This summer, Professor Caroline Gipps retires from her role as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton after six years of successful leadership. The University has enjoyed many successes, as well as faced challenges, during this period and the higher education landscape looks very different from her early years at the helm. Here Professor Gipps reflects on the various achievements and looks ahead to a new era.
Situated in the centre of Wolverhampton, the University is at the heart of the city. The view from Professor Caroline Gipps’ office window looks out over the landmark St Peter’s Church and across to the council Civic Centre. But Caroline admits that before she joined the University, she knew little about the city, and was pleasantly surprised.
“I first looked at Wolverhampton the night before the informal visiting day. My husband and I walked around and I thought ‘this looks like a nice place’. When I first started at the University I was surprised at how big it was and how good the facilities were. I also felt that it was very well managed.”
Now, six years on, Caroline holds a pivotal role in the city and has built strong partnerships with other leading organisations, such as Wolverhampton City Council, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, City of Wolverhampton College and the Primary Care Trust.
“I think the University is a key player in the city. In fact, after the City Council, we are the biggest institution. Our fortunes are inextricably linked with the fortunes of the city. I work closely with the Chief Executives or Chairmen of the other organisations to ensure we are pulling in the same direction,” she says.
“There is no doubt that the University brings a lot to the city. For many years we were the only organisation doing any building and our students bring a significant amount of income into the region. The West Midlands has a low percentage of people with higher skills and that is where we play the most important role. That said, there needs to be the right sort of job available for our graduates to be able to stay in the region.”
Caroline believes the great strengths of the University have remained consistent for the last 50 years. The University’s crest features the words ‘innovation and opportunity’ and she feels this is absolutely relevant.
“We provide opportunities for young people and adults to get a higher education qualification where otherwise they might not have thought of coming to university. We give them a good practical degree that changes their lives. Another strength is the way we work with business to innovate and support their aims,” she explains.
The needs of the University’s graduates and students are at the very core of its mission, and they remain the best ambassadors for what the institution seeks to achieve. Caroline is extremely positive about the thousands of students who have collected their degree scrolls during her time.
“Every experience I have had of Wolverhampton students shows me they are confident and able to speak for themselves. Whether it is the Students’ Union sabbatical officers or other students giving a presentation, I am always impressed. Our students never let us down. Recently the Students’ Union gave a presentation of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) audit, and it was so professional that the auditors wished they had videoed it to use in training.
“I have really enjoyed getting to know the Students’ Union Presidents every year. I have always had a monthly meeting with the President and watching them grow in confidence and voice throughout their year in office has been a delight.”
Looking back over the last six years, there have been many successes and achievements. The University itself looks different, with a number of new buildings opening their doors. The Administration and Teaching building opened at City Campus North in 2007, providing excellent space for learning and teaching as well as offices for administration staff. Within the last year, the University of Wolverhampton Business School relocated to refurbished accommodation at the City Campus. Over at Walsall, a new Education and Teaching building opened in 2008 and The Performance Hub, a new multi-million pound performing arts centre, will be completed this summer, ready for the next academic year.
"We have very good teaching facilities. We are very lucky to have finished them as universities that need to do building work in future will find the money hard to find. The one building we still need to do is a new science facility. The plans are quite well advanced and we will find a way of doing that.”
Professor Gipps lists another highlight as the University’s improved research performance. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008 rated elements of research as world leading.
“As a lifelong researcher, I was very pleased about that, and it put to bed the myth that we are a teaching only institution. It feeds our knowledge transfer activity, at which we have always been good, and now I think we are excellent.”
Turning to the student experience, under Caroline the University has reviewed the undergraduate portfolio and is in the process of reworking postgraduate courses. The aim was to prepare students for the world of work. A new position of Dean of Students was created and a range of services brought together under this unit. The University has increased social learning spaces, which are extremely popular with the student body. The Students’ Union was transformed into the Ambika Paul Student Union Centre, which opened last year offering a coffee bar area with comfortable seats and plasma screens, a study zone with computers, meeting rooms and offices.
On a personal note, Caroline says she has enjoyed the people the most, and setting up and managing teams in particular. She highlights working with the Executive team and the Board of Governors, who have always been supportive. She also mentions her PAs Beryl Feely and Louise Tonks, and the Senior Management Group including the Deans and Directors.
“I will miss the people the most, and thinking about strategy. Over the last six to nine months, the changes we have had to think about are bigger, more significant and less thought through than in any other era of education I can think of. I have really enjoyed the challenge of thinking through how we should respond and react to them.”
This is, of course, a reference to the changes to tuition fees and the withdrawal of Government funding. Professor Gipps states this is the biggest challenge facing the University and the sector as a whole.
“We really have no idea what is going to happen in applications for September 2012 and the years following. There could be a downturn nationally, but then I think it will pick up again as people realise the importance of getting a degree.”
This is a theme Caroline picked up on in a public lecture in June, titled Who Goes to University? And Why it Matters. She explained that being educated to degree level offers benefits to the individual in terms of career, interesting work, increased income and a range of other non-financial benefits.
“But it also benefits society, in having people educated to a higher skills level. I am not trying to say that everybody should go to university – far from it. I am pleased the Government is encouraging more apprentices and more vocational routes into the professions but I do believe that people who have the ability and motivation to go to university should be able to.”
Caroline retires from her position as Vice-Chancellor this summer. Professor Geoff Layer, who was previously Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at the University of Bradford, has been appointed to the role. Looking ahead, Caroline feels she is leaving the University in a strong position.
“I think our reputation locally and regionally is strong and we have excellent courses. We are in a great financial position and have good reserves and cash flow. Given the future costs of higher education, we are in a good position having a large travel-to-study population. The next few years will be choppy, but we are in as good a position as we can be.”
And what is Professor Gipps looking forward to most about her retirement?
“Not getting up early!” she says. “I am also looking forward to travelling slowly. I have travelled a lot with work, but I have never really seen places because of being busy.”
Caroline cites Hong Kong as being her favourite place she has visited during her time at Wolverhampton, and her last overseas trip for the University was for the conferment of honorary degrees to three significant figures in India, which included her first visit to Chennai.
As well as travelling, Caroline says she will still be doing a few things related to higher education. She will continue to Chair the Higher Education Academy national fellowship scheme and she will be assisting the Frank Buttle Trust. She would also like to write a book, which would be a biography, and she and her husband are renovating a house in London.
Until recently, Caroline would have listed being President of the British Educational Research Association as her greatest achievement. But she has received the good news that her book, Beyond Testing, will be republished as a special edition because it is considered to be a classic in its field.
“I would have to say that is my highlight now, and I’m tickled pink,” she adds.
And she still has an ambition to fulfil. Caroline will become a grandparent for the first time this summer, and she says she would like to teach her grandchildren to sail, as she taught both her sons.
When asked if she has a favourite memory from her time as Vice-Chancellor, Caroline recalls a striking incident involving a group of students. I will miss the people the most, and thinking about strategy.
“About four years ago, I was walking through the Harrison Learning Centre entrance to the campus, probably to get a coffee, and I walked past a rather rowdy group of students. I slowed down to listen to what was going on.
“One young woman was telling the others about a fantastic lecture she had been to. She said, ‘I have just been to the most fantastic lecture – it was on the Enlightenment. It was mind blowing.’ I just thought that was wonderful. It encapsulated what we do – we get people to think.
“What I like about that is the motto of that period of history, the Enlightenment, was ‘Dare to Think’ and that is exactly what this lecture had got this young woman to do.”