In Conversation with Paul Layzell
Features Editor, Yasmeen Frasso, interviewed Principal of Royal Holloway, Paul Layzell with the hopes of removing some of the mystery behind the man we all get weekly emails from.
Sitting outside of the Principal’s office you can’t help but feel you’ve done something wrong to be there. Expecting the worse, I sat waiting, nervous and unsure what I was getting myself in for. Yet the nerves dissipated as soon as I heard a loud laugh down the corridor and along came Paul Layzell.
How would you describe your role as Principal to the students of Royal Holloway and what does it entail on a daily basis?
Well, my job is to oversee the whole of the organisation and effectively be chief executive. So it’s very difficult to say on a day by day basis I do a series of things. It’s thinking about the strategic direction for the university. What do we want to be like in five years’ time? And listening to what people are saying about the place. That’s at one extreme. That’s the big picture.
The small picture is dealing with a crisis and the specific problems which, on a day to day basis, get dealt with by a team around the university. But sometimes the principal just needs to push it and say come on, let’s get that sorted. So it’s really extremes.
But it is also probably most importantly, for me, representing the university externally. Making sure that the concerns that we have are known by people who perhaps are able to do something about some of those concerns.
Then there’s all the fun stuff like graduation and giving out prizes and opening things. But most of all that strategic direction, what do we want to be, where are we going, how do we make sure that when you graduate your degree has value.
The new SABBs have recently taken on their roles, how closely do you work with them and the SU as a whole?
It’s early days with this SABB team but if they’re anything like last year’s really closely; we were all working to the same agenda which is to improve the student experience here and that’s good.
The Union plays a great role in providing services, facilities and advice and guidance to students as does the university. You could do those in parallel tracks and overlap which could be a very confusing experience for students. But by working together we give clear help, guidance and advice.
There are some things that we provide as a college and others that the Union provides. And then there’s the services and working together on everything from catering to social life – everything that goes on outside the classroom really and we have to work hand in hand. It was a good relationship last year and it’s got all the signs of being that this year.
It’s a great team. Interesting that it’s an all-women’s team – I think that’s a first. We had an all-male team whilst I’ve been here as well so it’s interesting to see that balance. At the end of the day, I don’t think that makes a difference other than symbolically because everyone has the interest of the students and improving the student experience at heart. As long as you’ve got that common agenda, you can work with anyone.
But it is, for the college, given our history, quite a significant moment. But the guys have got plenty to offer as well!
What influenced you to pursue a career in education at Royal Holloway University?
I’ve worked in several universities so I’ve sort of seen different shapes and sizes and styles of places. What’s really attractive here in contrast to a big city centre university is that sense of community. It helps by being a campus and being smaller because you can get out and get to know and see people.
Frankly when you walk out a city centre university onto a street you’re just another one of the people in the city. And that’s great, people like city life and it offers something that’s different to here. But it’s not a very personal experience and if you are shy then it can be quite an isolating experience. Here I think you stand a better chance of getting to know people. We can create an environment that helps people settle in and feel like it’s home much quicker than we could if we were a big university in a city centre. And that’s what’s attractive to me, it’s the sense of community.
I’m trying, partly as a sort of fitness regime, to walk around the campus each day. I do it at different times, I try to do it around the changeover times because that’s when it’s busy. And it’s just really interesting to see people and after a while you see the same people. And I do it with students. Sometimes they’re a bit apprehensive so I wish they would talk to me. Some do and that’s great. I can only do my job if I know what you’re thinking and what’s on your mind because then I stand a chance of making it better.
The obvious thing is, academically, there are some brilliant staff here. You’re really working with people who are really changing the world. Particularly in their final year one of the things we want to do more of is to give all our students the chance to work on something that is cutting edge and to get a sense of excitement the academic staff have about the work they do.
The academic year 2015/2016 has been one of tremendous changes, to both the university and, in the vaster picture, to the country overall. Some of these changes, for example, the outcome of the EU Referendum, will clearly have impacts on the student body of Royal Holloway.
Whilst the extent of these impacts is currently unclear, in your response to the Brexit vote you said that the university will continue to support all students. As the situation is quite worrisome for current and prospective students, could you briefly describe how you plan to do this at present?
