Today, June 22, 2018, Edge Hill’s Vice-Chancellor Dr John Cater celebrates 25 years in the role.

The University has grown and developed considerably during his quarter century of leadership,  winning the coveted UK Times Higher Education University of the Year title in 2015/15, achieving Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the government’s evaluation of excellence in teaching quality, and this year announcing that it will open a new medical school.

Here, John gives a glimpse into his time so far at Edge Hill University and what it is like to be the longest serving Vice-Chancellor of a UK higher education institution.

Dr John CaterThere’s a rumour you’ve been around at Edge Hill for some time…?

Guilty as charged…  It’s exactly twenty-five years since I was handed the Vice-Chancellor’s role, though the title was different then and they didn’t pay me for the first five weeks…

So that makes you the longest-serving VC in the country, then, but doesn’t the story start earlier?

It does.  I fell off a ‘plane from the States, where I’d spent a chunk of the summer, slept on a mate’s floor and rolled up for my half-hour induction back in 1979, when I joined Edge Hill as a Lecturer in Geography and Public Policy.

And before that…?

Over four years at what is now John Moores, in a mix of research and lecturing posts, and less than a year in a policy unit in London, either side of the election of the Thatcher government.

And before…?

Stop digging!  Three years at university in Wales as one of the early beneficiaries of the opening up of higher education to working class council-estate kids.

So, 25 years this month and 40 years next September; why haven’t you moved?

Because I’m not appointable?   Over the years I guess the offers have come, but never for a job that would have attracted me.  And, whilst I’m fiercely ambitious for Edge Hill, I’ve never been burdened with a great deal of personal ambition.   

And you’ve never been bored…?

I’d never say never, but I’ve done a variety of jobs – lecturer, course leader, head of department, associate dean, acting dean of faculty, director of policy and planning, director of resources (or pro vice-chancellor in today’s parlance) – and no two years, or even two weeks, have ever been the same.

So, what was Edge Hill like in 1979?

They’d just stopped (free) afternoon tea in the Staff Common Room, we taught in wooden huts and wartime hospital wards, and most colleagues went home at four and disappeared for much of the summer.  Although Edge Hill was diversifying, it was still very much a training college for teachers and its rhythms were essentially those of the school year.

It sounds idyllic…

I’m not so sure.  The culture was one of dependence – on the local authority, on our validating partner – and that becomes stultifying after a time.  And, before I’d reached my thirtieth birthday, the County Council voted to close the College.

What happened?

The early 1980s were a time of public sector spending cuts (not much changes…), and the Conservative council saw merit in absorbing Edge Hill into Lancashire Polytechnic (and the possible sale of the Ormskirk site).  I did a fair amount of work on the economic impact of such a decision and, after initially losing a nem con vote, we persuaded the County to reconsider.

Did good come of this?

Personally, I became better known, and took on the leadership of the Urban Policy degree programme shortly after; for the institution, it is harder to say, with some tensions between the change agents and those who were comfortable with Edge Hill as a (vulnerable) teacher-training provider.

There were other uncertainties too…?

Definitely.  Following the 1988 Higher Education Act, Edge Hill was never going to find the transition from local authority control to independence easy, and we were not considered for university title in 1992 when the polytechnics were re-designated.  I think the expectation was that institutions like Edge Hill would wither on the vine or merge, and the Act and a poor Ofsted outcome certainly contributed to the departure of my predecessor.

So, it’s 1993 and you’ve got a new job…

Actually, I was asked to ‘act up’ temporarily, on the expectation that, as the youngest of the senior team, I’d not be a candidate for the permanent post.  But after nine months and two unsuccessful recruitment rounds, the job ‘fell’ into my lap.

What was it like…?

Initially, tough.  There had been some conflicts and a host of departures, leaving very little institutional memory and few resources.  Most early decisions were made on the basis of intuition but, within a couple of years, with Rhiannon Evans and, a little later, Steve Igoe, joining Mark Flinn and myself, we had a coherent and supportive senior team which stayed together for well over a decade.

