Town Meets Gown

Anthony Forster

Ahh – the wonders of the modern interweb.

Back in the day and the closest I came to a conversation with the then Vice Chancellor up at the University of Essex was when I gatecrashed a drinks reception for local dignitaries. Not so much a warm welcome at Wivenhoe House but a room temperature bottle of cheapo Tesco bolly.

Chin chin.

More than two decades later and digital technology allows you to engage [URGH] with @forster_anthony – the new VC up on campus.

Keep your 140 character tweet on message and you may even get a very kind invite for an interview with the internet savvy new VC.

9am was a little sharp on Thursday morning.

No sign of cheapo Tesco bolly either.

Having taken up his official title as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Essex back at the start of August, yer new man on campus has wasted no time in getting a feel for both Town and Gown.

Keen to meet both staff and folk from the town – an often-interchangeable group – it’s quite an open office as you are welcomed through the fancy Square 5 Reception area. Oh the irony of the plush meet ‘n’ greet space once being home to the old undergraduate phone boxes back in the day.

“Mum – can you send us a grubby fiver in the post ASAP please? I owe a man a bottle of cheapo Tesco bolly.”

Whoops.

A quick cheesy pose for posterity, and then we were straight into the conversation about what brings Anthony to Colchester:

“I’m a Professor of Politics and International Relations. Over the past twenty years or so I’ve specialising in foreign and security policy. More recently I have been looking at British military politics. I’m particularly interested in a range of relationships that the armed forces have with society, with the government of the day and the Ministry of Defence.

A number of different aspects of that have concerned me over the past decade, particularly issues around the duty of care that the government owes service men and women. I’m also interested in the way that society relates to the armed forces.”

Quite fitting then that Anthony should find himself here in Sunny Colch. The Garrison connection with the town pre-dates the academic relationship by a couple of thousand years. The more modern day issues of the 16th Air Assault Brigade might keep Anthony busy when he’s not wearing his VC hat.

As for the University itself?

“The reputation of the University in social sciences is absolutely top. It is the number one University in the United Kingdom for social science. Being a social scientist, that sort of reputation has a very strong appeal to me.”

Having a Professor of Social Science as your VC presents some interesting possibilities to the growing Department of Government. It’s the academic equivalent of Dave Grohl being the drummer in the world’s leading rock band, then forming a new group and deciding to drop the drumsticks.

The process of appointing a prestigious VC however is slightly different to forming Foo Fighters:

“It’s an open competition for attracting external and internal candidates. It’s advertised in the major newspapers and the academic press. It’s followed by a selection process that involves not only members of the academic community, members of Senate, but also members of the University Council who are the board of Trustees of the University.”

With only couple of months to prepare himself for Fresher’s Week, Anthony’s August arrival at Wivenhoe Park gave him a short learning curve before the students returned.

What were his first impressions of the University?

“It’s a wonderful University doing some very important things. It’s a University that has a very clear sense of values in terms of the international dimension and interdisciplines. Those are very strong features of the University. These are features of the University that in my first three months of my appointment I have really noticed in a very significant way.

I also think that the campus is wonderful. I happen to love this sort of architecture. A lot of thought and care and attention has been put into designing the campus to make sure that the architecture and the buildings reflect the academic mission of the University. I’m excited about the prospect of putting up some new buildings, but also the refurbishment plans that we have for the historic estate.”

University of Essex

A man that can appreciate the beauty of the Essex brutalism is a man that should fit in well around these parts.

As for looking around outside of campus?

“We have managed to get out a little bit. We’ve explored Colchester and Wivenhoe. We’ve travelled around parts of North Essex and into Suffolk. That’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve been incredibly impressed by how wonderful the landscape is and how friendly the people are.”

The meet ‘n’ greet aspect of being the VC is often overlooked. Managing budgets, expanding the business, building car parks – all are part of the hustle and bustle of being the VC at Essex. But being the public face of one of the major employers in the region is a role that probably isn’t part of the job spec when you apply to be a Professor.

