Professor Judith Petts

Q: What have been your thoughts and feelings since it was confirmed that you would be Plymouth University’s next Vice-Chancellor?

It confirmed very much for me the excitement that I felt about the opportunity – and that has been underlined by the very positive way in which friends and peers have responded to the news, as well as the response from colleagues at Plymouth.

Q: What’s your first impression of the institution?

It’s a very friendly and welcoming institution and, while I haven’t always been here when the students are, it feels a lively place with lots of great things going on. It’s large of course, especially in terms of the numbers of students, and it clearly has pockets of significant excellence. A key theme – one that has been reinforced by what colleagues at the University have said to me – is that we need to continue with the work that is being led by the executive to reinvigorate our institutional confidence and, in doing so, recapture that sense of what makes the University a great place for staff and students, a great partner for the city and business, and somewhere our alumni will continue to be proud to call ‘their’ institution. Some of this will come down to focus and to restating our strengths and aspirations.

Q: Did anything in particular resonate with you from the interview process?

I got a strong sense of opportunity and the importance, therefore, of prioritisation so that the opportunity can be realised – but that’s not an issue that is unique to Plymouth. Also, while the University is among the post-‘92 universities in terms of where it’s come from, it has an enviable and strong core of high-quality research, so there is a very real sense of sustaining that excellence and how important it is to students and our research-led teaching. Lastly, there is the very real need to ensure financial sustainability, so that we can invest in the University, build upon its strengths, and ensure it can respond to an uncertain external environment.

Q: What will be your approach to the first 90 days of taking up the role?

I’ve had the advantage of meeting a lot of people from the University already, and clearly there will be a lot more people that I will want and need to meet. I want to go out into the faculties, the schools and the professional services, and listen to colleagues talk about their achievements, their plans and their priorities. I want to start to meet our students, even if to begin with it is informally over a cup of coffee, and I want to go to the Students’ Union. I very much want to get a sense of what can be done and what needs to be done. The second thing I want to do is see how the portfolio review and the strategic implementation programmes are progressing. I know there has been a lot of work done by the executive group and the Board of Governors, and so I’ll be keen to see whether there is anything needed to support this work further to sharpen the strategy focus. Strategic plans cannot be cast in tablets of stone – they have to evolve – and so we’ll need to monitor the external and internal environment to ensure that our plan remains fresh, focused and challenging.

Q: What was it that led you to enter the world of academia?

It was more a case of serendipity than being planned. I didn’t go into academia straight from university – I went out into business and came back to higher education when I was about 30. I had reached a point where I could see that what I’d gained myself could add value in a university environment. As it happened, my husband was moving to a new job in the Midlands, and an opportunity came up at Nottingham that was in my field of environmental management and assessment.

Q: What would you say was your proudest moment so far?

Apart from being appointed Vice Chancellor, I would have to say in 2012 when I was appointed CBE in The Queen’s New Year Honours List for services to scientific research. It was a huge honour and privilege and something I’ll never forget. And to know that the nomination comes in the first place from your peers makes it even more special.

Q: What’s your assessment of the HE sector?

I think we’re in for an uncertain and tough time, and that’s not unique to the university sector because it will affect the whole of government and beyond. In terms of higher education, we are awaiting the news of the Teaching Excellence Framework, the review of the research councils, and the Comprehensive Spending Review. We’re expecting a Green Paper on higher education, which will influence the future structure and funding of the sector. So there’s a great deal we don’t know, and a great deal we can guess, but I think it’s going to be challenging. For any university, and certainly for Plymouth, we have to ensure that we prioritise and focus on what we are good at to put us in a position to be proactive in the face of the changes.

Q: Have you taken a view on the strategic direction of the University?

The University has obviously put a lot of work into its strategic implementation plan and portfolio review, and this is absolutely right. As an institution we need to focus in on what is good, particularly our research and teaching excellence, and to maintain that we will need to consider how we invest in it. We also need to make sure that we’re focused on translating our research into research-led teaching as teaching excellence is of paramount importance to our strategy and positioning. I also think the University’s research institutes can play an important role in providing opportunities for interdisciplinary research, which is where we will expect to see growing opportunities for funding, particularly around global challenges. In terms of enterprise, and Plymouth being ‘the’ enterprise university, it’s probably better articulated as an ‘enterprising’ university. Personally, I like a concept of enterprise that is like an ecosystem, where everything we do – whether engaging in national debates, contributing evidence to government policy-making, or working with business – comes from a broad base that everyone on campus can relate to. For example, the opportunity around public engagement is part of a spectrum of activities that makes us connected and so I would say that we should aim to be a connected, engaged and enterprising university.

Q: How are you looking forward to moving to the South West? Is it an area of the country you know already? 

That’s an easy one! I’m a graduate of Exeter, I met my husband there, and we have lifelong friends in the area. Two years ago we bought a house in East Devon, so we’d already decided we wanted to live in the South West. And my oldest friend lives in Cornwall, so I know quite a lot about the area and I’m looking forward to finding the bits of the South West Coast Path I’ve not yet walked along.