

Steve West CV

Name: Professor Steve West CBE

Establishment/company: University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)

Born: Luton, Bedfordshire

Education: BSc (Hons) podiatric medicine (Westminster University); Fellow, Podiatric Medicine

Awards: CBE in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to higher education; honorary doctor of law, University of Bristol (2014); honorary doctor of education, Taylor’s University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2016)

Career highlight: Too many to pick – I’ve enjoyed every role I have ever undertaken and at the time thought it was the best job in the world.

What would you have done if not education? Clinical practice/research as a consultant in podiatric surgery.

Best leadership advice: Be yourself and care about people. Remember, to lead you need to inspire followers to want to support you.

While wrestling his way into a small packet of biscuits, the sort you might find in a hotel room, Steve West is explaining why he’s got imposter syndrome. When he applied for a job at UWE in 1995, it was, he says, “a way to test my CV, no more than that”.

He applied to Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) at the same time and was shortlisted for both. He was offered, and took, the much bigger job at UWE, but it wasn’t expected. “I’ve always had that voice, from way back, I guess from when I was at school, that just said ‘you’re not really capable of doing this’, that voice of ‘you’re not really good enough and at some point you’ll get found out’.”

Now he’s the vice-chancellor of UWE. He’s also a non-executive director for the Office for Students, chair of the Universities UK mental health in higher education advisory group, chair of the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership, chair of the West of England Academic Health Science Network and non-executive director for the University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust. Oh, and he’s got a CBE.

Feet first

Perhaps somewhat unusually for the head of one of the UK’s biggest universities, West did not excel at academic pursuits in early life. “I struggled at school, struggled with GCSEs, struggled with A-levels.” It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying – he was. Recently, he has discovered he is dyslexic.

“I remember opening the brown [A-level results] envelope and just this sick feeling. I knew the results were not going to be great because there was nothing in my history to suggest otherwise. And, of course, the expectation was that I’d follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a plumber, a heating engineer, but I couldn’t get out of my head that I really wanted to do something in the caring professions. Two things came out: one was dentistry; the other was podiatry. And in the end I did podiatry because I wanted to start that September. I didn’t really want to do resits and, even if I did, I didn’t see that it would help.”

West describes his childhood work record with some relish (on site with his dad at four, paper round at eight, petrol station attendant aged 10, the “dizzy heights” of operating the petrol station till at 12) and credits it with instilling in him a work ethic that sees him at his desk at 7.30am, often not clocking off until past 11pm.

The turning point in his academic career came after he was accepted to study for a higher diploma in podiatry at a further education college in London. The course was full, but West badgered the principal. “I think, in the end, I got given a place because I was a pain on the phone. And then life just changed at that point.

“I had a tutor who was this Scottish guy, probably in his mid-50s. He was a complete ogre, really, in that he would stop you in the corridor and think nothing of asking you loads of questions. But when I moved into the second year, this tutor – Ian Anderson – really came into his own because he invested so much time and energy and supported me to work out how to learn.

“He just stayed with me throughout my early career, including getting me back into the college to teach and then supported me through my undergraduate and then postgraduate studies. He was sort of like a grandparent. Nothing was too much trouble if he saw you putting the effort in. And so he would give up hours and hours and hours of his time. He was probably the the most inspirational person I’ve ever met. My view is that everybody going through an education, if they have one person like that, then we’ve done a good job.”

People are more able to articulate that they’re struggling, that they may have a need for support, which is a good thing

University challenges

His first taste of life as a professional educator came when, having finished his studies in podiatry, he was asked to come back and teach once a week alongside his NHS work. But when a head of department post came up at the University of Huddersfield, West “rather naively” applied. The job came with a deadline: build a new undergraduate degree within six months or face the department’s closure. Given the uncertainty, he didn’t move his young family to Huddersfield because “six months was a bit scary”. Instead, he bunked in hospital nursing accommodation.