The day after the result was a very interesting day for me… I was a remainer and was really taken by how distressed people were about the result and spent most of the Friday and the weekend in a counselling mode. I respect it and I’m not criticising them in any way.
But that’s a very emotional position to take. The issue is the reality on the ground and the day to day impact. The very first thing that we had to make sure happened and fortunately it has, was that students coming from the EU who joined this summer and will almost certainly be completing their studies after knew what their fees would be and what they would be entitled to from the government.
Working with Universities UK we got the minister, Joe Johnson, responsible for universities, to undertake that any student from the EU, joining us this summer will have UK fees all the way through and will have access to student loan funding. That was really important because they were arriving and needed some sense of certainty. The next practical step is for the students who come next summer, but we won’t know the outcome until the Autumn Statement (in November). We have been lobbying the government very hard to give assurance for EU students on good faith that they will carry on known terms and conditions regarding the fees they pay and their ability to borrow money. Of course that will change but for the next few years the aim is to keep it stable and give people certainty.
The third issue surrounds our staff who have lived and worked here for many years and have family here. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen. It’s sort of unthinkable that we’ll have to get everyone work permits or send them back. It’s a very unsettling time. We’re doing that lobbying to make this clear to government and we’re getting in advice for people to start thinking about the legal stuff. Those are the urgent issues.
The longer term issues are helping our students prepare for a life that it more uncertain in terms of what does Brexit mean, what’s the economy going to be like. We’ve had all those messages about how it will be good or bad, but the issue really is when you graduate will there be a job for you to go into and how will Brexit have helped or hindered that. That’s the practical issue.
There’s very little we as a college can do about UK relationships and the economy but we can help you, as a graduate prepare for a world of uncertainty and have you got the best value degree that can do so. And that includes all of the co-curricular experiences that students have outside of their degree. It’s very difficult to predict the future so the next best thing is to make sure everyone who leaves when they graduate is able to deal with uncertainty. It’s about having confidence, the ability to stop and think about something, everything that degree education should be about.
In a funny way, Brexit takes us back to our core mission in educating students. We’re trying to give you knowledge, to make you independent, to make you confident and prepared for what comes ahead. If you’ve got that you can probably take everything in your stride.
It’s the same for the college, we don’t know what will happen. Maybe EU students will stop coming and we have to be in a good shape financially and academically, to take this in our stride.
Beyond that there’s quite a lot of talk about what Brexit means, and this is a place where we should encourage that debate and allow people to express views and have a platform to speak, even if their views are unpopular, but equally give others the right to challenge views and put a counterargument. That is the essence of academic freedom in a university. And an open debate is something we have to preserve.
Another big change is the increase in tuition fees to £9,250 a year. I understand that Royal Holloway has been advised to opt in to this due to its excellence as a university. And further to this there is now the additional potential increase to £9,500 or above. However, many students, particularly those from lower income families, may see this as a move away from inclusive education. What is your opinion on this? Will this decision be likely to stand if tuition fee loans do not also increase in line with the fees themselves, and if they do not, will extra support be available to students?
From a historical perspective the £9,000 fee has been there since 2012 and we probably have inflation each year of about 3%. £9,000 today isn’t worth the same as it was. So the question is can you continue to have the value of that £9,000 eroded? And all it means is that we have less money to put into the education experience. There is a point at which you have to give some modest inflationary increase to keep up the value of that original £9,000.
We’re very conscious that many students who have come into the system in previous years never had an expectation that it was going to go up. But it’s clear that if we are going to continue to invest in great staff and improving facilities then we have to have that inflationary increase. The only thing we know is that we have permission to go up to £9,250 and we don’t know how that will change year on year. We have to think long and hard though, I would not want to see the UK end up in a position like the US. But some modest inflationary income, yes.
The loan has to be linked to it. It’s inconceivable for it not to be and I don’t think there’s any indication that the loan won’t go up but if there was I think there would be a huge backlash to it and we would have to think very hard about it.
