Nancy Rothwell on being the University of Manchester’s first female vice-chancellor

At the age of 14 Nancy Rothwell decided to give up studying biology at school. “I found it boring,” she reflects. She made the decision after consulting with her father, a biology lecturer. So at A-level she opted for art alongside maths, physics and chemistry, in order to give her the option of studying at art school instead of university. In the end she realised she “wasn’t good enough to ever make any money” from art and opted for physiology at the University of London instead. This set her on a path as a scientist (her PhD took just two years), earning a reputation for high-profile research into the causes of obesity before moving into neuroscience and becoming known for her work on strokes.

Today she is the University of Manchester’s first female vice-chancellor and, until recently, was the only female head of the 24 members of the elite Russell Group – Prof Alice Gast took up her role as president of Imperial College London in September, and Prof Janet Beer will succeed Sir Howard Newby as Liverpool’s vice-chancellor in February.

By today’s standards, the swerve in Prof Rothwell’s early academic career away from biology seems almost reckless. Twenty-first century students are, she says, serious-minded by contrast with those in her undergraduate and postgraduate days in the 1970s. “Young people worry about their careers. I never thought about careers after studying. I didn’t know what I wanted to do as an undergraduate, apart from research – I chose research not academia. It just happens I’ve spent my career as an academic. PhDs are now taught about funding and careers.” Modern students are also more “earnings-oriented” than her peers were, she believes.

Prof Rothwell – who was until May the president of the Society of Biology and is currently a non-executive director of AstraZeneca, the pharmaceuticals group – is used to being asked about the challenges of being a female scientist. “It’s inevitable, especially as you become more senior. Women are in the minority in science.” Why? “A huge range of reasons – family commitments, lack of role models.” Prof Rothwell has a partner but no children and says that domestic life can be hard to juggle alongside the demands of long hours in research labs and travel to international conferences. Also, many women, she believes, lack confidence. “Women look at what they can’t do and don’t put themselves forward for things.” To correct this, the University of Manchester has worked at identifying and nurturing women with the potential for senior roles.

Having a strong academic reputation has helped prove her credentials to colleagues at Manchester, she believes. “I always think of myself an academic first and vice-chancellor second.” While she no longer heads a laboratory, she continues to work in research, mainly on strokes but also on brain haemorrhages and dementia, contributing to the ideas, planning, funding and the publishing of results.

She concedes that balancing her stewardship of the university with the demands of her scientific work is tricky. “The difficulty with research is you can always put it off. I do sometimes push it back for the sake of my university role.” The perks of the vice-chancellor job are immense, however, she says. She relishes the chance to “solve problems”. While she would never like to give up research completely, she also would not like to go back to pure research. “I enjoy raising funds and trying to attract students and staff.”

Prof Rothwell does admit that being in the top job can occasionally be “lonely”, so she tries to interact with students and teaching staff as much as possible.

She insists that her scientific background does not mean that she favours the university’s life sciences departments. “If anything I might be harsher on my subject. Half this university is humanities.” She has maintained an interest in art and occasionally draws in her sketchpad when she can find the time. She says her hobby may have saved her from being seen as a “complete philistine” by her colleagues in the humanities departments.

The Alan Turing Building, completed in 2007, housing the School of Mathematics at the University of Manchester

Tuition fees have undoubtedly helped make students more focused on their careers, says Prof Rothwell, though she is wary of seeing the value of education purely in professional advancement. “I have a problem with measuring degrees in potential earning power. Degrees are wider than that.” Nor does she want tuition fees to make education a transaction. “I don’t think of students as consumers or customers.” She prefers the student union’s suggestion that students should be seen as “partners”. The university is, however, putting some effort into helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds become more employable, advising them on networking and forging contacts that their peers from middle-class and professional homes take for granted.

About a quarter of Manchester’s students are from overseas and are lured in part by the cosmopolitan mix of the city and its proximity to an international airport. The university has also put “a lot of effort into attracting” these undergraduates – who pay higher fees than their British peers – through marketing overseas as well as helping with visas, orientation and advice.

While overseas students are critical to the university’s bottom line, there are also challenges. Prof Rothwell worries that the student population could become divided by nationality. “When you have a large international population it may be easier for them to segregate and spend time together. We try to prise them apart.” There are also, inevitably, problems with homesickness and those that come from unstable countries. She also fears that universities’ desire to lure overseas students could mean that standards decline as barriers to entry are dropped. The knock-on effect would mean that future generations of foreign students choose to go elsewhere, notably to the US.

Money is a perennial problem: there is “never enough”, according to Prof Rothwell. “All universities look at efficiency savings with public funding effectively declining. There is no guarantee of capital funding – we have been good at winning competitions, but you can’t plan for winning a competition. That’s tough. It’s not just buildings we need but great libraries and updated equipment.”

As the economy has improved, so too has the amount of research funding from industry, she says. This revenue stream has become more significant, partly because the university has got better at going after it. It has also been targeting philanthropists and strengthening alumni networks. “Budgets are always challenging – everyone has interesting things they want to do. Colleagues vie with each other.”

The university has launched five Mooc (massive open online course) programmes to date. “We’ve been selective as we wanted to offer high-quality courses.” It is still too early, she says, to know how successful the programmes are and whether people studying them will convert to become full-time students on campus.

The highlight of Prof Rothwell’s academic year – the time when she can cast aside the frustrations of the future of universities’ funding – is not the start but the end. “I love the degree ceremonies. It’s a celebration; families are there. This year the sun was shining. It’s a nice time.”

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