The degree programme was validated and “the department really started to fly – I thought I’d made it; I thought this was heaven”. But the university had bigger plans for its new recruit. The dean of the faculty retired and West was asked to throw his hat into the ring. He did, and landed the job (“running stuff I really knew very little about”) before moving to Bristol a few years later, in 1995.

Charged with the creation of a new faculty of health at UWE – to be the university’s biggest – West had to merge three colleges of health covering Gloucester, Swindon, Bath and Bristol into a single entity.

He arrived six months prior to the faculty’s creation.

“I remember the new faculty had me and a temporary PA in it, who happened to be a barrister by background, Lisa Sinclair. She and I basically formed this new faculty and merged the colleges of health in. And then I had to restructure fairly quickly because I had the principles of each of those colleges as part of the executive team, all of whom had applied for the job of dean, so I needed to make sure they were not too disruptive.”

He became the university’s acting VC in 2007, and the position was invested in him the following year. What’s changed since? “Fundamentally, we still do what we’ve always done – we deliver the best-quality education that we can. We deliver research that is applied research and underpins both our learning and teaching, but also has impact in society. But as our confidence, and the work that we do, generally has lifted, the size of the institution has increased. So as we’ve been more successful, we recruit more students… we grow as an institution.”

UWE now has around 30,000 full- and part-time students. But the larger changes are those that have affected the entire sector. “Over that period, fees have come in, expectations have increased, students expect value for money… sometimes the students are acting as consumers. But they’re also acting as partners in their education, and trying to get that balance right, I think, has been important. Also the amount of support and the way in which students are supported is changing and shifting. So if we just think around the mental health and wellbeing agenda, that’s really come to the fore over the past three years or so.”

Student wellbeing

We’ve hit on a topic close to the vice-chancellor’s heart. He makes no secret of putting the student experience at the very top of his agenda. It chimes with wider concerns in the sector and, indeed, the media that students are struggling more with university life than was the case in the past. Why?

“Students are coming to university with more complexity in their lives,” West says. “The impact of fees and debt and living costs means that most of our students are working almost full-time to earn money to live and are also learning full-time. And that, I think, adds a degree of stress on them that maybe generations 20 or 30 years ago wouldn’t have had.”

Even while acknowledging that students may be less ready for a transition to independence than in days gone by, he’s careful not to play to the popular notion of flaky ‘snowflake’ millennials. “Many students coming to university will not have been exposed to risk-taking behaviours in the same way that 20 or 30 years ago we would have been. Parents – and I am one [West has five children] – are much more protective of their children as they’re growing up. Because the world is different and so we tend to be more protective.

“Many of them will have grown up in a world that is very media savvy and quite isolating in some instances. There’s a whole digital world that many of them are inhabiting. So suddenly they move from that world into a world that’s loud and where there are lots of people and friendships being made – and people falling out, because that’s what happens – and are they prepared for that? Probably not.

“And then on top of that I think society generally is more open to talking about mental health and wellbeing, so the stigmas are not there. People are more able to articulate that they’re struggling, that they may have a need for support, which is a good thing.

“The world is more complicated. Most of our students, as I said earlier, are working. And they’re not working to get a bit of extra money; they’re working to survive.”

My FE tutor was the most inspirational person I’ve ever met. If everyone has one person like that during their education, we’ve done a good job

A question of debt

“The grant system doesn’t cover anywhere near the real cost of student accommodation, let alone having money to socialise and eat and do all those other things. This is just core basic stuff. So they’re having to work to survive. So, it is changing; it is different. And then they know when they leave the university, they’re leaving with a debt. They will be paying that back over 30 years – it will influence what they’re able to do in terms of disposable funds, as they’re making their way in the world.”

For this, West blames decision-makers in government who are themselves the product of free higher education.

“Certainly, I remember the conversations when fees were first being introduced. There were some fairly heated debates about what gives you the right – in effect having had free education throughout your lives – to make the decision now that you’re going to pull the drawbridge up. It doesn’t feel right. There was quite a lot of anger initially.

