Shropshire Star

University's new interim vice-chancellor says more needs to be done to look after students and staff

A new university boss today made a pledge to improve student and staff welfare.

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Professor John Raftery is the new interim vice-chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton

Interim vice-chancellor Professor John Raftery also promised “financial openness” after a chaotic period of course cuts and job losses.

He says he wants the University of Wolverhampton to be “thriving” so that the city and wider region can be proud of it.

“I believe that universities change lives and can change lives across generations – a university like this one changed my life.”

Those are the words of the University of Wolverhampton’s new interim vice-chancellor, Professor John Raftery, who says he is hoping to drive the institution forward.

And despite only being in the job since February 1 this year, he has already put forward his three priorities including focusing on students post-graduation, attracting and retaining staff, and financial transparency.

Professor Raftery, who came to Wolverhampton from Cambridge, Massachusetts, said: “We have got to have a pretty much massive increased focus on the outcomes for our students.

“We don’t mean whether they’ve passed their tests – of course that’s important – but whether they end up in graduate jobs, have they prospered, are we contributing to the highly qualified workforce in the Midlands?

“And what I would like to do is put increased attention on the experience of our staff.

“If staff feel they are respected, if they have opportunities for careers, and there’s training and promotion on offer, it makes it a more content workplace.

“We need to be able to attract talented staff not just from the Midlands but all over the world – I’ve come from America.”

The third priority is about the university’s finances after a “difficult” period which saw more than 100 courses suspended and then cut amid a £20 million.

Professor John Raftery is the new interim vice-chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton

The interim vice-chancellor added that regular conversations were needed over finances at the university, which he said are now in a positive position moving forward, to avoid “big shocks” such as the cancellation of courses last year which caused widespread backlash.

He said a university was not a business but had to be run in a “business-like way” which made keeping unviable courses difficult.

He said: “We don’t work to maximise profit, but we have to run it so we get around to the end of the year and we’ve got a reasonable surplus to reinvest.

“If you want that subsidy, then you have to be mindful especially if you have an unviable area.

“Nobody in the university wants to cut courses. I don’t get up in the morning and think ‘let’s cut x, y and z’ – no one does – but if you have an unviable area, it’s difficult.

“What you have to do is go with that for a while and you see if there’s subsidy from another area to support it, whilst you look at potentially changing the offer of the courses. But if you’re not getting the applications then it’s still unviable and it becomes difficult.”

The 66-year-old said there had been a move away in the arts from traditional crafts to digital media, with the university recently opening a new screen school and courses in general changing and developing over time.

He said: “Looking back to the 1890s, people would’ve been taught how to operate steam engines so these things evolve over time.”

Professor Raftery, whose father was an Irish immigrant who arrived in the country in 1958 when he was two, said he has attended a 'big town hall' meeting with staff and is planning to have visited each department – as well as campuses at Walsall and Telford – by the end of April, which he stressed the importance of.

He met with Wolverhampton Council’s chief executive Tim Johnson, unions and the student union when he started, hoping to build a strong relationship for the benefit of them both, students and the city.

Professor John Raftery is the new interim vice-chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton

And he is settling into life in the Midlands, having moved across from America, saying there was a “lot here to like”. “I like the warmth of a Wolverhampton welcome,” he said.

“I love it. I’m new to the Midlands and there’s a nice modesty around here and it’s part of my job to help change that a little.

“Modesty is nice but with it, people forget to stand up and be proud.

“We have thousands of people who graduate each year going into a range of different professions.

“This ‘Midlands modesty’ is a really nice thing, but I think the university has got a lot to be proud of. If I could get people to stand an inch taller I would.”

Meanwhile he said he had a “lot of empathy” for lecturers who have been on strike, having been a member of the University and College Union for 20 years.

He said: “I’ve got a lot of empathy and sympathy for them, but also university income has been frozen.

“So we have to work out new ways of talking with unions and I’m looking forward to doing that.”

Professor John Raftery is the new interim vice-chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton

But what does he think about the University of Wolverhampton?

“The university, in four years time, is entering into its third century having been founded in 1827,” he said.

“It’s a very resilient institution capable of evolving with the times – and I’ve counted up and since it’s been around we’ve had 45 (individual) prime ministers or so. "

And when asked what he was most proud of, the interim vice-chancellor added: “I wouldn’t say research papers, or books, I would say I’m most proud of increasing the odds and opportunities for thousands and thousands of students who may come from immigrants, those who come from poorer backgrounds, and others to help them get fulfilling careers.”

Professor Raftery, who hails from County Cork in Ireland, has a Ph.D. in Applied Economics and he has previously held the role of Dean and Pro Vice-Chancellor at Oxford Brookes University and Vice-Chancellor at London Metropolitan University.

His predecessor Professor Ian Campbell stepped down from his role on January 31.