Academic strategy is an aspect of Higher Education (HE) that underpins all of the inner workings of an institution; it’s not just about how a university teaches, but the values they hold and the ways in which they instil them. For Oliver Turnbull, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) at Bangor University in North Wales, this has been a huge part of defining what the university stands for.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sat down with Oliver to discuss how he came to his current position, developing an academic strategy document, and how his background in neuroscience influences his approach to HE.
As well as being DVC at Bangor, I’m also a clinical neuropsychologist. I was the Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) for Teaching and Learning for many years before becoming DVC around 3 years ago. I’ve always been interested in research; I went to university to become an astrophysicist and left as a neuroscientist, but I’ve been in HE all my life, typically trying to juggle teaching, research and administration management.
A few key parts of my job are planning, estates, digital, and international, but I also capture a lot of things that fall to me from the PVCs when they are undertaking larger tasks. For example, I’ve led on our new promotions criteria, I lead on sustainability, I run our graduation process, and I am very involved in finances and a lot of the university’s core activities, as well as smaller jobs such as reforming our art collections too.
It is now a developed document although it isn’t finished yet, and I think we ran a very comprehensive consultation process. The document also has fifteen sub-strategies beneath it and that’s a much harder task: working out what they are and which committees will be responsible for them as well as developing action plans.
We have a thriving personal tutor system, a campus life system in halls, and mandatory bystander training for all of our newly arrived students.
Getting each one of them through included proposing them to students and staff so we could get feedback on all of the documents. It was a long process but an educational one as well.
Sustainability. We didn’t previously have a strategy written in a document stating how we were going to measure it or carry it out; which led us to make some tough choices like avoiding greenwashing. That meant every time we missed the mark on something sustainability-related, we had to be honest about it and try to improve. We wanted to make the strategy obsolete, in that it becomes the way we naturally operate, rather than a way to get ahead on a league table.
The Well-being of Future Generations Act from the Welsh government identifies 4 elements for sustainability; social, economic, environmental, and cultural. We’ve been working this content on sustainability into every first-year module across subjects, so every new student becomes introduced to one of these areas.
We have a lot of international students, so we are doing a lot in that area. We have a thriving personal tutor system, a campus life system in halls, and mandatory bystander training for all of our newly arrived students.
We also run our own student nightclub and have 24-hour study spaces that require a student card for entry, so students feel safer. We keep a robust policy on disciplinaries to ensure that we deal appropriately with any issues, and we have a proactive approach to seek resolution first between the parties.
International students make up about 20% of our thriving, multicultural campus. We have a lot of Welsh speakers and degrees, and work can be completed in Welsh.
We take a very multilingual view of it; England is quite unusual in that most people are monolingual but throughout the world many people are bilingual. We run a free program called Languages for All in six different languages, because we like the idea of people having another language to go out in the world with and Welsh is just a small part of that.
Emotion-based learning is when we use emotion to guide decision-making, and we’ve studied the neuroscience of this for over twenty years now. It’s a very important psychological tool that we use, but it also has a downside because emotions can hijack decisions and take away from the evidence that suggests it isn’t a good idea. It’s the basis of all forms of bias and prejudice, and while we can evaluate emotions and make informed decisions, some people aren’t able to.
Being under the influence of powerful emotions is a bad time to make decisions. Above all else, you need to give yourself space to think about it and calm down, so that you can change your perspective and do things differently. The solution is better emotional regulation and learning how to make better decisions. Emotions are older than cognition, and they are more powerful when we are provoked.
Play to your strengths, but at the same time diversify your skillset. Be good at several things and great at one of them, and that puts you in a great place.
The individual I’m thinking of was able to balance several things simultaneously in his career: research, teaching and being the PVC of Research for the university. That is a skillset in itself, keeping all of these things going, and I find that the most inspirational.
Frank Herbert’s Dune — it’s partly the world-building element, imagining a world where humans do the jobs that computers do, and where people get swept away by a charismatic leader and it ends badly for everyone. For that to be written in the 60s is remarkable.