That conversation “went round the houses a little bit” but ended up being about who should pay for a mass education system with 50% participation as opposed to 5% or 10%. Questions were asked about whether it was fair for everybody to pay for an education whose participants were seen as likely to benefit directly, financially, from getting a degree.

But that, West says, was short-sighted and ultimately unhelpful. “I think we didn’t do enough to explain. The government certainly didn’t do enough to explain the rationale, and the fairness of it, and probably didn’t do enough thinking around students who were going to go into teaching or social work, or health, nursing, allied health professions. If your earning potential in the public sector is not as great as if you go into the City, maybe we need to find a way of balancing that… of saying there is a social good and a social contract where you are recognising that someone has been through a university education and is giving back to society.

How might that be reflected in the fees that you return?

“We started the conversations with government, but it all got too difficult and nobody could work out how do you do that. But it may be that in the future that’s what we have to start thinking about.”

Market forces

Unlike some of the more idealistic voices in the sector, West is a pragmatist. He has recently signed off the strategy that should guide UWE through to 2030. The thrust of this directional thinking will see the university cement its polytechnic roots through teaching which has practical application in the real world. It also means making tough decisions.

“Market forces, and what students want to get from a university experience, may well change what a university has to offer,” he says. “So a university might think it is hugely important that we have philosophy and history and archaeology, but if there is no market for that, what do you do? Do you stubbornly say ‘we are going to be here till the end of time’? And even if there are only two students on that [programme] we will carry on delivering it? For some universities, that’s what will happen, and that’s fine. But for others the market forces will take you down a particular road. And that will be it’s not viable, and we can’t do it.

“The hope is, of course, that if you took the total university ecosystem, if somebody wanted to study something, there would be somewhere in the country where they could do it. But it doesn’t mean that every university has to deliver it.

“Universities will choose which areas they want to invest in and which areas they want to support. So, unfortunately, several years ago, we had no choice but to stop teaching modern foreign languages. And the reason for that was that there were fewer and fewer students wanting to study modern foreign languages at university, so the feed from schools was slowing down, there were more places available in universities than students and either we dug in and tried to deliver or we took the decision that, actually, even though we didn’t like it necessarily, we couldn’t support that set of programmes and morally it probably wasn’t right for us to carry on trying to do it on a diminishing resource base. Much better to make a brave decision.

“And we may, in some of the humanities, make some of those choices, because it doesn’t quite fit either the market forces or what you’re trying to deliver as a university. As painful as that is, we can’t do everything. And my view is be the best that you can possibly be, give the students the best experience and if you’re going to do that, face up to some of the realities of that, which is you can’t do everything; you simply don’t have the resources.”


Those market forces also increase competition. A combination of the removal of a cap on student numbers and a demographic dip has led to dirty tricks. West is not a fan.

“It started off as laptops. Put us down as first choice, you’ll get a free laptop or free books or a reduction in your accommodation. We didn’t do that.”

Ultimately, admissions departments arrived at the controversial ‘conditional unconditional’ offer, where the only criterion for entry was accepting the university as a first choice.

“When you start to get into that you’re incentivising students to make choices, which may not necessarily be in their best interest. So we don’t do that. And the reason we’ve not gone down that route is there’s a consequence on schools and colleges, and probably a consequence on behaviour in students.

“If you have an unconditional offer, there’s some research evidence that suggests you probably drop two grades. And that affects the school’s performance and how schools are evaluated – league table stuff – and also headteachers were telling us that actually what they’re trying to do is to get their students in the right mindset to come to university to work hard, but you’re giving them a different message, which is ‘don’t worry, you don’t have to work hard – you’re in anyway’. And therefore schools hate it. We may be setting students up for the wrong experience. And so we haven’t gone down that route.”

