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February 24, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Farewell Pat

After eight years as Victoria University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pat Walsh is leaving us. He sat down with Salient Editor Duncan McLachlan for his final interview.
 

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1. In ten years, when people look back on your time as Vice-Chancellor, what do you want them to remember?

I’m not sure people will look back. My experience is once you’re gone, you are gone. But that’s a fair question. I think they will say in my time as Vice-Chancellor, the University has developed a strategic focus and the way that we did that is we had a strategic plan. It meant we could be very focussed on our goals.

Secondly, I would say we developed a much greater sense of what kind of university Victoria is. Particularly around Victoria as a highly engaged university. The University is committed to public engagement, whether that be in terms of public-policy issues, science, and broader issues both nationally and internationally.

What I have tried to encourage here is a culture of excellence. Victoria has amazing people, both staff and students, who do amazing things. But it’s almost like we hide our light under a bush or don’t really celebrate the excellent things that people have done. So I have tried to build up that recognition of excellence.

The transformation to the research culture and the wonderful success in the PBRF. The strategic goal to achieve a dramatic improvement in research were the words that Council deliberately chose. They didn’t say they wanted a considerable improvement or a significant improvement, they said we want a dramatic improvement. So that gave us a real mandate to really make that the priority during the time that I was Vice-Chancellor. And I think we achieved that.

I think also the student experience. We developed a student-experience strategy. There were many aspects to this. Probably some of the more visible were the work that was done around the Victoria learning partnership, so: what goes on in the classroom, the extracurricular programme, the International Leadership Programme. And then of course the facilities: the Te Puni Village, the MacDiarmid building, and more recently the Hub. You know, people say that bricks and mortar only matter for what goes on inside them, but actually, the quality of the facilities can make certain things possible, and I think because of the huge improvement in the quality of our facilities, that really has created an environment that enhances the student experience.

2. Some people have said that the emphasis on research has come at the expense of the student experience. This is partly because the Government’s funding model sets some of its funding based on the amount of research produced. Do you think that has led lecturers to be pushed out of the classroom, sacrificing their time with their students in order to complete their academic work?

I don’t think so, no. We have very few research-only staff. Certainly one of the things I believe is that there is literally no point in doing research if you don’t take it into the classroom. I accept though that the huge emphasis we have had on research over the last eight or nine years has caused people to rebalance their time. Prior to this, many staff would have regarded teaching as their dominant activity at the expense of research, so I think we now have a better balance between teaching and research.

3. Do you have any regrets from your time here?

No, I don’t have any regrets. I think that’s because I regard regret as an unproductive emotion. I look back and see some things that we could have done differently, but I don’t have regrets about them. I am really proud of the way that Vic has developed as a university.

4. In 2010, you proposed changes to the University, which were later accepted, that involved abolishing the Gender and Women’s Studies Programme. Do you still think that was a wise move?

That was simply a case that very few wanted to study it, and it was becoming very difficult to continue to sustain it. It wasn’t singling out that area. It was facing up to the difficult issue that had to be dealt with.

5. Part of your role as Vice-Chancellor involved lobbying the Government on behalf of the University. How have you found it working with the Government?

We have been frustrated at times with our engagement with the Government. The Government is moving ahead to restructure University Council against the clear opposition of each university and of vice-chancellors, without making a convincing case for it. So things like that you find frustrating.

6. Do you support any major changes to the tertiary sector?

I think the case that universities have been making, but without success, right through the time I have been Vice-Chancellor, is to calculate the present value of university funding or the decline in real terms of university funding, funded from the mid-’90s to now, and demonstrate that if the real value of that funding had simply been maintained, not increased, we would have across the sector somewhere between $250–300 million in extra funding.

That would reduce, clearly, the budgetary pressures that universities are under, and on the students side, it would mean that student fees would not need to have increased at the rate they have increased.

I think on student debt it’s a real mixed picture. I mean, the average debt is paid off in about five to seven years. On the other hand, it is true that some students, and leave aside those students who rack up their debt on things other than study, and I don’t think there are many of them, but students who go into high-cost study certainly do leave with high levels of debt, and I think that’s a real concern. I do think there is a limit to the debt level that can be reasonably sustained. I think it is very much bound up with the level of funding that the Government is willing to make into universities.

7. How has the student experience changed since you were at uni?

I was a student at Canterbury in the 1970s, so that’s a long time ago. The world was different then, I can tell you. So it was a very different experience. It’s very hard to compare. For example, when I was a student, your whole grade depended on the final exam. That meant you could, if you chose to, cruise along in a fairly leisurely way for the first six or seven months and then around about August, you suddenly had to realise that they were serious. So you had two or three months of furious activity to make up for what you hadn’t done earlier in the year. I think the academic pressures on students are much more consistent now. When I was a student, fees were not nonexistent but they were very low. I could be very confident that I could get a job over the summer and, if I chose, in the holidays during the year, which would see me through without any difficulties. So financially it was easier. On the other hand, we didn’t have the social and cultural life that a city like Wellington has to offer. Christchurch was a pretty boring place.

8. Now having looked back, let’s look forward. Where to from here for you?

In the short term, I am going to have a couple of months’ break. Then my wife and I are going on a Victoria study tour of Turkey. And then have a holiday in Rhodes. Then I will come back in June and see if anyone wants me to do anything. I have always, throughout most of my life, followed the principle that you should be open to new experiences. So I don’t want to be a Vice-Chancellor anywhere else. I don’t want another full-time job as a chief executive of any organisation. I want to do a variety of different things, whether it be on boards, whether it be doing some consulting, doing some mentoring, working for voluntary organisations. I am open to a new set of experiences.

9. What are your thoughts on the new Vice-Chancellor, Grant Guilford?

I think he will find his own way. It is a very good appointment. I think he will be a very good Vice-Chancellor. He is very experienced. He is very well regarded. But he will make changes. He will do some things differently, though, and that’s the way of any new chief executive. And I won’t be sitting on the sidelines saying, “Ooh, don’t do that.” I will just keep well out of it, and I think Victoria will be in good hands.

Do you have any final advice for students at Vic?

I would say be open to new experiences. The old Latin term carpe diem. Seize the day. And be optimistic. Things are never as bad as you think.

——

Quick questions:

Go-to meal after a long day?

Lamb on the barbecue with a variety of vegetables also cooked on the barbecue, and a Greek salad. Matched with a Central Otago Pinot noir.

Favourite Wellington restaurant?

Boulcott Street Bistro – lamb shank.

Drink at a bar?

If I’ve just come off the golf course, then a beer. If I am sitting down in the evening after work, more likely a Pinot noir.

Star sign?

Pisces (only on the cusp though) [editor’s note: THANK GOD].

Smooth or crunchy peanut butter?

I don’t eat peanut butter.

Favourite sport?

To do is golf; to watch is cricket.

Love Actually or Notting Hill?

Love Actually [editor’s note: wrong answer].

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