Mike Hughes meets Karen Stanton, a vice- chancellor with an exciting vision for the potential of York St John University.
The Twitter account for York St John University (@YorkStJohn) has set itself quite a challenge. To mark the university’s 175th anniversary, it is listing 175 things the students and lecturers ‘know & love’ about their campus. Now, I’m sure if you looked at your own business and started to list the plusses, you would race to the first 25, then maybe 50, perhaps even higher if you got the coffee on and sat a few enthusiastic colleagues around a table. But 175?
I think Karen Stanton would approach the task fearlessly and with the confidence of a vice-chancellor with enough brio in her biro to head past the 175 mark with a flourish. “It’s fabulous and I am really enjoying it,” said Karen, who has been in her role since September last year.
“I have worked in the university sector for some time now but, for me, the opportunity to work at York St John is even better than I thought. It is a smaller university than those I had previously worked in, but there is so much potential.”
York St John has a rich history back through those 175 years, but you sense a feeling on the campus that there is another era to be released from the history books. Its reputation owes a lot to its all-encompassing approach to every type of student, which has given it a powerful community feeling.
Most recently, that included a bursary to encourage young people from traveller communities to be involved in higher education. But this ‘village’ is a city at heart and has the skills, students, leadership and educational credentials to take its place among the elite and open a new page in the textbooks. That’s Karen Stanton’s personal curriculum and she is relishing the chance to lead York St John into the next phase of its development.
“There is potential to grow the university and also diversify what it does. It already has a strong reputation, particularly in the support it provides to its students, offering a really personalised experience.
“In a larger organisation you wouldn’t get that sense of community among the staff and again among the staff and their students. That brings a lot of opportunities in terms of how we can develop the institution.
“One of the reasons I came here is that it is very much a values-based university. We were founded in 1841 as a male teacher training college. The female training came along two years after that and the history of the institution was formed.
“At that point it was an Anglican College, set up by the diocese. The church had done this around the country and these particular places are called the Cathedral Universities, with us, Winchester, Chester, Chichester and Canterbury all in the same grouping, reaching out to students who wouldn’t necessarily have had an education.
“That has been a very strong theme here, and has allowed us to work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds – 37% of our students are from the lower income quartile and 96% of students are from state schools.
“So that original value set has pretty much stayed good for us now.”
The university – with its motto of ‘Life More Abundant’ – is a student itself, learning how best to care for its young people, and how to grow with them and Karen knows that the next 25 years may redefine it. It has already seen more than £100m of investment in the last ten years, but it is clear from what she is telling me that what it has learned over the last 175 years will always form the foundations.
“We can demonstrate time and time again that when you get the students here, their background makes no difference at all. We have a lot of initiatives here to reach out into schools and colleges to target students whose aspirations we can raise.
“In my experience, you have to reach out to the parents as well. You can do so much to encourage the students to think about their future and realise that higher education might actually be an option for them when it is not something their family would ever have considered.
“One reason I am so passionate about that is that I was the first person from my family to go to university. I come from a very tiny place called Louth, in the middle of Lincolnshire, and university just wasn’t on my family’s radar.
“So I have had a personal journey, so I can understand the journeys of those we are reaching out to.” This is an important point. When the interviews were happening to choose the next VC – perhaps its most important for all 175 years – the candidates would have been among the most skilled in their sector, all with experience and vision. But Karen’s personal insight is rare and valuable and gave her the ‘life more abundant’ that the university had been looking for.
“There is increasing Government pressure to have targets for bringing in people from a more diverse student body – black and ethnic minority students in particular – and we are working hard to exceed any national norms. For all of these reasons, I wanted to come here and I am delighted with what I have found and know I can build on all of those foundations.
“One thing that ‘building’ will involve is looking at the social impact we have. In York, we calculate our economic impact at around £60m, which is equivalent to more than 1,000 jobs. But I think there is another dimension, and one of the areas I would like to strengthen is the work we are doing within the community.
“We are seen in York as an engaged university and that is something to build on, by working more with the City Council around children and young people, and with the police and social services. That could be about anything from leadership training to support for foster carers, where we run a support programme that is probably the first in the country.
“We also work closely with businesses across the city, like Hiscox, who are working with us on what the future of the insurance industry might look like. Businesses like that want to access student thinking on these subjects because they will be the customers of the future. We want to work with businesses and help influence how their work develops moving forward.
“We are also strong in the creative industries with our thriving Faculty of Arts which works with businesses on design needs and the use of placements and internships as part of a partnership approach.
“As a small institution with fewer big research grants, we are never going to be very high in the global league tables, but we can assure that our students get the right experience. A national student survey among third year students gave us an 88% satisfaction rating last year, which put us in the top 30 in the country.
“We also work very hard at making sure our students are job-ready and 96% of our graduates are in either full time employment or have gone on to do further study within their first six months – which is better than Oxford and Cambridge.
“That’s a tremendous statistic that we are very proud of and which shows that we are making sure our students are ready for work.”
To support that, York St John became a signatory to PRiME the Principles for Responsible Management Education, in November 2014. This is a network of higher education institutions focused on the development of current and future managers through shared best practice. “It links perfectly with what we are doing here, says Karen. “Doing the right thing in business and being socially responsible.
“We have also created ‘Graduate Attributes’ which we want our graduates to have in their portfolio, as part of their own make-up. We would certainly want one of those attributes to be an understanding of what it means to be socially responsible.
“Another would be a global perspective. In terms of my aspirations for the university, this is about more internationalisation here. We are very well known locally and regionally, but I know we can operate on a global stage and we will be bringing that awareness into the curriculum because when they leave that is the world they will be working in.
“That also leads on to our research. We are not a Russell Group research-led institution, but we can make sure that we are strategically placed so that the work we do has an impact. All of these things collect together to form our mission.”
On a personal level, Karen is very aware that women VCs make up only 22% of the national total. “Unfortunately, this is still something we need to talk about,” she says. “I would love to be able to say it didn’t matter, but it does, and particularly in higher education there is a problem for women who want to progress up that career ladder.
“While 22% for VCs is great progress, if you look below that at middle and senior management those percentages are less. Nationally women make up only about 19% of professors and the number going into science and engineering is still very small.
“So it is important that we try to help and support equitable practices in terms of promotion.”
But there is so much optimism and energy here and around the region, and the continuing rise of Yorkshire plays an important part in Karen’s plans. “The innovation here is really exciting and I know it is part of the role of the university to engage with and support that as it shapes the region. We are part of the city, but we are also for the city.
“Potentially there are great opportunities around devolution and the Northern Powerhouse, but it is really important that this part of Yorkshire really gets a voice and doesn’t lose out to Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield.”
VCs will always have to quote statistics and metrics. There is little point in only telling parents and prospective students that York St John is a great place to learn. They need the reassurance of percentages and rising bar charts to know that their son or daughter has a better chance here than a few miles away.
But Karen’s job is to have that file to hand at the same time as she is walking around the Hogwartsian quads and corridors setting out her plans and ambitions. The combination will be difficult to resist.