The Principal’s office in College Gate, with light edging its way through high windows on a dreary Friday morning, seemed steeped in gravitas as I walked into the room. For now it remains the workplace of Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University Professor Louise Richardson, who has paced its wooden floors 2009. However, it won’t be for much longer. From 1 January, Professor Richardson will be leaving the Bubble to start a new chapter of her life as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Born in Ireland and having spent many years in America, most notably as the executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, Professor Richardson’s accent is certainly unique. Her voice lilted as she began to speak, reflecting on the most memorable moments of her time in St Andrews. “There have been so many, I honestly don’t think I could reduce it to one,” she said. The 600th celebrations, however, stand out to her as a wonderful time. “Marching down the town in the dark to the top of the harbour and seeing the entire town, students down on the East Sands, fireworks and crowds of people – it just seemed to capture the excitement, the beauty of the place,” she told me.
Other stand out moments for Professor Richardson include the New York Gala at The Met last year, as well as the opportunity to meet Hilary Clinton during the 600th celebrations. On Clinton, Principal Richardson said, “I very much hope she is the next president of the United States. I think she is supremely well qualified [and] it’s high time we had a female president.” She has strong ties to America and became a naturalized American citizen whilst living in the US, and is a registered Democrat. In fact, Principal Richardson previously voted for Clinton over Barack Obama in the Massachusetts primaries, thinking that Obama needed more experience to be President at that time. Looking into Scotland, Professor Richardson said that the period surrounding the Scottish Independence Referendum was an extraordinarily exciting time. Although denying to comment outright on which side she had voted for, she did hint that people would probably be able to guess her thoughts on the matter.
On the topic of memorable experiences, Principal Richardson stopped to add, “There have been much quiet- er moments too, which have been wonderful.” She has enjoyed conversations with students “coming in and talking about what an impact their time [at the University] has [made].”
On the opposite side of things, Principal Richardson also spoke of all the things she wishes she had had the chance to take part in during her time at St Andrews. She regrets all the plays she has missed, as well as the student events to which she was invited, but couldn’t make. Her biggest regret, however, remains the failure of the plan to build a new Madras College on the North Haugh site. “It just seemed like it was real opportunity to do something really new and creative that was a real win for everyone,” she said. “That was a big disappointment.”
Since Professor Richardson took over as principal in 2009, the University has seen a swell in the number of international students, as well as a steady growth in overall student numbers. Today, around 30 percent of the student population is international. In the academic year 2009-10, 1,395 undergraduates entered the University through UCAS applications. By 2013-14, this figure stood at 1,540 and the total number of students at the University now stands at about 8,200. This increase in student numbers, although a positive sign of the University’s growing popularity, has left many students worried about issues such as class size and accommodation. Professor Richardson assured me that matter of balancing growth with financial need is one that is discussed constantly. She recognized that part of St Andrews’ appeal is its intimacy. “We have taken a very gradual approach to growth precisely so as not to disrupt what we have,” she said.
When asked about the accommodation problems we have seen as a result of these increasing student numbers, Professor Richardson was quick to note that she doesn’t want to label it an ‘accommodation crisis.’ “One of the downsides of living in a small place is there tends to be a rumour mill and people get themselves into a tizzy unnecessarily,” she said. I know there is a crunch, but we are providing more and need to work on alleviating the sense of panic amongst students that they won’t get a good living situation.”
Pressed on this idea of a “rumour mill,” Professor Richardson defended her stance, saying: “I’m not denying that students do have difficulties finding accommodation in that moment. [However,] if you have to live in these three streets, it’s much more difficult to find what you want than if you’re prepared to live further afield. I absolutely concede that there are difficulties getting housing, but I do think that they can be exaggerated.”
In terms of class sizes, she stated that our student staff ratio is one of the best in the country, although admitting that it is variable amongst the different schools. Principal Richardson was also quick to point out the lack of direct correlation between student satisfaction and student staff ratio. “We think there is room to adjust,” she said. “We have the demand to grow at a much faster pace, but we don’t want to because we cherish what we have.” She added that before deciding to grow staff, the University wants to ensure its facilities are prepared.
As far as the perception that St Andrews is full of Americans and that non-Scottish students are pushing the Scots out, Professor Richardson emphasised that the University accepts the amount of Scottish students set out for them by the Scottish Government. “If we take any more we’re fined, if we take any less we’re fined. People outside don’t understand that,” she said, clearly exasperated.
The University has put a lot of effort into persuading the government to allow them to increase their Scottish numbers, and Professor Richardson seemed delighted to be able to say that they had succeeded over the last few years. “We want to have a stronger proportion of Scots here,” she said.
