“It’s very competitive to recruit students”: UniVersal meets vice chancellor Stephen Marston

If you’ve been at the university for a while, you’ll probably have heard the name Stephen Marston, but you might not be aware of just who he is or what he does here. Marston has been the university’s vice chancellor since 2011, having previously worked as a Director General in the civil service. We spoke to him recently to learn more about his role here, what he likes about it and whether he’s hopeful about the university’s future…

Stephen, how would you describe your role here?

My role here is essentially chief executive of the university, so my ultimate responsibility is ensuring the organisation remains successful in achieving its goals. So it’s sort of anything and everything that goes into trying to make sure the institution remains successful.

Do students ever see that in action? How?

I would very much hope they do, but kind of inevitably it’s indirectly; I would have to accept that probably most if not all students are mostly unaware of what I do on a day-to-day basis, because if I’m doing my job well, what they will see is an organisation that’s running smoothly in providing teaching, support for learning, student services and all of that is just sort of running well in a way that makes sense for students. So the direct effect is probably quite hard to see; the indirect effect should be that everything you want at the university is running in the way you want it.

How did you come to assume this role at the university?

The last job I had in the civil service [as Director General for Higher Education Funding and Reform at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] was responsible for national policy on universities and higher education, so inevitably I was working very closely with universities. My job at the time was the new arrangement that [the coalition government] put in place for student fees and finance, so I was working very closely with universities and lots of people in them. I’ve been, at various points in my career, sort of interested in universities; earlier in my career I worked at the Higher Education Funding Council, which was the predecessor organisation to the Office for Students. So I’d sort of got to know universities; more importantly, I’d got to see what I believe is the power and impact of a university like this, and that felt really appealing as something new that I could do. So when that job in the civil service came to an end and I was trying to work out what I could do next, rather than staying in the civil service I said ‘Well, perhaps this is my opportunity to do something very different and move into a university.’

What do you like the most about your job?

On a good day, what I like most about it is that you can really see how the organisation is at least trying to provide a really good experience of higher education, good teaching and good support for learning for students. That’s why we exist, and what makes the job good is if you feel we’re succeeding in doing that for our students.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve seen while working here?

I guess it’s the sheer variety of things that people get up to; the range of courses and activities. There is always something new that’s being developed and sometimes you do say ‘Wow, that’s interesting!’ So I’m not sure I can point to any one thing that was the major surprise, but it’s a constant surprise about the sheer richness of stuff that’s going on in the university.

What would you say is the biggest issue facing the university over the next five to 10 years?

It’s all bound up with our ability to recruit students and then give them an experience of higher education that they think has real value in return for the large fees that [they’re] paying. At present, it’s very competitive to recruit students; there’s a lot of focus and a fair amount of quite critical comment – some of it justified, some of it not – about whether universities are actually providing good value for our students. And if you like, that’s the big challenge that this university needs to respond to: can we show applicants, people thinking about going to university, that this will be a great place to come and study the course that you’re interested in? And when the students actually arrive here, is it a great place – do we actually deliver on the promise of being a great place to be a student, study, have your experience of higher education, get a great qualification and then get set up for a great career afterwards? Those are all the things that we’re trying to do for our students, but the challenge is delivering on all of that well.

Do you feel like the uni is already doing that well enough?

It’s never well enough; there is so much more that in an ideal world, I think we would all want to do. I would hope that at our best, yes, we’re providing a very good experience that is the right experience for students, and is offering them great value for money: the teaching is good, the relationship with staff is good.
If you look at the National Student Survey results every year, the students, as well as answering the questions, can give comments about what it’s like to be at the university ‒ both the good things and the bad things. And when it works well, you can see that the students have had a really fantastic experience – it’s changed their lives, it is transformational. What I have to recognise is that that isn’t true always for every student. So the job, I think we know how to do it really well, but we’re not doing it for everybody.

Are there particular demographics within the 18-21 age group that you think the uni could do better at reaching out to?

