19 May 2011

Speech delivered by Professor Paul Layzell at the Honorary Fellows Dinner 2011

Honorary Fellows, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman, it’s with great pleasure that I make my first Honorary Fellows’ address as the College’s still, fairly new, Principal.

Traditionally, such addresses review the past year, but I’d like to extend that tradition on this occasion to look more widely at the College - its past, present and future; partly because we celebrate two anniversaries, but also because our history should help us respond to the challenges of the future.

Our anniversaries celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the merger of Bedford and Royal Holloway Colleges and the 125th anniversary of the founding of Royal Holloway College. Both are landmark events in the life of today’s College and important reminders of the principles upon which we were founded.

As to the future, we are in the process of undergoing one of the biggest changes in higher education with a substantial shift in the cost of student tuition, from the state and tax payers, to individual students. The basic objective is clear, but it is the detail and unintended consequences that are still not fully developed and will no doubt mean future change. But more of these things shortly.

First I want to return to the events just over a year ago, when the 6 month process to appoint a new Principal for the College was drawing to a close. I was delighted that that process led to an invitation to become the College’s next Principal and I was pleased and very honoured to accept it.

On a personal note, my wife Pamela, and I have enjoyed meeting many members and supporters of the College, and thank you all for the warm welcome you’ve given us.

I should like also to formally record my thanks to the senior management team: the three Deans, Philip Beesley, Rosemary Deem and Katie Normington, Vice-Principals Adam Tickell and Geoff Ward and particularly the Acting Principal Rob Kemp for the work that he and the wider team undertook in overseeing the College during a difficult period in the wider higher education environment.

At my interview, I was asked, I think by David Beever (but forgive me if it was somebody else), where the College would be in 10 years time.

With a mixture of what I think in hindsight was great foresight, together with a degree of sheer cowardice, I said I could not possibly say.

At that time much of the sector was talking about cuts of 10 or 15%, a possible rise in tuition fees to £5000 and nobody even knew that a coalition government was possible, let along workable.

The future would be challenging and with rough seas ahead, one could not be too sure at what port we might land.

To continue the sailing metaphor, the choppy waters in which we were then sailing soon turned into a gale force 10 storm, a wind that seems to change direction and navigation charts that are hopelessly out of date. None of us have experienced this level of change and uncertainty in igher education for a long time.

My more considered answer to the question however was that in such an uncertain future, the best thing for the College was to ensure it operated from a position of academic and financial strength.

The due diligence I undertook in allowing myself to be considered for the position of College Principal showed that on both counts we would be in a good position. But, as is often the case with Royal Holloway, the evidence was somewhat understated and clearly not as widely appreciated as one would wish.

That started to change very quickly after my arrival last August, although I should say because of what others had done long before my arrival.

August saw the publication of the results of the annual National Students Survey, with the College maintaining a high level of student satisfaction for the fourth year in a row, with students giving an impressive 86% overall satisfaction rating for the quality of their academic experience, and placing us firmly in the upper quartile of the 129 universities in England and one of the most improved student experiences over the period.

Shortly afterwards, the Times Higher published its university world rankings and the strength of the College’s academic quality and reputation were confirmed in our position of number 88 in the world, placing us firmly in the top 100 universities of the world. The result is all the more impressive when you consider that there were around 6,000 eligible institutions.

The autumn also saw completion of the College’s financial statements for 2009-10 and a reported surplus of just under £6m and a strong balance sheet.

I think you’ll agree that an incoming Principal could not ask for more in terms of academic and financial strength, to provide a firm basis for the challenges ahead.

Since those announcements, I’ve spent a lot of my time getting out and meeting staff and students and developing my own understanding of our academic strength. What I’ve found is truly impressive and a College that, for its size, punches above its weight.

We have major strengths in the creative disciplines. Our music department with its excellent research is second to none. In drama we have one of the largest groups of doctoral students and during the year Professor Helen Gilbert received a £1.8m European grant, showing that even in the arts, it’s possible to secure very significant, competitive grant funding.

Media arts, with its mix of theory and practice, is fast becoming one of the most attractive courses in the country and increasingly draws students from around the world. Whilst in English, a highlight of the year was when Jo Shapcott, professor of creative writing, won not only the Costa prize for poetry, but also the Costa book of the year - a particularly impressive result for a book prize that traditionally has not favoured poets.

In the social sciences, we are members of a regional consortium for the support and training of doctoral students. Our Politics and International Relations department has had a busy time commentating on the 2010 general election, as well as developing research in areas such as how new communication technologies shape and change political institutions and behaviour.

In the school of management, we continue to attract some of the best students from around the world and at the start of this year we signed a collaboration agreement with the World Academy of Sport to support delivery of executive education to world sport leaders. A particularly important development as we’ll be one of three Olympic village sites in next year’s games.

