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Scotland’s Universities are ‘one voice’ on widening access, says Andrea Nolan

Scotland’s Universities are ‘one voice’ on widening access, says Andrea Nolan

Professor Andrea Nolan - credit Universities Scotland

Professor Andrea Nolan stepped into the role of convener at Universities Scotland at a challenging moment, as the aftershock of the EU referendum result was being keenly felt in higher education.

And months later, clarity over European research funding, post-study visas and international collaborations remains elusive at best, with real questions about the future of EU citizens who work, teach and study at our universities.

On top of this, Nolan has expressed concerns over the long-term sustainability of HE funding, while the recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access, accepted in full by the Scottish Government, could mean fundamental changes to the way universities operate.

Nolan is well used to uncharted territory though. She was first woman ever appointed to lead a British veterinary school in 1999 and now becomes the first ever female convener of Universities Scotland. Holyrood finds her positive and ambitious for the sector.


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Centre stage in Scotland's higher education maelstrom is a far cry from her roots in Dublin, where as a child she aspired to be a veterinary surgeon.

“I’m not quite sure where that came from, because it wasn’t in the family. A love of animals and the outdoor life. I had family who lived in the country, small farmers,” she remembers.

She attended an all-girl school in Dublin, where the “hugely motivational” female teachers encouraged her to go to Trinity College Dublin, which then merged with University College Dublin when she was in her third year.

She had her sights on practicing in the UK, and began “living the dream”, working in Newmarket then in Oxfordshire before she was tempted back to academia by Cambridge, who had advertised a post researching anaesthesia.

“I thought ‘I’ll have a bash’. I got an interview, and drove there in my Morris Marina, which was basically a rustbucket, arrived an hour late, got lost all the way around Cambridge, but it appeared I was the only applicant for the job.”

Animal pain and pain relief would become her speciality, forming the basis of her PhD at Bristol and then a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Munich.

1989 saw Nolan move to Glasgow to take a job at the University of Glasgow’s vet school. A decade later she was its Dean. In 2004 she became Vice-Principal of the University.

In 2013 she became Principal & Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University. Teaching, she says, has changed radically since she sat in a class of 13 at Trinity College Dublin.

 “When I went to Glasgow first the veterinary school class was maybe 60 students. It’s now probably 120. But in that time I think we’ve got better at teaching, even though it is a practical course. I just think we know so much more about how people learn.”

Applied learning, with connections to real-work experience, is clearly something Nolan appreciates. Napier’s reputation for it was a major factor in her being attracted to the principal role, she says.

“I learnt so much from being with clients, from being with animals who are ill. I learned to ask questions, to take cues from people, to understand. You learn a lot from doing, communicating and dealing with different situations.”

Scotland’s success in research and reputation of its institutions can be traced back to a “culture of inquiry” which feeds to into creating an innovative economy, she says.

“It’s very special, it’s amazing, and the whole ecosystem is built around a research culture and infrastructure that is accessible for businesses to tap into. We draw in foreign investment because of that infrastructure.”

Great creativity is borne out competition, according to Nolan, but doesn’t that make her job as convener of those competing institutions more difficult?

“What’s important is that on key issues that affect the national system we are of one voice. Access is one very good example. Every single principal is absolutely committed and lined up. We really want to make a difference. It’s hard. It’s not easy. It’s a whole system approach, and there’s no competition in that regard.”

But a commitment to getting more working class people into university isn’t new. It could be said nearly 60 years of attempts have had limited success.

Nolan says the report by Dame Silver’s Commission on Widening Access, published in Spring, has given new focus to policy with a recognition of the need for a whole-system holistic approach.

“What the report gave us was a renewed impetus to work together and with colleges and schools to actually make a difference by 2030.”

But was Nolan surprised by how radical the recommendations were? They included lowering admission requirements for students from deprived backgrounds.

“Did I expect it to be that radical? I suppose I did really,” she says. “There is growing evidence from people who have used contextualised admissions, and there have been universities that have used them for a number of years, that grades achieved in some contexts are not necessarily a great indicator of potential grades achieved in another context.”

For Nolan the key will be about how universities communicate with students, parents and school teachers so there is clarity about how it works and the evidence to support it.

This is also part of ongoing attempts to break down any stuffy or elitist image universities might have so that they can play active roles in communities, she adds.

“What I’d like is that people make positive choices about where they want to go to university. ‘I want to do x, I think the course there is the right choice for me’. I want it at Napier, I wanted the same when I was at Glasgow.”

Nolan points to attempts to draw the community into universities with public lectures, and public-facing work by students including Napier students setting up a legal advice clinic or running literacy workshops in prisons.

The introduction of a societal impact measure to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 provides universities with an opportunity to “show the impact they have, and to encourage staff and students to reach out,” she adds.

Although the REF declared much of Scotland’s research as world class, and five of the country’s universities are in the world’s top 200, there are some threats to that status ahead. One of those is how universities are funded.

“We understand in financial austerity we all have to play a part but we are coming to a point where it is concerning as to how we are going to maintain both the excellence and the diversity of the system and the sector.”

Diversity, something Nolan says universities “have done a lot around”, is also threatened by Brexit, she says.

“Brexit was a shock to me personally. I can’t speak for the other principals but for me, yes. I’m an EU citizen. But you have to respect the democratic choices people make. It will be hard work.”

Wider approaches to immigration is also a real concern, she adds. 

“Our immigration policies have changed so much over the last three or four years. I am deeply concerned about the direction that UK Government policy appears to be going in and the impression that gives to the outside world. The Prime Minister said recently, during her trip to India, that countries need to take opportunities with like-minded partners or risk stagnation. I would agree. Mobility of talent is at the core of higher education. We need these opportunities. The UK’s higher education sector cannot be put at risk of stagnation.”

"And where I have worked in other countries, it was so enriching.”

Nolan’s two-year stint at the head of Universities Scotland will be busy. “I hope we deliver real impact in the access agenda, and that we’re seen as a real partner for communities, whoever they be, to drive change,” she says, admitting the impact may be seen after she’s vacated the post.

“We’re going to be creative, we’re going to be constructive, we’re going to be helpful, and particularly with the access agenda and innovation, which I think will make a huge difference to Scotland.”

It is clear she relishes the opportunity.

“I love it to bits. I enjoy moving things along. I don’t mean changing the world in one move, just little steps. Moving them on. It’s been amazing. One of my students asked ‘did you set out to be a principal?’ I said ‘what at 22, when I qualified? No, I wanted to be a vet!’ but opportunities arise. You take them or you don’t.”

Meanwhile she still finds time to continue research into pain in animals. “I get my buzz from that. But there’s a lot to love from being part of a University. Leading it, and being part of that collegiate atmosphere.”

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