Kiran Sidhu, Monday 20 August 2012
For most people, running a university of 25,000 students, 3,000 staff and a turnover of £200m a year, would be a formidable task; Professor Julius Weinberg, Kingston University’s eloquent and friendly Vice Chancellor, describes it as a great privilege.
When I go to meet him on campus at Kingston, he tells me: ‘Education is wonderful as you’re creating futures for young people and giving people opportunity, so it’s a great thing to do. One of the saddest things in life is when people do not achieve what they might have been able to if they have had the right education. It’s not a sad thing just for the individual but for society as a whole. There are lots of people who could benefit from a university education but they don’t because their schools aren’t good or their aspirations aren’t high enough. Or people have said to them: “people like us don’t go to university” - and that’s dreadful.
‘We just need to think very differently about providing opportunity,’ he continues. ‘Basically society needs people who have had a university education. The jobs that are going to exist in the future will require conceptual thinking.
And most people going out into the world now will have to reinvent themselves many times. And that’s what you get at university.’ If you can’t rely on a degree to get you a job, what else is it good for? I ask. With constant shake-ups in education fees and many graduates unable to get work, is the VC finding that a university education is losing its appeal?
‘University isn’t just about jobs, it’s about learning. It’s about self-discovery. We know that graduates live longer; they tend to be happier, female graduates have better outcomes in pregnancy because education is good for you for lots of reasons. It’s a life changing experience; you make life-long friends and discover who you are. Ultimately, life is about choice. And what university does is give you more choices in life.
‘Graduates are more likely to get jobs than non-graduates. There is high graduate unemployment, but there is an even higher non-graduate unemployment, so being a graduate still gives you the edge. Once we have come out of the recession the first people who will get jobs will be graduates. All the evidence from the whole world shows that the most successful economies are those with the most graduates. Countries are like South Korea aim to send 60-70 per cent of their young people to university because they know they need people with university skills.’
What is the role of an educator these days? I asked. Is it to inform, inspire, stimulate? Professor Weinberg replies: ‘It’s all of those things. However, the most important thing is to inspire. If a student leaves your seminar or lecture wanting to know more then you’ve done your job. Just giving facts isn’t enough - we can all throw facts at people. If people leave university without having changed any of their ideas, then we’ve failed. It’s all about challenge and progression. Of course you have to impart some facts but that alone is not the right thing.’
Kingston University seems tick a lot of boxes as an ideal place to be a student. Great location (near to London and on the river), good shops and clubs, safe campus. Whilst many university towns often have an ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide, where locals reluctantly co-exist with students, the professor is keen to make his position clear: ‘I’m trying to build good relationships with the community and I want the community to feel that the university is a place that they can come to. I regularly meet with the head of the council, chief executive of the theatre and the police’s borough commander. We’re trying to get local clubs and societies to use university premises at the weekends. We want to encourage local people to see the university as a resource.
‘We have one of highest proportions of students who go out and create their own businesses. We want them to feel that Kingston is a place where they’d like to stay, as they are going to be creating the jobs that are going to be employing the next generation of people.
‘We bring a lot of life and diversity into the town. We have our graduation ceremonies in the Rose Theatre. Just the ceremonies alone bring in several million pounds into Kingston. As well as this, students rent accommodation and spend money in the town.
He’s been described by locals as ‘a breath of fresh air’, and whilst we are talking I can quite understand why Professor Julius Weinberg might have earned this epithet. His thinking is clear and challenging. ‘Just coming to university and learning that there are people who think about things in a different way to you is the most important lesson you could ever learn. You might not agree with them, but it makes you question the way you think about the world.’