Yes, I’m sure there are, and we and all other universities now get a really rich flow of data and information from the Office for Students, particularly around the profile of our students. We know there are issues about how well we attract students from black and minority ethnic communities; we are underrepresented among those communities. A different area: although we do recruit a large number of students with health conditions and disabilities, that is an increasing proportion of our students, and we do know from feedback that some students feel the support available for them in handling their condition and getting the most out of their experience at university isn’t as good as they think it should be. Our proportion of mature students isn’t that high, so there’s a whole population of adults out there [for whom] we probably should be providing a good experience of higher education leading to good qualifications that will be useful in their careers and they’re not coming here. So actually a lot of people whom we could potentially be serving are not well represented in our current student population.

Have you and your colleagues thought about how you could reach out to them?

Pretty much every day [laughs], because this is a big aspect of our whole approach to recruitment. We’re doing a lot of work to think about how do we work particularly with local secondary schools, local further education colleges, to help students in schools and colleges get an understanding of what the University of Gloucestershire is about and what it offers, and why they should choose [us] rather than any other university in the country. So yes, there’s a huge amount of work going on in what we call outreach, working with schools and colleges. It’s always harder to get to people who have already left school and college, because where do you go? We’re reliant there really on social media, and so we do a lot of marketing through social media, but there’s a lot more that we can do there.

Do you feel that the relationship between you and your colleagues and the students here could be better?

Yes, I certainly do. What we do spend a lot of time and effort on is trying to make sure we have a really good relationship with the Students’ Union; so the president, the sabbatical officers, the student subject reps, the staff of the SU, we have very regular discussions and meetings with them, so I think the relationship with that level is good. And of course they are the people who represent students. In a community of over 9000 students, how do we achieve a personal relationship with that number of people? It’s not really possible, so I think it is true that we then put the focus on making sure we have a good relationship, with open communication, with the people who represent students.
But yes, it does worry me sometimes: could we be doing more to have more direct contact with a larger number of students? We’ve got indirect contact in the sense of any amount of survey data, satisfaction data, lots of students are now using SIMON to give their views and feedback, so we’re seeing lots and lots of evidence from students about what people think and feel, what they like, what they don’t like, what needs to be improved. So there is lots of communication, but it’s not the same as being visible to all of the students.

On the whole, are you feeling hopeful about the direction the uni is heading in over the next five to 10 years?

I am, actually I’m very hopeful, for several reasons. I think we are now at a point in time where it happens that the 18-year-old age group in the population, which has been shrinking for quite a few years, is going to turn back up again and start growing again. So there will be more 18-year-olds in the population in this country, so the recruitment challenge may get that bit easier, and then we can really focus on delivering well what I believe really are some important commitments that we make as a university: to provide every student with an experience that gives them great support for learning. So what we’re doing around using technology to support learning is important; trying to understand not just teaching, which is an input, but how does each student get the best help to learn, which is actually the outcome we’re looking for. I think we’re making some really good progress there.
The wider commitment to trying to help every student get the best platform for their future careers, I think we’re doing some really important work [there] – it is getting results, according to our employment data – and I think it’s just a really important part of what we’re trying to do for students. It’s not just about what happens in your time here, it’s about where it leads: does it give you the right insight, skills, experiences to know how to get that first critical job in the profession or sector you’re interested in, and then keep building a career in that sector? That’s all part of what we’re trying to do during students’ time here at university. So I believe that we’ve got it right in terms of our ambitions, in terms of what we want to do for our students; the question is how well we deliver that. But I believe we can, and over the next five years, if we keep going successfully trying to deliver on all of that, I think it can be really rewarding and a successful future.

Stephen Marston – Vice Chancellor, University of Gloucestershire

Age: 58
Kent – moved around a lot as a child, including 18 months or so in Gloucestershire, but spent most of his life as a young adult in London
Alma mater: Cambridge
Degree: Classics
Past employment: joined civil service around a year after graduating from Cambridge; worked on House magazine at Westminster in the interim
Family: has been in a civil partnership since 2011

Tea or coffee? Coffee
Cats or dogs? Dogs
Twitter or Instagram? Instagram, if you’re forcing me to choose
Going out or staying in? Going out
Moo Moos or Fever? Neither
Leave or Remain? Very strongly Remain, but trying to get over it
Cheltenham Town or Forest Green Rovers? Neither, I’m not that keen on football
Lord of the Rings or Star Wars? Lord of the Rings
UniVersal or Farid? You’ve taken the initiative to set up this interview, so I’d have to say good for you, I’d choose you [laughs]…

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