The issue about low income families. We have to spend a proportion of our fee income getting students into and progressing through higher education, for example the bursaries that we give. This year we are expecting to spend over £3.5 million on financial support for students from low income families. If the fees go up and number of students go up then that has to increase in proportion to that. The government has also encouraged us to support students in a different means.
Some students from low income families have low levels of aspiration/attainment and the tendency to think university isn’t for them. So we work with schools more to make university feel more accessible for those coming from a culture where university isn’t the expectation. So it’s not just about throwing cash at students to fund their way through but to also help people who think university isn’t for them and trying to break down those misunderstandings about what a university is like. Especially with such an austere building that may look unapproachable when actually it’s a very friendly place.
And I know it’s a cliché but my door is always open, I’m always happy to speak to a student who wants to tell me something because if it’s important to them it should be important to me.
Focusing more on the university, a lot of work has been going on recently, from the construction of the new library, to the building of new townhouse accommodation. This will obviously make the university capable of expanding its student population and improving the quality of education provided. What direction would you say Royal Holloway is heading in? Are there any more plans for the foreseeable future that have not yet begun?
We currently have 9,000 students at Royal Holloway, and by 2020 we’re aiming to have about 10,500. The reason for growing a bit is that we have a lot of obligations as an institution and those still stand whether you’re big or small so growth will give just a bit more financial capacity to pay for all the things we have to. Also it’s very obvious to me, having worked in universities all my life and being a student myself that many people are prepared to slum it in quite grotty accommodation where it was almost a privilege to be there despite it being rubbish. But this is one where everyone has quite high standards, and if we’re going to survive in the future we’ve got to understand what people want in the 21st Century.
If 15 years ago you said you were building a £56 million library, people would have said you were mad but you have reinvented libraries, they’re now places where students go to do the typical silent studying of course. But also it’s very interesting to see how students work in groups, whether on the same assignment or just to give support to one another when doing different tasks and be the shoulder to cry on when it all goes wrong. Libraries are a great place to do this. The new one will have 12 study rooms that you can book online in groups and they have great views into the trees.
As well as the Boilerhouse Café and the accommodation which we’re building and developing in collaboration with Egham Council [for example above shops in the town centre]. That’s why we have a bit of modest growth, to be able to afford this.
So growth is the main strategy but we don’t want to lose the campus atmosphere and the trees and we don’t want it to become a big and impersonal place but we do need to grow and develop our facilities. Then there’s the Science Building that begins construction in January and the next thing after that will be a building for Music and Media students.
Even though a lot of these things are in the future, when you leave this place you want the value of your degree to remain and be enhanced and we want to grow the reputation and allow people to equate value and prestige to Royal Holloway so that it will be beneficial even for current graduates in the future.
Talking of the library, you debunked the myth that Founder’s Library would be closing as the new library opens, has there been any chance to this decision since the circulation of the petition?
I honestly don’t know where that came from! But there’s no change.
There’s a lot of nice parts to that library that were the original conception but there’s some very horrible parts in the basement and what we’ve said is that we will preserve the original library. The books from it will all go to the new library because we can’t have both open 24/7 but we’ll replace them with reference books and it will remain a place to go and study for quiet study.
What we do with the lower levels, which are just stacks of books and aren’t very nice, we’ll do something with those, it needs a bit of tarting up.
Give us one fun fact about you that people aren’t likely to know.
I forgot this question! *after some deliberation* I did know quite a famous children’s author, I was in her nursery class, and she wrote a book about me having newts. It’s stuck with me mainly because she was a great defender of children’s rights and was very anti parents smacking children and taking their anger out on them.
I’m also a big vegetable grower. Self-sufficient in garlic, onions and potatoes!
The essentials of course.
And lastly, what one bit of advice would you give to students for the coming year?
Oh gosh, can I give two?
I’ll allow it.
One. Work hard. How do you work hard? Just plan your time and pace yourself. Of course students will still be rushing for deadlines, we won’t stop that but try and plan your time.
Secondly, value all of your extracurricular experiences. It’s not just fun, it’s not just a job, it’s giving you practical skills employers are looking for. They expect you to get the degree, that’s a given, but what else do you offer as a future employee.