What were the first priorities?

Inculcating a sense of ownership through better and honest communication, understanding, and a sense of shared engagement and endeavour.  I used to describe it as the solidarity of the oppressed, since very few policymakers thought we had a future.

Second, creating a sense of place.  We need to make Edge Hill a destination, and my predecessor and I had begun work on an Estates Strategy at the beginning of the 1990s, though we had no money and no borrowing capacity to realise the plans.  And the campus that had not seen a permanent new building since the early 1970s.

Third, we needed a curriculum that could attract, and this became more important with cuts to teacher training numbers and professional development funding in the mid-1990s.  To kick-start, Robin Hilton and I wrote most of Edge Hill’s original Management portfolio, the first completely new undergraduate degree in twelve years…

So now we’re heading in the right direction…?

Not so fast!  Whilst in 1992 it was almost impossible not to become a university (though we had managed it), by 1997 it was almost impossible to become one.  Lancaster were a supportive partner, but we needed the power to award our own taught degrees – an essential step for any aspiring institution.  But the politics, and initially our preparedness, worked against us.  Our application was rejected (rightly) in 1997, rejected (more spuriously?) in 2001 and was successful only in 2005.

In contrast, sometimes the tide flows with you.  The bolstering of the unit of resource in the mid-1990s helped us generate a modicum of cash for investment, and the increase in the number of qualified eighteen year olds helped underpin demand.  But, most important, was the 2003 White Paper and the ensuing Education Act.  As Chair of the Standing Conference of Principals when the White Paper formulated, I had the privilege of being close to the decision-taking process.  I still think it was the most constructive piece of higher education policy-proposing I experienced, attempting to deliver parity of esteem for institutions, whether they chose to focus on teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer or widening participation.  Unfortunately, it was never fully realised, and the perceptual hierarchies of activity still exist.

But for us, Alan Johnson’s answer in the House in the summer of 2004 was crucial, when he indicated his willingness to provide a route to university title through a year-long scrutiny process for well-established and mature higher education institutions like Edge Hill.

So Taught-Degree Awarding Powers led to…

University title the following year.  But we wanted full parity of esteem with established universities, hence our application for research powers, a two-year scrutiny leading to award in 2008.

And did others recognise this?

Howard Newby, then chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council, once told me that the Council were continually impressed by the progress Edge Hill was making, but they only became convinced of our long-term survival when we had powers and title.  Equally sweet was our shortlisting for Times Higher University of the Year in 2007, repeated in 2010 and 2011, which suggested a widening audience was noticing, and some steady progress from the lower reaches of the league tables.

And 2014…?

Vice-Chancellor Dr John Cater and Edge Hill staff accept the University of the Year 2014/2015 award

I’ve forgotten far more than I remember, but I can still feel the emotion, standing on the stage at the Grosvenor House, no script when we were awarded the Times Higher University of the Year.

So that’s the peak then…?

I’m not so sure; it’s a really important staging post but we have to believe that we’re on a journey and there is much more to achieve.  Powers and title mattered more, and it is pleasing to see us, through steady incremental improvement, featuring in the second quartile of most league tables.  The current Times/Sunday Times University of the Year for Student Retention award matters too, though I think we can and must deliver more on this, and, for reasons which go far beyond ‘TEF Gold’, I always want to see our students satisfied in the NSS, successful in the labour market and, equally, in life.

Are the curtains drawing to a close?

Not unless you know something I don’t!  As a sector we have a set of particularly challenging circumstances at the moment, and I have little respect for individuals who shy away from a challenge.  I’m fortunate enough to feel young and be tolerably healthy and fit, and I guess I’ll know the day when I feel I should be elsewhere – or someone will tell me!

And is there any advice?

Find your own way?  Be yourself?  Or, as the late Christopher Price, former Government Minister, former Vice-Chancellor, said to me shortly after my appointment, “Never lose your personality”.  I’m still searching for mine.