Anthony has made a great start already in attending the Wivenhoe Town and Gown event that took place down at The Nottage last weekend:

“It was a wonderful occasion of about 60 – 70 people who came together from the town and the University to fundraise for student scholarships. It was a fantastically enjoyable occasion. It really represented what I would like to see as the best of the relationship between people of Wivenhoe and the University, coming together to celebrate students and to find resources to help students who are now paying very significant fees.”

Ah yes – “significant fees.”

My undergraduate days of social science diplomacy suggested that the £9k Essex tuition fees were probably best left until the close of the interview, just before the expectant man hug session when we were due to depart.

Let’s talk instead about not what you can do for the University, but what the University can do for you (in a broad PEOPLE OF COLCHESTER sense, and not in relation the new VC…)

“The University generates around £192m into the local economy. Beyond the people that the University directly employs, there are another one thousand jobs that are derived from the University being at its location at Wivenhoe Park.

There is so much more that the University does for the local community, in terms of art and volunteering. The Art Exchange and the Lakeside Theatre on campus are open for business. They are offering very exciting shows that have a local draw. About 40% of visitors are coming from the local community. That’s wonderful – if it could be even higher it would be even better.

The University also makes a very significant contribution to firstsite. That’s really important in making sure that we share the cultural heritage of this region as widely as possible, both at Wivenhoe Park and at firstsite in Colchester.”

firstsite

Just name checking firstsite clearly shows that Anthony has done his Colchester homework. With a new VC on campus and a new Director taking up his post at the Golden Goose, this could possibly be just the fresh start that firstsite needs to build upon the well-intentioned community involvement.

Anthony’s understanding of Wivenhoe hyperlocal history continued to come across clearly:

“I’m struck by the fact the University was founded by the generosity of the people of Essex nearly fifty years ago. They raised a million and a half pounds for the University to be established in Wivenhoe Park. I think that it’s a really exciting opportunity to ask ourselves what should the relationship be like between Wivenhoe and Colchester. Have we really capitalised in the best sort of way in those relationships? What are the steps that we can take in the next fifty years in terms of strengthening the relationship between Town and Gown?

I would want to look at anything that could strengthen our relationship between our neighobours in Essex and the University. We should leave no stone unturned. The founding vision of the University was to make sure that there was no barrier between the boundary of the campus and the boundary of Wivenhoe and the boundary of Colchester. I’m really keen to see how we can create a space where people who aren’t part of the University can feel welcome on campus.”

Boundary Road

Those boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred with the rapid building of the Knowledge Gateway. Colchester now comes to a close somewhere around the edges of the Greenstead roundabout, with the University starting once you have managed to navigate yourself away from the multi twists and turns. Wivenhoe continues to creep ever closer towards campus.

Never the twain shall meet, but the University has managed to make sure that Colchester and Wivenhoe have remained geographically separate, for better or for worse. Meanwhile the No Man’s Land of the Knowledge Gateway will provide a buffer between Boundary Road and both towns.

And so what the chuffers is a Knowledge Gateway exactly?

“The Knowledge Gateway is a space where we want to make sure that the University is more business facing. We want to create an opportunity for businesses to come to the Wivenhoe Park campus, to be located in excellent infrastructure and in a way that they can actually benefit from the intellectual capital that exists within the University.

We’ve completed the first phase of that. The roads and the infrastructure have now all gone in. We’re just about to start building on the Knowledge Gateway site. The first phase of that is something called Parkside where we will be creating business units. We can then start off the process of attracting businesses into the campus so that they can benefit from the type of infrastructure and facilities that we have got.”

This is quite a social, economic and indeed political shift away from the founding fathers (ALWAYS fathers…) of the University back during the early ’60s. The Essex Troubles of the early ’70s would probably have thought that a Knowledge Gateway was a mind-expanding drug.

Maybe it is? (in a purely economic frame of reference, you understand.)

Is this a new way for Universities to work in a new business sector?

“To some degree it is new, but to some degree it is a well established path that Universities have been taking over the past fifty years or so. The founding vision of the University is that there wouldn’t be Ivory Towers […just residential towers.] We wouldn’t be a University that would just be inward looking and writing scholarly texts for other academics. Actually it was about producing research and knowledge for the real world.