League tables

West is also cautious about league tables and their ability to rank universities effectively. “All the tables measure universities in the same way. So you’re comparing very different universities, but using the same metrics. So comparing UWE to Oxford and Cambridge at one level is a bit artificial, because we do very different things. And our students are very different. But, nevertheless, that’s how we’re compared.

“Depending on what you measure, you either reinforce hierarchies or you disrupt them. And the things that get measured are the things that are easy to measure – so the number of firsts or 2:1s and the entry points that you’ve got students coming in. The things that are more difficult to measure – is it making a difference?

What’s the impact? What’s the value-add of you coming to this university – we still probably haven’t got that right.”

He points to shifts in the tables, where an institution can vault or fall 20 or 30 places in a year. “Either all universities are really the same, so one or two percentage points can shift them dramatically, or we haven’t quite got the right things being measured.” It’s clear he feels the latter is more likely.

The dominant league tables promote different kinds of universities. The Times’ league table is weighted towards research and, because of the time-frames involved in its metrics, is relatively steady. The Guardian, on the other hand, favours teaching and learning and student satisfaction. West feels the latter plays to UWE’s strengths.

“Is it a bad thing? Or a good thing? Well, it depends what you want from the university experience. If you’re a student or a parent or an adviser, then part of that is to understand what the student is looking for.

And how well is that student suited to the institution?

“International students tend to look at The Times more, and in certain international governments you have to be of a certain ranking in The Times before you can enter into any sort of agreement or partnership, or before they will sponsor students. We would argue that the Guardian is a better fit to our sort of institution, that it gives us a better, more nuanced understanding. But none of them is perfect, of course.”

Trouble at the border

Talking of international students, West has a beef. “This is a classic,” he laughs, though it understandably rankles. “We’ve got international students who have been challenged by UK border agencies when they put down only UWE as the choice they want to come to. And these are very able students from Vietnam and Malaysia and wherever. They want to come and study here because they want our experience.

And they get told by the UK border agency [UK Visas and Immigration] during their interviews that they cannot be serious that all they’re looking at is UWE.

“That’s what’s bad about the UK. That’s what’s bad about ministers making arbitrary decisions. And worse than that, it absolutely undermines the quality of what the UK can offer in education. And every time it’s happened, we and the prospective students have gone through a whole process to appeal against it. And every time the appeal gets turned over. And they come. But they shouldn’t be put in that place. It’s bloody outrageous. And it’s purely a view of a world that no longer exists. Don’t assume students haven’t done their homework. Most students do their homework. And then don’t write them off because of the choices they’ve made. I get quite anxious and upset about some of the daftness.”

Most of our students are working almost full-time. They’re not working to get a bit of extra money, they’re working to survive

The virtuous circle

There’s been a big clearing event on the ground floor of the Bristol Business School, the part of the campus housing the vice-chancellor’s office. West has been downstairs all day, meeting the students of tomorrow. He is unflinching in his view that the recruitment process is a two-way street, with the university and its prospective undergraduates sizing each other up.

The university does not deign to offer the student a place; it is as much for the student to identify whether the institution will be a good fit academically, socially and culturally. What would be his advice to students?

“The last thing any university wants is for a student to make a decision and then be miserable about that decision later. All sorts of things can happen as a consequence of that. So, be honest, and work out what’s right for you, which isn’t necessarily going to be the same as what’s right for your parents.  But you’re the one who’s going to have to commit; you’re the one on that wet, dark Monday morning, when it’s howling and raining, who will have to get out of bed, having done some work, probably at the weekend, to prepare for the tutorials. So you’ve got to be inspired; you’ve got to be interested; and you’ve got to be curious enough to want to do something. And that applies regardless of what discipline you’re going to commit to.

“I’ve had conversations with ministers around how students make choices. And we’ve got very, very able students who have made the choice to come here to study. They could have got into a research-intensive university; they may well have been able to go to Oxford or Cambridge. But it’s the wrong choice for them. Don’t write them off.”

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