Sir Alan Wil­son on nam­ing the Russell Group and mak­ing the case for the hu­man­i­ties

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Matthew Reisz

Sir Alan Wil­son is chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Alan Tur­ing In­sti­tute. Ini­tially trained as a physi­cist, he moved into the so­cial sciences, work­ing at the UK’s Min­istry of Trans­port and as as­sis­tant direc­tor of the Cen­tre for En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies think­tank. He took up a po­si­tion as pro­fes­sor of ur­ban and re­gional ge­og­ra­phy at the Univer­sity of Leeds in 1970 and rose to be­come vice-chan­cel­lor (1991-2004). He then be­came the UK’s first direc­tor gen­eral for higher ed­u­ca­tion, ad­vis­ing suc­ces­sive sec­re­taries of state (2004-07). He also served as chair­man of the Arts and Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Coun­cil (2007-13). He will re­ceive an hon­orary de­gree from the School of Ad­vanced Study, Univer­sity of Lon­don, in De­cem­ber

Where and when were you born?

Brad­ford, York­shire, 8 Jan­uary 1939.

How has this shaped you?

My par­ents both left school at 14 but had a strong sense that ed­u­ca­tion was im­por­tant for me, and this, com­bined with an el­e­ment of Method­ism, gave me a pos­i­tive work ethic that has never left me.

What does the hon­orary de­gree from the School of Ad­vanced Study mean to you?

It is an hon­our and a priv­i­lege. I was par­tic­u­larly touched that my con­tri­bu­tion to the arts and hu­man­i­ties was recog­nised.

What kind of un­der­grad­u­ate were you?

A rel­a­tively se­ri­ous schol­ar­ship stu­dent. I thought that Cam­bridge was mag­i­cal from the mo­ment that I was in­ter­viewed there. I was taught by the likes of Fred Hoyle on gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity and Paul Dirac on quan­tum me­chan­ics.

What made you shift from physics to the so­cial sciences?

I left Cam­bridge to work at the Ruther­ford Lab at Har­well. I en­joyed the work – analysing bub­ble cham­ber events, writ­ing big com­puter pro­grams – but I de­cided that I wanted to do some­thing more “use­ful” while still be­ing a math­e­ma­ti­cian. I must have ap­plied for 30 jobs and failed to get one. So I took a dif­fer­ent route and was elected as a Labour coun­cil­lor in Ox­ford. That was an im­por­tant early ex­pe­ri­ence for me, func­tion­ing in a po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, con­vinced that it was pos­si­ble to change things for the bet­ter. Then I did get a re­search job in Ox­ford, work­ing with a group of econ­o­mists on trans­port mod­el­ling. The deal was that I did all their maths and com­put­ing, and they taught me eco­nomics along the way! I was lucky enough to solve a prob­lem that was waiting to be solved – how to model trans­port flows in cities – and

I was ac­cepted as a so­cial sci­en­tist.

What did you see as the main chal­lenges as vice-chan­cel­lor of Leeds?

The univer­sity seemed rather sleepy and it felt un­der­funded. The so­lu­tion was growth, com­bined with bud­gets de­volved to de­part­ments pro­vid­ing the in­cen­tive. We ac­cel­er­ated and grew from 13,000 to 33,000 [stu­dents] in 13 years.

What was it like to move to a role ad­vis­ing min­is­ters?

It was im­por­tant to trans­form my­self into a civil ser­vant and not be a know-all on higher ed­u­ca­tion. I was very lucky with the min­is­ters I worked with – Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly and Alan John­son – all ex­tremely able and all en­joyed a good dis­cus­sion.

What do you re­gard as your core achieve­ment in that role?

Some suc­cess in re­duc­ing bu­reau­cracy: the let­ter of guid­ance to the funding coun­cil in the year be­fore I ar­rived had tens of pages; I man­aged to re­duce that to low sin­gle fig­ures. The sys­tem con­tin­ued to grow. Re­search funding was ring-fenced, and we es­tab­lished the Of­fice for Fair Ac­cess to support widen­ing ac­cess.

How well have suc­ces­sive govern­ments un­der­stood the fun­da­men­tal needs of Bri­tish higher ed­u­ca­tion?

There has been good support for con­tin­u­ing to ex­pand stu­dent num­bers and for re­search. This has cre­ated funding chal­lenges, and the mix of gov­ern­ment support and stu­dent fees is

prob­a­bly now out of kil­ter. Higher ed­u­ca­tion has al­ways in part been in­stru­men­tal – medicine, law, engi­neer­ing – and this is im­por­tant, but I would like the core mo­ti­va­tion for sup­port­ing uni­ver­si­ties to be ed­u­ca­tional.

You have also chaired the AHRC. Is it some­times an up­hill strug­gle to make the case for the arts and hu­man­i­ties?

It can be, but it has helped that key play­ers such as Lord Wil­letts and Sir Mark Wal­port have been very sup­port­ive, and for the best of rea­sons. It has al­ways helped, how­ever, that arts and hu­man­i­ties re­search un­der­pins much of the creative in­dus­tries and at­tracts a large num­ber of the over­seas stu­dents who come to the UK.

I wanted to do some­thing more ‘use­ful’ while still be­ing a math­e­ma­ti­cian so I took a dif­fer­ent route and was elected as a Labour coun­cil­lor

What is the main fo­cus of your cur­rent role at the Alan Tur­ing In­sti­tute?

The big data rev­o­lu­tion, con­tin­u­ally in­creas­ing com­puter power and a surge of de­vel­op­ment in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence are trans­form­ing how we live and how the fu­ture econ­omy will work. My job is to help po­si­tion the in­sti­tute at the heart of this and to com­bine these el­e­ments into the new in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary coali­tion that is “data science”.

Tell us about some­one you’ve al­ways ad­mired.

When I was at school I was a great ad­mirer of Ber­trand Russell, whose books taught me a lot about clear think­ing and good writ­ing. There was a spin-off in more re­cent years. At the first meet­ing of what be­came the Russell Group [of large re­search­in­ten­sive UK uni­ver­si­ties], af­ter a very long de­bate and no agree­ment, I claim the prize for suc­cess­fully propos­ing the name on two grounds: Ber­trand Russell gave it some in­tel­lec­tual re­spectabil­ity, and we were meet­ing in the Russell Ho­tel!

What would you like to be re­mem­bered for?

Two good ideas in ur­ban mod­el­ling that are still in play. And I hope that I have con­trib­uted to the growth of higher ed­u­ca­tion in the spirit of Lord Boyle’s phrase when he was vice-chan­cel­lor at Leeds: that uni­ver­si­ties are places for “think­ing things through”.

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