At the end of the 2016 calendar year, Newcastle University bid farewell to Chris Brink, Vice-Chancellor of the University since 2007. Brink’s successor, Professor Chris Day, took up the role of VC with effect from 1 January 2017.
Prof Chris Day, one of the country’s leading medical academics, previously held the position of Pro-Vice-Chancellor (PVC) for the Faculty of Media Sciences at Newcastle University.
Speaking exclusively to The Courier shortly after taking up his position in office, Prof Day discusses Brexit, Mental Health and University life.
What was your University experience like?
I went to Churchill College at Cambridge and it was really at the start of student diversity and widening participation, so you can imagine what that was like at an Oxbridge College that was, and continues to be, hammered for diversity.
There’s the impression that it’s all white, rich kids from private schools. The reason I went to Cambridge was because Churchill College was one of the only early colleges that said ‘we have a problem here’. The College would send minibuses up to places in the North East and ask schools to fill them with kids who they thought were bright. These minibuses were sent to schools like mine that typically never sent anybody to Oxbridge.
I read recently that some Students’ Unions are appointing specific Working Class Officers to help integration. Nobody did that sort of thing for me and my generation and I felt completely lost when I first arrived. Everybody that I met had been to Eton or Harrow and I was there from North Shields Comprehensive School.
Do you think similar problems exist today within Universities?
Definitely. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is very hot on this; it’s one thing to have widening participation policies that increase the chances of a student from a low-income background or a disadvantaged group getting into University. But it’s important to look after these students when they actually arrive.
Nobody was thinking of that in the late 1970s when I went to University. Most of the time they were just pleased that they had got a comprehensive, state school boy from North Shields into Cambridge. You were kind of just left there to swim, but luckily for me, I was a good footballer. I immediately went off and joined the University football team and from there I met a lot of people like me to go out drinking with. But, if I hadn’t of had the sport to fall back on, I would have really been like a fish out of water.
What I’m hinting at is that Universities, either by choice or through things like the TEF metrics, are going to be forced to make sure that once a widening or an ethnic minority student begins at University, they are looked after.
On a similar note, how much pressure do you think there is on the University, if any, on its European student body following Brexit?
A degree at Newcastle might be more difficult to sell to European students for all the issues regarding Brexit that we are obviously aware of.
Brexit also places further pressures on our partnerships across the globe. But in fact, we have as many growing partnerships with the likes of China, Australia and the U.S., as we have in Europe . Following Brexit, you could argue that these partnerships are going to strengthen even more.
You would hope that the collaborations and connections that we have in Europe continue, but it does place more emphasis on our non-EU partnerships.
We have a Newcastle University campus in Malaysia and a campus in Singapore. Hopefully International students, both inside and outside of the EU, as well as staff, continue to want to be a part of Newcastle University.
You mentioned University staff, do you share any worries related to staffing following Brexit?
We’re not actually as dependent upon EU students as other Universities, I think it’s more our staff. We have found it easier over the years to recruit from say Germany than from Cambridge.
I think that South Easterners have a particular prejudices about Newcastle, believing it to be the ‘cold’ North, all built from ship-making and coal-mining. Conversely somebody from say Frankfurt, just thinks of our University as the U.K.
We have certain departments which are run by 60-70% of European staff. On June 24 last year, we received a large number of calls from these staff members when the result of Brexit was announced.
More generally, can you see any parallels between your former student self and current students?
Generally, student life doesn’t seem that much different. Actually, my observation is that students nowadays seem to work a lot harder. I get the impression that my generation went to University and thought that we would just get a degree and everything else would be fine. Whereas now, I get the impression that, going off the example of my two children and their friends, students have it in their heads that they must get a 1st class degree and work experience whilst at uni. Students seem to be much more focused on the end game and using their degrees as a core way to build their career.
I went to University to grow up a bit and see what life away from home was really like.
Do you think that the pressure of University life has led to a direct increase in Mental Health problems?
Yes – I suspect that if my perception is correct, then of course you are going to end up with more students suffering from mental illnesses because they are absolutely driven and focused. The pressurised student environment that now seems to be a part of our culture is bound to have downsides to it.
As a University, I don’t know where we go from here in terms of Mental Health with students however I’m keen to take the issues very seriously. In my day it was a lot different with everybody trying to claim that they were dyslexic in order to get extra time in exams.
I know that many Universities are very keen to ensure that all the problems that students are registering through PEC, are actually genuine. I think it’s a very good topic to discuss with the Sabbatical Officers in the near future to understand the student perspective.
Finally, what piece of advice would you give to your former student self?
Whilst at University, definitely make the most of every opportunity that comes your way, whether it be academic, social or cultural. You’ll never have it as good in life as you have it when you’re at University.
I have no doubt that University is the best years of your life. I knew the minute that I got to University that the experience was going to be better than school and probably never as good as that again.
Don’t pass up any chance to join a society or play for a sports club, or even taking that extra course in a new language. There are lots of quotes revolving around the idea that you always regret what you didn’t do.
So yes, I think my piece of advice would be to grab every opportunity with both hands and maybe look back on a few mistakes you made, but at least you made them.
Thank-you for taking the time to speak with The Courier. We wish you the very best of luck in your new position.