When asked to look to the future about what she thinks the biggest problem her successor will face, Principal Richardson responded without hesitation: finances. Currently, UK universities are facing a comprehensive spending review, likely to lead to budget cuts in higher education. “We don’t know what it will entail, but we know it will be grim,” she said. However, Professor Richardson was keen to add that, “the fact that we do so much and achieve so much on such tight finances is really, really impressive.”
Unfortunately, with St Andrews facing not only the UK wide spending review, but also the Scottish Government’s Higher Education (Scotland) Bill’s reform proposals, things are looking pretty foreboding. On the government’s proposals, Professor Richardson said, “They have never identified the problem that they’re trying to solve.”
An element of these proposals that have been labeled ‘anti-democratic’ are those surrounding the appointment of the senior governor, which many have seen as threatening the position of rector. When the proposals were announced earlier this year, the Students’ Association launched a petition with the tagline ‘Save our Rector’ which received over 3,000 signatures.
On the various governmental proposals, Professor Richardson said, “Scottish higher education is really pretty impressive. We have three universities in the top hundred in the world; we have five in the top 200 in the world. That’s remarkable; we shouldn’t take it for granted. Why tinker with something that’s working really rather well?”
Another issue facing the University as Professor Richardson prepares to leave is the fact that its current grading system makes it extremely difficult to get a first, whilst large amounts of students graduate with a 2:1. Upon discussing the problems many students face when trying to decide between prioritizing work and taking part in extracurricular activities, the principal said,“Life is about making trade-offs.” She added that, “These are the kinds of decisions people are going to have to grapple with their whole lives.”
Professor Richardson announced that there are talks about moving towards an American style GPA system, which would mitigate this problem somewhat as “it would be a reflection of one’s whole four years and employers would be able to see how one did in one’s area of interest and not.”
It is also hoped that the GPA system would help to solve the issue of the huge discrepancy between a 13.5 and a 16.4, even though they both constitute a 2:1. Professor Richardson pointed to the University’s innovation of presenting graduating students with much fuller transcripts than other universities as a point of progress on this front. However, the GPA system would go a long way to fixing this situation.
As the first ever female Principal of St Andrews, and the soon to be first female Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Professor Richardson is certainly a role model for female students. When asked about what her advice would be for women she said, “Just go for it. I mean absolutely go for it. Don’t ever consider that there are any positions which you would be precluded from occupying because you are female.”
She continued to speak about the importance of having women in senior positions of power for both men and women, “I think it’s important for men too to realise that leadership comes in many colours, sizes, shapes and indeed genders, that it isn’t just a male thing.”
However, she acknowledged that academia, similarly to most professions, is shaped like a pyramid. At St Andrews, 60 per cent of undergraduates are female. 40 per cent of the unpromoted faculty are female. But only 20 per cent of the professors are female. Although Principal Richardson is pleased that under her leadership, the senior management of the University is now 50 per cent female, she is seriously concerned about this narrowing pattern.
According to the professor, it is completely understandable why individual women decide to take time out at different stages of their careers. “Individually, I completely understand those decisions,” she said. “But collectively it means we are still left with professions shaped like pyramids.”
Despite this cross-discipline pattern, Professor Richardson said the pace of change has been dramatic in her lifetime. “It’s been slower than I would have liked but it is accelerating. So our young female students should not hold themselves back in any way,” she said.
Continuing the discussion of recent changes to higher education, our discussion moved on to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act passed by Westminster earlier this year. At the time, the Students’ Association launched a petition entitled ‘Students not Terrorists’ to protest the changes. As an academic expert on terrorism, Professor Richardson has been vocal on this issue in the past, condemning the act publicly. “We should not be banning objectionable ideas from campus. We should bring them to campus and challenge them, that’s where we can do it,” she said. “I think the notion that students who are vulnerable to radicalization should be identified by universities is just not something that I think people in my position should participate in.”
Professor Richardson said that, although the legislation did not specify, she was aware that it has Muslim students in mind. “I would worry that Muslim students might feel that they are being treated separately or that there is suspicion upon them and I would hate them to think that,” she said.
In her capacity as a terrorism expert, Professor Richardson also had words of advice for St Andrean students in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris. “I would like to say that I hope [you] don’t feel frightened and I hope [you] don’t constrain what [you] do,” she said. Though this is a safe town, she acknowledged that not everyone is from this area, or even this country, and that some students may face greater fear at home. However, she stressed, “I absolutely think that students should live their lives without fear.”
