New era for town and gown

Andrew Atherton, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Lancaster University.
Andrew Atherton, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Lancaster University.

As Lancaster University gears up to mark its 50th anniversary in 2014, it is drawing up a plan to take it through until 2020. Now, for the first time, it is asking the people of Lancaster how town and gown should move forward together. NICOLA ADAM speaks to the university’s newest recruit, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Andrew Atherton

It is just three miles from the city centre to Lancaster University Bailrigg campus but for some it may as well be three hundred.

It’s a perception that is far from unique to Lancaster, as Deputy Vice-Chancellor Andrew Atherton ponders.

“The boundary is not walls or fences but a psychological one. You see that in city centre universities. There are no fences but people will walk 15 minutes around the campus.

“But graduates go to change the world, ideas that it produces through its research and teaching is at the heart of where the university is.”

The divide does seem to be one of perception. Many campus events and facilities are open to the public and thousands of students and staff live in and contribute to the city.

The university injected around £333m into the local economy in 2012. It is a concept that is hard to shift as the university goes from strength to strength as a top research institution.

But as next year will mark 50 years since it was opened by Royal Charter in 1964, the decision has been made to throw communication channels wide open ahead of the development of a new six-year strategy.

For the first time, local residents will have a role in the decision-making process.
“We need to think about what is possible,” explains Andrew, who is a Professor of Enterprise.

“Lancaster is situated in a very particular place and we need to understand how we can be a part of that.

“We will ask – what sort of things do you want the university to be doing in and around Lancaster in the next few years?

“We are not a finished product, we are thinking about it very carefully.”

Andrew himself is far from the old-fashioned cliché of a fusty academic. He has travelled and worked across the world, studying for his Masters degree at Yale before setting up his own business working with companies in the former Soviet Union as they tackled the challenges of privatisation.

”It was like the Big Bang,” he explained.

“All of a sudden the market came , shares got sold – and people didn’t even know what profit was. Before, everything was down to the state procurement agency, then suddenly you were a general manager then suddenly running your own business.”

But after five years the attractions of the US began to diminish.

“I got to that place in my life. I had a Green Card and I could have lived in the States forever. I was there for five years, it is great but when you live there for a while you begin to realise how different it is, the value sets and the way they live.

“British culture is much closer to Chinese culture. “The US is about the ‘I and the we’ and Americans don’t get irony at all – though maybe that’s a bit unfair...”

Next, time spent in Beijing, China, was a life-changing experience for Andrew. “Back then there were only a few high rise buildings, now there are countless.”

But then home and academia called, in the shape of a job in Durham University’s policy department. The rest is history.

Now he is taking on his latest challenge after joining Lancaster from Lincoln University in January.

“Lancaster Uni is one of the success stories,” he enthuses. Very few universities can claim to have done as well. “The other thing I find really interesting about Lancaster, although it has done so well, it hasn’t stopped, it still has appetite and ambition... where do we go next? Which is why I went from Durham to Lincoln, it was to build something from scratch – it is very rare for a good uni like Lancaster to have that appetite.”

So on Tuesday a public consultation event will be held at the Storey, on Meeting House Lane, between 6pm and 8pm for city residents to have their say.

“We need to engage locally and globally. We need to be absolutely open about what we can and can’t do and get a stronger feel for what is achievable,” adds Andrew.

Three miles and almost half a century on, can town and gown move forward together?

Watch this space.