Q&A: the new VC on salaries, carbon emissions, and semesterisation

We put the big questions to Professor Koen, the incoming Vice Chancellor

Professor Koen Lamberts was announced as the University's next Vice-Chancellor

Professor Koen Lamberts was announced as the University’s next Vice-Chancellor

Koen Lamberts, currently Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost at Warwick University, was recently announced as the next Vice Chancellor of York. He’ll be taking up the mantle of Brian Cantor, and taking responsibility for some big decisions for York.

So Josh Boswell decided to put the big questions to Professor Koen, from Vice Chancellors’ pay, to the Hes East/West division.

Why York?

York is an outstanding University which has achieved a lot in its relatively short history. It attracts excellent students and staff, and has first-class departments across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. It has a reputation for being a cohesive community with a strong commitment to fairness, equality and open debate – all of which I find very appealing.

What do you see the role of York VC as?

The Vice Chancellor is the chief academic and administrative officer of the University. He or she is there to provide leadership, but to do so in a way that is inclusive, supportive and inspiring for colleagues and students alike.

What do you think Brian Cantor has done well, and what do you think needs improvement?

Brian’s greatest achievement is probably to lead the expansion of the University, which has grown by 50 per cent over 10 years, while making sure that it remains true to its founding principles. This is a very difficult thing to pull off, and he has done it with great skill. He will hand on a very strong institution with a bright future.

Can you name 3 things that will be the main focus of your VC-ship?

My top priorities will be (1) ensuring that the experience we offer our students is really outstanding; (2) supporting the academic community to undertake world-class research; and (3) enhancing the University’s reputation locally, nationally and internationally.

What would you say your legacy at Warwick consists of?

That is a very difficult question to answer. I have fulfilled various roles – teacher, researcher, head of department, chair of a faculty, and member of the senior management team. Working with great colleagues, I believe I have made a small but significant contribution to making Warwick the world-class institution it is today.

We’ve seen a £6.4m increase in tuition fee income just from last year’s rise in student numbers. But borrowing is currently at 85 per cent of the upper limit, with £127m net debt, and a £9.7m pensions deficit. What should the University spend the £2.7m projected net gain from raising tuition fees on? Servicing this debt? Or ringfence it for provision for students paying tripled fees?

The University should continue to invest to ensure that the experience it offers students at all levels is as good as it possibly can be. Some of the recent innovations, such as the refurbishment of the library, 24-hour library opening and improvements to Student – Staff Ratios – are important steps in the right direction. I believe we can go further over the coming years.

Research income under £50m for first time in 5 years. Were you hired because York’s research income is plummeting, while you boosted Warwick’s research income as Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research?

I think the panel was interested in the range of my expertise and experience. Research grant income at York is now on an upward trajectory – it is expected to rise by 13 per cent this year. I am very keen that this trajectory should be maintained and if possible enhanced.

We’re very successful at marketing ourselves as a collegiate, close-knit University. But there is a growing division with Heslington East, and that campus has experienced several problems with outsourced utilities and portering. Concerns have also been raised about the tax dealings of the University’s joint venture partner for the Heslington East accommodation. Do you think a University should be run like a business?

The University’s operations need to be run with the efficiency of a business. For example, students have the right to expect the same high standard of service they would receive from the best private sector companies. At the same time, decisions cannot be made purely on the basis of cost reduction, or what will generate the highest return. At all times, we need to balance protecting the University’s long-term financial position with an enduring commitment to our core values and principles.

The University has received more than £4m since 2008 from firms involved in the arms trade. We know in 2009 the University held over £1m of shares in arms firms but, after student protests, signed up to an Ethical Investment Policy. This year the University has refused to declare if it has divested or not. Would you declare shareholdings in arms firms if you found them?

York does not really have major investments, so I don’t think the question arises. However, York’s ethical investment policy seems to be well conceived – the challenge will be to apply it wisely and consistently in an ever changing world.

The University’s Sustainability Report last year calculated a real reduction in carbon emissions of 62 per cent was needed by 2020 to adhere to Higher Education Funding Council requirements. Reductions have flatlined since 2007 and we have even seen increases in the past 5 years. Will you get us back on track?

I am committed to the sustainability agenda and regard this as a very important aspect of it. The good news is that the University’s recent investment in biomass and in more efficient gas CHP boilers will significantly reduce our carbon emissions and will allow us to meet our HEFCE targets. I am hopeful that we can do still more by improving the energy efficiency of the estate through an ongoing programme of refurbishment and replacement.

Currently our Student Union president has one meeting a term with the VC, and the relationship between the University and the Union can be quite combative, though also constructive. Will you seek to redefine the relationship with YUSU?

I hope to have a positive, fruitful and close relationship with student leaders. However, I also hope to find ways to meet students at all levels. I would be interested in the views of your readers on how best to do this.

Warwick rejected semesterisation in the early 90s, now regards this decision as contributing to academic success over the last decade – at least according to a couple of studies I’ve read! Back in 1995 Warwick’s University spokesman Peter Dunn said, “If you are going to be one of the top research institutions, you have to give staff time to do research… Semesters increase teaching loads and reduce time for that kind of research. We don’t see the need: if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” But many Universities have taken it on, many with great success. Brian Cantor has said it’s up to you. So, the big question is: are you for or against semesterisation?

A better question would be: am I in favour of semesterisation at York? I think there are compelling arguments in favour of semesterisation, but there also a number of issues to be ironed out before a clear way forward can be identified. I will follow the debate with interest over the next few weeks.

Do you think Vice Chancellors are paid too much at the moment?

Salaries of VCs should reflect the level of responsibility they are asked to take on, but also their performance.

Warwick’s business school announced plans this week for a London campus next year. UEA and Liverpool are doing the same, and you’ve got experience managing a partnership programme in the form of the ‘Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership’. Do you think a London campus is a possibility for York?

I would like to understand the University of York much better before I answer that question. What is clear, though, is that York needs to maintain and if possible enhance its national and international profile and reputation. I will be working very hard with colleagues to achieve that, and we will be considering various ways in which we can make progress.

You have had stellar success and an almost supersonic career path. You were Chair of Faculty of Science (& Head of Psychology Dept) in 2007, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research in 2010, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Academic Resourcing in 2011, and then Deputy-Vice-Chancellor and Provost from February last year. Is this the peak of this impressive career path, or is York VC just another stepping-stone?

I have never seen any of my jobs as a stepping stone towards another one – you just can’t plan ahead in that way. I can assure you that I have no greater ambition at this time than to do the best job for York I possibly can, and I really mean that!

What would you like to see from the new Vice Chancellor? Let us know in the comments below.

4 comments

  1. He certainly has a top-class qualification in not answering questions. Good job for getting such a length interview in the first place though, even if half the answers are parroted straight from the uni’s marketing brief.

    “We put the big questions to Professor Koen”? Surely “Professor Lamberts” would be more appropriate; I doubt the outgoing VC is used to being called Professor Brian.

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  2. He does dodge the nuts off most of those questions. What can you expect from what reads like an email Q&A – no ability to press a question Paxo style! Good questions generally, but I guess we will have to reserve judgement.

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  3. Just another one who takes a long time to say nothing and avoids directly answering the question. Sir Humphrey is a live and well

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  4. Question dodging master.

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