There was a long pause before the principal, a pained look on her face, continued. “I think it’s somewhat unfortunate, as I read the papers veraciously, and the last few days most of the front pages of the papers have had pictures of the perpetrators of this atrocity on them and I wish they didn’t,” she said sadly. “I think we should be focusing on the victims, the extraordinary young people who were massacred. They are the people whose faces should be on the papers and the lives that have been snuffed out so brutally. I worry that all the attention going to the perpetrators will just seek to inspire others who want to acquire the kind of glory that they’ve gotten for themselves.”
In terms of the recent changes to immigration policies – which have led to the introduction of charges for the NHS for international students and a shorter period of time allowed in the UK post-graduation Professor Richardson had a lot to say. “There’s no doubt that these policies have made it more difficult for students educated here to work here through the constraints on the post-study visas,” she told me. I’d encourage students to do all they can by lobbying the government, lobbying our local politicians to work in Westminster to that effect.”
“I’d love to be able to say to our students you have nothing to worry about. But it’s becoming more restrictive not less,” she continued. “I think it’s unwise from a government point of view and it is detrimental to our students who want to get the experience of working here.
Raising the issue of the recent debacle over the NUS referendum which was cancelled due to lack of student interest – after the leaders of the ‘Yes’ campaign stepped down in protest and nobody volunteered to fill their shoes – Professor Richardson was keen to stress that she didn’t blame this on political apathy amongst St Andrews students. “I think students individually are engaged, but they’re deciding their own priorities rather than taking them from some national union.”
Professor Richardson was quick to praise the student representatives she has worked with during her time in St Andrews, saying they have had a really positive impact by working with the University, rather than against it. “They are committed to the well-being of the University,” she said, pointing to the introduction of the school presidents system as an example of this.
Louise Richardson has clearly used her time in St Andrews well. When asked to pick out her greatest achievements, the list was impressively long. During her tenure, St Andrews has soared up the league tables: to third in the national rankings, by 25 places in the Times Higher Education, and by 20 places in QS. “I really think in my time here we have raised the profile of the University and I’m enormously proud of that,” said Principal Richardson.
Another change that has occurred during her tenure is the way in which the University is governed. The change from 11 large core committees to four smaller ones has saved time and made tedious processes more effective. “I think we’ve professionalized the staffing here,” the principal said.
Professor Richardson made to sure emphasise, however, that all of this would not have been possible without her wonderful team in College Gate and in the schools, as well as the students. She would not comment on who her successor will be, but she did say that they will “inherit a fabulous institution where things are really in very good shape.”
“I think our student body is terrific,” she enthused. “There’s a combination of people who are committed intellectually, but [also] really engaged beyond themselves. That’s an unusual mix.”
On staff, she said: “Both support and academic staff are genuinely committed to the University and the institution as a whole.”
Looking forward to her move to Oxford, Professor Richardson may be daunted by the task of learning about a whole new governance system, and getting to know the ins and out of such a huge university, but she is also incredibly excited. “I think I’m the luckiest person alive to have had these extraordinary jobs, both this one and the next one,” she said.
Though she was not able to go into details about her plans for Oxford, she did voice concern about the difficulties she might face in executing them. “It’s very hard for successful organizations to change,” she said. “It’s easier for an organisation to change when it’s clear where they want to go.”
Her major concern seemed to be that the University is very decentralised, and she hopes to make it more holistic. Despite this, she was full of praise for the benefits of the college system, which she says offers a highly personalised experience. Although the 38 colleges will be difficult to manage from a governance perceptive, she finds it “remarkable” for the amount of personal support and interaction it provides students.
Asked what she thought of the admissions process for Oxford, in which prospective students apply to individual colleges rather than the university as a whole, she replied that the system “is so deeply embedded that it can never change.” When asked if she would change it if she could, the principal replied: “I don’t know what the British equivalent of the 5th amendment is but I plead it.”
There is still no word on who Professor Richardson’s successor will be. When she leaves on 1 January, two members of the College Gate staff will share her duties temporarily to ensure a smooth transition: Gary Taylor as acting principal and Derek Watson and acting CEO. The new principal can be expected to take up office for the start of the next academic year. Our new principal and vice chancellor will likely be announced in the spring.
Principal Richardson wished her successor the best of luck, saying: “I think whoever gets this position will be a very lucky person, it’s a fabulous, fabulous job.”
For Louise Richardson, it seems, St Andrews will always be a home. “I’ll certainly always feel close to the place. I’ll leave a bit of myself here and I’ll take a bit with me.”