In many respects the Knowledge Gateway represents a return to the founding vision of the University. It is very outward looking, very engaged with the regional and national economy, and producing research that impacts and matters.”

With the clock in Anthony’s art-adorned office signaling that our time was almost up, it must almost mean that it’s time to stutter in with the t-t-tuition fees question.

Um, they’re a bit steep, aren’t they?

“It would be fair to say that the funding regime is changing very radically. We have moved from direct funding from the State coming from government, to the prominence of the funding that the University has now coming from students who directly pay fees. That is a very significant change.

Over the next three years about 80% of our funding will be removed from central government. It will be replaced by student fees. We need to make sure that we are drawing in income to the University that will support our mission. Our mission for me is very clear: excellence in research and excellence in education.”

And so how do you sell this vision, so to speak, to any future world leaders who want to study at Wivenhoe Park?

“The selling point for the University of Essex is that we offer research led teaching. We care about the student experience. We recognise that students are not simply spending three years at University to get a degree, but are actually spending three or four years at University to be educated. With a combination of research led teaching and making sure that students are taught by absolutely world leading academics, we get a better quality of education that we can offer to students.

The campus experience really matters. There are opportunities for sport, for arts, for volunteering – leadership opportunities that will help people develop and ultimately be more attractive in the job market. We hope that this will be attractive to students.”

Phew.

That wasn’t so tough.

At a push we could possibly even get in the multi-story car park question ahead of the expectation of man hugs to conclude the conversation.

And so why does a forward thinking University need a multi-story car park? Isn’t that sending out the wrong type of sustainable transport policy message?

“The University was designed for 20,000 students. We currently have 11,000. Car parking hasn’t kept up with the modern ways of working. The multi-story car park is the first time that we have significantly expanded parking at the University over the last fifty years.

It’s not the only thing that we’re doing. We’re encouraging green and sustainable forms of transport, and have received prizes for the amount of energy and effort that we have put in for really thinking what a sustainable transport plan would look like.

Clearly one of the important elements will be putting in a cycle path between Wivenhoe and the University – something that we feel very strongly indeed. The University has provided a quarter of a million pounds for that. We are now lobbying hard to the Council who are responsible for putting the cycle path in place to make sure that this happens as quickly as possible. At our Council meeting on Monday we spent quite a bit of time talking about this. Having provided £250,000, we’re very keen that the cycle path goes in as quickly as possible.”

Off mic and genuine further frustrations were made by Anthony over the delays in the Wivenhoe cycle path. The University has kept to its side of the back scratching bargaining in handing over the funding for the cycle path. With the car park rapidly appearing over the horizon of Boundary Road, it is now down to Essex County Council and Colchester Borough Council to deliver with the promised cycle path.

Build it and they will come?

If only campus life was as simple as that.

It all comes back to the £9k tuition fees, which then finance expansion and investment in research and teaching. What would be the message from the new VC for any prospective students thinking about coming to study at Essex?

“The University has a very exciting opportunity to really focus on the mission to be excellent in research and excellent in education. The University has a phenomenal track record in terms of research excellence. It is ranked ninth nationally for the quality. For a University of our size that is an extraordinary achievement.

What I’m very keen to do is to match the excellence in research with the excellence in the education that we offer to students who are already paying £9,000 in fees and will really want to feel in a very real and material way that they are benefitting from not just the infrastructure, but also the world class research that is taking place across the whole of the University.”

My gaze momentarily moved from the clock on the wall indicating that time was up, over to the impressive Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall, the legacy [URGH] of a previous VC. It must be quite an intimidating sight for any new incumbent to be reminded daily of the success of a predecessor.

It is incredibly early days under this new leadership on campus, but don’t rule out a future Forster Fitness Centre, should the success of the University continue. Another off mic chat revealed how Anthony uses the University Sports Centre, and often finds himself involved in constructive conversations with staff and students during the workout.

If bench-presses isn’t your preferred route for access to the new VC then there’s always the online availability.

@forster_anthony was very open, interesting and most certainly available. The cheapo Tesco bolly wasn’t required to keep the conversation going – that’s what an Essex education does for you.

Many thanks to both Anthony and Ben from the University press office for assisting with this interview.

Chin chin.

University of Essex

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