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Brian Harris interview

Brian Harris interview

Entrepreneur and Royal Holloway alumnus Brian Harris provides a scholarship for students from lower-income backgrounds to pursue a Masters degree in History. He spoke to us about how much his university meant to him and why he decided to help future students.

What was it that attracted you to Royal Holloway?

I was the first in my family ever to go to University at a time when only about 3% of 18 year olds did so. I had no parental guidance on how to make a choice so I was primarily influenced by the beautiful Founder’s Building and the exquisite environment, as it was then a lot smaller with very rural grounds filled with orchards and flowering shrubs. It was the only one of my five choices to offer me an interview, others simply made an offer based on expected grades. I enjoyed the interview despite a few pratfalls on my part. Asked which book I was reading, and it remains seared in my memory to this day (it was a biography of the French king Henri IV), I couldn’t remember the name of the author!   

How much has Royal Holloway changed since then?

A lot. Mainly in terms of size and to an extent in terms of its demographic.

When I came to Royal Holloway in 1973, it had not long ceased to be a female only college and still had a heavy preponderance of young women, who had come to Royal Holloway following the advice of their own teachers who had studied there. Others had come as they had failed to get into Oxbridge and felt that the cloistral environment carried echoes of their first choices. It was only about 1,200 strong in terms of student numbers of which perhaps a third took an active part in college life which meant that it felt like a large family. It would be wrong to say you knew everyone by name, but you could recognise most as fellow students.

The international component was not as high as it is presently but it was still considerable. There were for example many students from Iran, Thailand and Greece. Egham was in those days still very much an outlier in terms of London University college locations. For example neither the M3 nor the M25 had been built. It felt, and in truth was, rather remote with only an irregular train service into London, so life was rather inward facing and focused on the campus.

The student accommodation is truly luxurious now compared to then. The old halls of residence, Cameron, Athlone and Williamson (which were not so old in fact having been built in the late 1960s) seemed to have been designed by someone who had a penchant for the architecture of a WW2 Bunker. Bare block walls everywhere and a simple wash hand basin in each room, with shared showers and toilets.

What sparked your interest in history, any particular areas?

I had always wanted to study history. It was my favourite subject at school where I was fortunate in having excellent history teachers who encouraged pupils to speak out and ask questions. I have very catholic tastes in history but I know the early modern period best.

What made you want to study an MA? 

It had become apparent to me at college, even with the far lower student numbers than in tertiary education, that without contacts or guidance I would struggle to stand out from among the many who also had bachelor’s degrees. I thought, and this is as true now as it was then, that an employer faced with a large pile of CVs, would first filter on the basis of the highest level of qualifications. I was also undecided as to whether I wished to go on with academic study towards a PhD or find a job in business or the civil service, so it gave me some useful space in which to decide while gaining a higher qualification 

What was your most memorable or enjoyable moment?

Too many to mention or pick one out, but I have a keen memory of my first day at college, feeling strongly that this was the first day of my truly adult life. My time at Royal Holloway was overall the happiest in my life 

How has studying history impacted your life?

I see myself as part of an ongoing continuum and it has always seemed obvious that you need to understand how I/we have come to where we are and how we understand the direction of travel. Particularly at present. 

As a successful entrepreneur, what would you say are the key skills history graduates possess?

An ability to quickly marshal an argument and present it cogently and confidently, coupled with (usually) a deeper insight in current affairs This is a big plus in a world where we have every growing technological competence but struggle to explain it  

What made you want to set up the Brian Harris scholarship?

Royal Holloway made a huge difference to my life. I was from a poor background. My father was a manual worker and without my four years of study at Royal Holloway I am sure I would not have succeeded as much in life as I have. I studied in an era of free tertiary education (albeit for far fewer numbers) and I am deeply conscious that had the present day funding formula existed then, I doubt whether I would ever have studied for a degree, let alone a Masters, and I am keen to try, at least in a small way, to level the playing field for the more disadvantaged student 

What advice would you give to students thinking about applying for your scholarship?  

Get to know what the eligibility criteria are first and if it fits you or your circumstances. Think clearly about how to make the application that will show that you have closely read and understood these and don’t be bashful Lucidly make the point why you need a scholarship and how will it help you. If you don’t blow your own your own trumpet as to your successes and relevance no one else will!



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