The Debra Humphris Interviews

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Forty minutes had passed before I’d even asked my first question. In any normal interview, I would class that as a resounding failure, but in the particular circumstances, it was quite the opposite.

Debra Humphris is one of the University’s three Pro Vice-Chancellors. I had been told that she is very enthusiastic about her job and may end up talking about lots of different initiatives and programmes that I’d know nothing about. So when she asked me if I knew how the University was actually structured, I decided honesty was the best policy. For the next forty minutes Debra explained to me the intricate workings of the University, something I previously knew little to nothing about.

When the interview finally commenced, Debra’s first words revealed a lot about her character; “It’s a huge privilege to have this job and to be able to shape and influence the outstanding education we give here at Southampton. Given that, I ensure you we will never rest on our laurels, there are always things we can do better.” I’d merely asked her what she felt the best achievements of her past two years in her role were.

She then proceeded to discuss all the things she had achieved in her role and was brimming with the enthusiasm I had heard about. “One of the earliest things was very important for me. I realised that there are a number of issues which regularly occur between the University and the Union. Few of them will be resolved in the cycle of one set of Sabbaticals, so we set up a strategic agreement around a number of key issues we knew would take more than a year to resolve”.

She spoke about assessment and feedback, promoting employability, supporting students in transition and the use of technology in learning. She was particularly concerned with four specific themes; strategy, partnership, transparency and student engagement.

An example, of both the transparency and student engagement she spoke of is the Student Centeredness Fund, the means by which the University makes its decision on how to spend the money it gains from tuition fees. The idea is that the money goes straight back into improving the student experience. It is from this funding that Café SUSU was born and SUSUtv’s new studio was built. Debra is clearly very proud of this initiative, the most recent success of which is the new bus interchange: “By putting half a million in from the Student Centeredness Fund we managed to get half a million from the City Council. It’s something we wouldn’t have been able to afford ourselves so we leveraged half a million from the Council”.

“It’s a huge privilege to have this job and to be able to shape and influence the outstanding education we give here at Southampton.”

We moved on to speak about the Curriculum Innovation Programme, something I had heard rumours about and was eager to discuss. “We need to be able to prepare out students for the dynamic world of employment and that includes all the challenges that society faces… climate change, energy, global uncertainties and security, ageing and lifelong health are an example of just a few of our research themes”. The basic premise of the programme is to provide students with the opportunity to study topics of interest outside of their original curriculum. So a student with an interest in languages, for example, can take some languages modules in place of their normal choices. The programme will not start until the academic year 12/13 but it will be piloted in the year 11/12. She explained, “What our passion hides is a lot of preparation, so it is literally a two to three year period.” You only need to look at the types of Universities also involved in the project; Aberdeen, MIT, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Western Australia; to know this is a step in the right direction for Southampton.

Finally, we addressed the issue of student participation and employment engagement; something I already knew Debra thought was particularly important. “I’d hope one of the features of my time as Pro Vice- Chancellor so far has been giving added significance to the student voice”. Everyone I had spoken to prior to the interview had confirmed this, Debra meets on a monthly basis with SUSU’s Sabbatical officers and is known for going out of her way to give students’ their voice. Her record speaks for itself when focusing on employer engagement. For the summer passed, Careers Destinations organised over 200 internships and funded seven themselves.

On reflection, the one thing that really stood out for me from the interview was how much she seemed to genuinely care about students; it may be cliché, but it was very clear from the start, that for Debra, this was more than just a job. She left me with an overwhelmingly good first impression. But, it was only a first impression; it will be interesting to see how the interview goes next time when we’ll talk about the more pressing issues facing Higher Education; government funding, tuition fees and the economic difficulties facing Southampton’s students.

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