University of Kent Vice-Chancellor Karen Cox sat down with InQuire to chat about her year in post, her pay what is in store for the university's future amid Brexit.
“I think the role of Vice Chancellor is a challenge,” Karen Cox told InQuire back in August 2017, then newly-appointed to the role. It has been one year since we conducted that interview and Karen seems to have comfortably settled into her position, despite the various challenges that have been, and have continued to be, facing her premiership.
After graduating from King’s College London with a BSc (Hons), Cox went on to hold a number of clinical posts before completing a PhD at the University of Nottingham. She served as acting head of the School of Nursing and Midwifery before becoming Head in 2003. Karen was then appointed to a Pro Vice-Chancellor position and then Deputy Vice-Chancellor in 2013.
In 2016, Cox made the decision to leave her job at Nottingham University after 23 years of service, ‘22 years longer than I first set out do’, she jokingly remarked. Her next venture would be in Canterbury, as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent.
Cox is responsible for the management and leadership of the institution, insuring that the University’s mission, aims, and objectives are delivered. Despite the challenges she has faced, Cox has said: ‘It’s been such a privilege’.
‘You meet fantastic people, whether its colleagues doing amazing research and teaching or students arriving with all of their hopes and aspirations. You get this fantastic variety of people all in one place. It’s been great learning about Kent and the role the university plays across the county.’
‘My only previous experience of Kent was passing through the Channel Tunnel. When I was asked about the role, I did a bit of mystery shopping and had a look round.
‘I got to know more about Kent, realizing what a nice part of the country it is.
Taking the EU out of the 'European University'
Cox’s appointment came at a difficult time for the University, as it continued to face the uncertainties posed by Britain’s divorce from the EU. Following the referendum, the University set out to support students and staff throughout the arranged transition period, with Karen herself ensuring that Kent will ‘not be leaving Europe’. As the university’s motto implies, Kent is the ‘UK’s European University. The University is spread across Europe and consequently has strong European links in teaching and research. Originally, Cox was not worried by the prospects of Brexit, but with the scheduled departure looming, Cox and other officials are beginning to face greater confusion and worry.
‘It is just so uncertain.
‘We as a university have a responsibility to address these issues and react to what we are seeing regarding Brexit. We don’t know what the status of EU students will be, but we will continue to work with students, while lobbying the government when we need to.’
This week, University UK—an advocacy organisation for universities in the United Kingdom—has been lobbying the government for visa extensions for international students, something that the University has found challenging.
‘All we can do, I feel, is work with what changes may come along.’
Addressing her (and her predecessor's) pay
Karen’s predecssor, Dame Julia Goodfellow, received a final pay packet of £324,000. She was given an extra £45,000 for what the University said was for “recognition of her sustained high performance”. She also claimed £77,000 on expenses in her final two years on travel and hotels.
When asked for comment, Cox said it has been given a ‘Justified spotlight.’
‘Senior pay has been something that has been looked at quite critically over the last few years. For me, it’s all about asking ourselves whether we are being open and transparent enough and fairly deciding how pay is set. The same goes for expenses.’
Some students believed that the salary of Vice-chancellors across UK universities were too high, amid financial issues facing students such as rising debt.
As a result, the University and Kent Union announced in the summer term that the Union President will be present as a student representative on the remuneration committee.
Why Kent dropped 19 university places
The University of Kent dropped 19 places in the 2019 Complete University Guide League Table, falling from 25th in 2018 tables to 44th.
Cox explained: ‘For one, it is effected by the way we calculate the Students and staff ratio. It needs tightening up. We are also looking into the quality of staff we hire in light of the rising financial constraints facing workers.
‘And the second reason is the National Student Survey, particularly on areas to do with feedback and assessment.
‘It seems reasonable and rational that you [students] want feedback, on your work and we will make sure staff and ourselves are aware of this.’
‘It is good for us to stand back and ask, “what do we need to do?”, rather than just continuing to do what we have always done.’
On staying safe
‘Issues revolving the wellbeing of students, as well as staff, has been one the biggest challenges we are facing.
Karen is dedicated to ensuring that students feel safe on campus. The University has been working closely with Kent Union over the last few years in addressing the wellbeing and safety of its students.
‘These are often incredibly emotive issues, but ones that need tackling and constantly looked at.
Shortly after Cox’s arrival, the University introduced a free SafeZone app, giving students quick access to emergency services, first aid, and support from the University. Cox also praises the Student Service Team, who have been ‘fantastic’ in responding to different issues across campus.
‘I always think there are ways we can do more,’ admits Cox. ‘And I think that with incoming students joining us for welcome week, the university and Kent Union will be working very hard to look into the various issues and how we go about dealing with it.”
Plans for the future
‘We need to find a way of profiling and promoting our university,’ explained Cox, as she hopes to achieve what she originally set out. Her plan was to extend the University far beyond its European connections, by making Kent a key research institution focused on the various challenges facing the globe.
Closer to home, Cox has been instrumental in Kent receiving funding to develop a new medical school, which will be run in partnership with Canterbury Christ Church University. Cox said she has been working hard to recruit new students and staff, as well as working alongside the NHS.
Top tips for new students
‘My advice that I would give to new students joining us would be to enjoy university to the fullest, because your time here will go so fast,’ Cox remarks.
‘I found that after I graduated my Bsc that there were so many things that I could have been a part of that I missed out on. So my advice is to find out as much as you can about what is happening across campus, because there are huge opportunities being offered to you whilst you study at here. You will make such great friends, while receiving you will come out with a fantastic and broad education that develops you as an individual.’
Interview conducted by Jesse Bedayn.