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Tribute to outgoing University of Leicester Vice-Chancellor, Sir Robert Burgess at Alumni dinner (Claridge’s, Thursday 20th February 2014) February 22, 2014

Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education.
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– Over the last 5 years, at Alumni dinners year in, year out we have been able to hear a series of fantastic achievements which the university has accomplished. From the developments which have helped to transform campus such as the David Wilson Library and re-development of the Percy Gee SU building, through to internationally significant find of Richard III, the exquisite development to halls of Residence in Oadby and now the developments of the £42m  Medical Building.

– The quite momentous rise & rise of the University of the Leicester since 1999 has been overseen by the distinguished leadership of Sir Robert Burgess. After nearly 15 years of quite outstanding stewardship the Vice-Chancellor retires at the end of the academic year. The VC’s contribution to the University has been little short of extraordinary and his retirement marks the end of an illustrious chapter in the university’s history.

– I know that whether you were a student under Bob’s tenure or as a graduate before he arrived, we can ALL be proud of his tremendous achievements. Under his guidance this is a university that has now soared into the UK’s top 20  universities – and he will tell you if you consult the best tables the top 10 –  is consistently scored as one of England’s leading university for student satisfaction, and is the only university to have won awards at the Times Higher Education awards in every year since 2007 – including the coveted university of the year.

– To steal one of the VC’s best lines, ‘even if we graduated before he arrived, we all benefit from the continued success of the university’.

– As a students’ union leader and then as President of the National Union of Students, I always found Bob to be an exemplar of what you’d hope from a university vice-chancellor. Indeed my first encounter with the VC came as an undergraduate student in the Department of English, when in my final year I edited The Ripple student newspaper (now an online publication) I secured an interview with him, and like any budding writer at the time was hoping to trip him up. Of course he glided through the interview seamlessly and left me with nothing other than good news stories to write about. During my time at the students’ union he was a model Vice-Chancellor to work with, placing partnership, collaboration and crucially the student interest at the heart of everything he did.

– At NUS, I worked with dozens of Bob’s colleagues at universities across the UK. Without exception their interactions with him have been exemplary, and he was widely acknowledged by his Vice-Chancellor counterparts as not having made a transformational impact on the University of Leicester, but also to the higher education sector in the UK more widely. In addition to his outstanding work at Leicester, he has chaired a hatful of national committees his legacy will not just be restricted to our university or the city of Leicester, but in many respects right across the UK.

– So whilst 2014 marks the beginning of a new and exciting era for the university, the VCs achievements of the last 15 years leave an indelible and lasting imprint of the university I know we can all be immensely proud of. For all who have had the pleasure of working with him, I know I can speak on behalf of them all by saying he has been a pleasure to work alongside, a wonderful ambassador for the university and if I may say personally a tremendous mentor.

– I know we’d all like to wish the Vice Chancellor a rewarding and fulfilling next phase in his life and that together with Lady Burgess wish them both the very best for the future.

I’d now like to invite Patrick Mulvihill as Chair of the Alumni Association to make a presentation to the Vice-Chancellor.

24 Nov – Times Higher Education – Listen to the heart November 28, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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Times Higher Education, 24 November 2011

Listen to the heart

Aaron Porter says that in a high-fees world, the sector must do more to involve an increasingly diverse student body in decision-making


Listen to the heart

Credit: Elly Walton

Today, it seems, there is barely a consultation paper or university strategy that does not refer to the importance of “student engagement”. But for all the talk, how effectively does the academy engage with students? Has it merely become adept at paying lip service to the idea?

It is often observed that since the introduction of tuition fees, students increasingly have asked what they will get for their money. The Labour government’s response was to introduce numerous initiatives for student engagement, including student juries, a national forum and even a minister for students. The usefulness of each, however, was questionable – and all were axed by the coalition when it came to power.

The emphasis on student engagement has grown for other reasons, too. One imperative has been the move from an elite to a mass higher education system and the consequent need for universities to involve students other than full-time, 18-21-year-old undergraduates. This has led to an important shift in activity by the National Union of Students.

I know from my time as NUS president that its emphasis on student engagement – built on a sound evidence base – has played a considerable role in ensuring a credible and more mature student contribution to national debate. It has also supported students’ unions to do much the same at the institutional level.

When universities are asked how they engage with students, they are quick to point to committees with student representation, and to students’ unions that have been consulted in their decision-making.

But whether these structures genuinely reach beyond traditional full-time students is questionable. And for all the consultation that takes place, do students really have a greater influence than they did decades ago?

I am not convinced. There has undoubtedly been progress, but it has been too slow and too constrained. Far too many universities are still content to have a handful of students on their committees and a staff-student liaison meeting once a month.

Relying on committees does not cut the mustard. Often the students who attend these meetings have the time to do so because they do not need part-time jobs and don’t have caring responsibilities. How are part-time students or distance learners being involved? The overwhelming majority of student representatives are still drawn from a narrow pool.

Nationally, the same accusations can be made. The political parties and the higher education sector waxed lyrical about the importance of student engagement when the groundwork was being laid to increase tuition fees. But there was more than a whiff of double standards when formal student representation was left off the terms of reference for the Browne Review.

And while sector bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency and the UK funding councils have made huge strides in recent years – many adding student members to their boards – the documents and reports they produce remain impenetrable to those who are not higher education policy experts.

Will the changes being introduced next autumn really lead to a more “student-focused” higher education system? The answer here is perhaps the most dispiriting. I do not believe for one second that the title of the higher education White Paper means what it says – unless you think that being at the “heart of the system” means giving students a bit more information (not provided by the government, of course, but left to others) while demanding a hugely increased financial contribution from them.

Universities must do more to open up their books and to involve students in decision-making and strategic planning. It is great to see that the University of Exeter has created a budget scrutiny committee jointly chaired by the university’s registrar and its Students’ Guild president. This committee will oversee where Exeter’s additional tuition-fee money will be spent. It actually grants real decision-making power to students, rather than giving them leave to offer views that may or may not be taken on board.

After all, the only way we can make the reformed system work – and truly place students at the heart of the system – is if universities and students’ unions work together. The responsibility lies at the door of both organisations to ensure that students’ diverse voices are heard. Excuses to ignore them are wearing thin.