In science, we continue to undertake life changing research. Professor George Dickson in Biological Sciences has, as part of an international team, revealed new gene and stem cell therapies that will revolutionise the treatment of inherited spinal diseases, Parkinson’s disease and muscular dystrophy.

Another international team, that includes Dr Simon Armitage from Geography, have challenged the view that modern humans left Africa around 70,000 years ago. Their discovery of ancient artefacts reveal that humans left Africa at least 50,000 years earlier than previously suggested.

Processor Tim Unwin brought a prestigious conference to the College in December, with over 550 academics and practitioners, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world-wide web, coming to Egham to consider how information and communication technologies can transform the lives of poor and marginalised communities.

Professor John Wann, in psychology, has established the maximum speed at which young children can accurately judge a moving vehicle and so help to inform road safety policy. The figure is in fact 20 mph. Meanwhile, his colleague Dr Manos Tsakiris has secured a large grant to investigate the impact of full facial transplants on self identity and the extent to which we can assimilate changes in our own appearance.

Finally, in the area of maths and computing, our information security group continues to be recognised around the world, most recently securing agreement to deliver its masters programme in Italy.

From this very brief survey of academic output, you can see we are in excellent academic shape, with many of the examples of research that I’ve given going on to inform our programmes and courses.

Students at Royal Holloway have and will continue to be taught by the women and men who are leaders in the field- people who write the books and don’t just teach from another’s!

This process of research and teaching changes our world, something we’ve been doing since the foundation of Bedford College in 1849 and over the 125 year life of Royal Holloway.

In the same tradition, the extra-curricula life of the College, and its contribution to the wider community, continues to thrive.

The Royal Holloway Choir grows in its accomplishments, continuing to release recordings, broadcast on radio and give stunning musical performances, including a recent tour of the USA, with a full house and standing ovation at Stanford University.

The Entrepreneurs Society, with over 1200 students, is one of our largest and most successful student societies, supporting students in creating their own businesses, and with some appearing on programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den.

Whilst around 1000 students participate in other voluntary activities, giving something back to the local community and enhancing their employability skills.

This brief snapshot of activity at Royal Holloway gives you just a small insight into the quality and breadth of what goes on at the College.

As the new Principal, it’s something that I’m proud to be associated with and look forward to developing.

However, these are challenging times for the economy and higher education has been called upon to play its part in ensuring a sustainable economy and socially responsible society.

At one level, we’ve been spared some of the pain that many public services are now experiencing, however difficult choices have had to be made by funders and by the universities themselves and, we should not underestimate the impact these changes will have on future students and access to higher education.

There is still much for us to understand, including the unintended consequences of the new arrangements.

Returning to my sea-going metaphor, even if we don’t quite know in which port we might dock, we must at least make sure we end up in the right country…

… for these reasons, in January this year, Council and the senior management team published a manifesto that sets out the characteristics of the type of institution we are and wished to remain….amongst others, a College that…

…is academically excellent, accessible and socially responsible…

…whose programmes are relevant to lifelong employment and development needs and provide an excellent student experience…

… operating in a transparent, flexible and sustainable manner…

After consultation across the College, we’ve now formally adopted the manifesto as our chart to guide us in the challenging times ahead- firmly based on many of the principles that established Bedford and Royal Holloway colleges- access and excellence.

At times of great change, many opportunities will become apparent and I’m convinced that with our strong academic and financial position, we’ll be able to take advantage of them and make us a better College than ever before.

We are already starting to see evidence of these opportunities and are currently in discussions with possible partners to broaden access to our programmes, including the delivery of some of them overseas.

We have started work on making many significant changes to the student experience, including a commitment to increasing teaching and learning spaces- both formal and informal, most likely through an extension to the Bedford Library and creating new types of spaces that meet the need of today’s students.

Despite the uncertainty in higher education, the future looks bright and I hope to be able to report on some of these developments in my address at the next Honorary Fellows dinner.

In the meantime, let me end with a quote from Thomas Holloway’s Deed of Foundation, which I believe shows great foresight and is as relevant today as it was 125 years ago.

“Education should not be exclusively regulated by the tradition and method of former ages; but that it should be founded on those studies and sciences which the experience of modern times has shown to be the most valuable, and the best adapted to meet the intellectual and social requirements of the students.”

In other words, education is not something stuck in a time warp; it must flex and move with the times.

We have a great tradition, the principles of which we will preserve, but, true to Holloway’s vision, we must be prepared to change the way in which we deliver our educational objectives in the best interests of the students and the wider society we serve.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you.

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Download the Honorary Fellows 2011 programme.