New Leeds Trinity University vice-chancellor beats the old boys club INTERVIEW

Professor Margaret House.
Professor Margaret House.
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The new vice-chancellor of leeds Trinity university is one of only a handful of women to make it to academia’s highest level. Rod McPhee looks at the rise of professor Margaret House and where she goes from here

SHE won’t mind it being pointed out, but, on first meeting, Professor House doesn’t come across as the most likely boss of one of Britain’s best universities.

Firstly, she’s a woman, and the fact is that less than 20 females have made it to the level of vice-chancellor in this country.

Secondly, and most importantly, she doesn’t display that dominant matriarchal manner that we somehow, wrongly, expect from women in power.

A misogynistic viewpoint? Maybe, but it’s an expectation which the professor, who became the vice-chancellor of Leeds Trinity University two months ago, acknowledges herself. She believes many ambitious women feel they have to be pushy and aggressive just to stay on a level pegging with men.

“I don’t feel I’ve been held back a lot by being a woman, but I do feel I’ve had to be better than my male counterparts.” she says “A woman being as good as a man just isn’t good enough - unless, of course, you are very pushy.

“But I’m not trying to suggest that I’m pushy or aggressive,” she laughs “because I don’t think I am.”

There’s nothing brisk or intimidating about the professor in any way, at least not on the day we meet. She may not talk the talk but, after the best part of 30 years scaling the ranks of academia, she’s proved she can walk the walk.

Her research into water quality is among the most respected in the country, she has been a professor for 15 years and at Middlesex University, which has almost 30,000 students (ten times the number Trinity currently host in and around its Horsforth campus) she rose from student to deputy vice-chancellor over 30 years.

Nobody ever blagged their way that far up the career ladder. Which is why she doesn’t feel compelled to become a gorgon just to create an impression. Her quiet confidence says it all.

But she speaks up about the prejudice that still lingers when it comes to who gets what in the employment stakes.

“Does it make me angry? Yes, it does.” she says firmly “There have been times when I’ve felt that I’ve been praised by people when they’ve sort of been saying: ‘She’s done a fantastic job... for a woman.’

“Of course, that might have been my imagination. But you do get to a point where you feel quite sensitive because there have been times when I’ve felt I’ve been excluded from things because there’s an Old Boy’s Club - and the boys have still got the jobs.”

But that certainly hasn’t stopped her ascent or stunted her ambition. At 55, she isn’t winding down either. In fact she’s just getting started with Leeds Trinity University.

The professor is already drawing up grand designs to expand their research, develop lucrative business link-ups and foster international exchanges.

Crucially, she also wants to instigate a staggered increase in student numbers from 3,000 to 4,000 over a period of years (but she insists the campus can absorb the rise without it having a negative impact on neighbouring Horsforth).

It’s all a far cry from 1966 when the university started life as two Catholic teacher training colleges: Trinity College for women and All Saints College for men. It wasn’t until 1980 that they merged to form Trinity and All Saints College.

A steady expansion of the courses they offered followed. (Today the university is best known for it teacher training, sports studies and journalism.)

In 1991 the burgeoning institution was designated a College of the University of Leeds and established a formal accreditation agreement with the University in 2001. Eight years later Leeds Trinity gained taught degree awarding powers from the Privy Council and became a University College with the right to award its own degrees.

Then, in December, changes to the qualifying criteria opened the doors to Trinity gaining full university status. That led to the appointment of the new vice-chancellor and Trinity’s new chancellor, TV presenter (and Catholic Loiner)Gabby Logan.

But Professor House is determined to show that the new kid isn’t just a university in title alone. She wants to move Trinity up a whole league.

She says: “That’s what we have to do. It can’t be just about saying: “Ok we’ll call you a university”. It has to have a meaning - that’s absolutely essential.

“So I’ve spent the first two months going around talking to people here saying: ‘You were a college, then you became a university college, then a university - but what does that mean?’

“Overwhelmingly the response has been that we have to raise our game. We gained the university title and we need to tick the boxes of what people expect from a university.

“We’re drawing up timetables now but we’re talking about three, five and even 10 year plans to implement this.”

The ambitions are noble but difficult to realise in a city which already sports two well-established centres of higher education. Prof House’s response is two-fold: she maintains they must remain distinct and not try to compete with Leeds University or Leeds Metropolitan University, but she is equally determined to avoid the tag which many ‘new universities’ attract.

“Leeds Trinity is far from a Mickey Mouse institution,” she says “That annoys me, especially as someone who comes from a former polytechnic. In fact, annoying isn’t the word. It’s very frustrating as someone who’s been a very active researcher and proud of it. The idea that my research is ‘Mickey Mouse’ because I carried it out in an ex-poly is very insulting.

“So, I don’t want anyone to be able to turn round in 10 years time and say: ‘Why did we make that a university?’ My job is to make Leeds Trinity University future-proof.

“That said, we didn’t become a university by accident, there was a strategy to build up our higher education provision and we’ve already demonstrated our excellence.”

Given its comparatively low profile in the minds of those who are clued up on higher education, it’s impressive to see just how many accolades the institution has garnered.

Leeds Trinity University is already ranked in the top ten per cent of UK institutions for teaching excellence according to this year’s The Sunday Times University Guide 2013.

It is also in the top ten per cent in the UK for student satisfaction according to the latest Guardian University Guide.

It is progressing at a staggering lick, but, in the year 2013, how progressive can a Catholic university, even one with a female vice-chancellor, really be? And how Catholic can any university be? Although Trinity started life as two Catholic colleges, these days just one in five students count themselves as followers. How does Trinity reconcile the imperfect match between the moderate behaviour associated with religion and an often hedonistic student lifestyle?

“I think it fits perfectly,” says Prof House, who is also Catholic “It gives us a USP for a start, and the Catholic underpinning makes it much more of community university where we consider the needs of the student as a whole - it’s not just about learning. I know a lot of universities would make the same claim, but we can justifiably claim it here.

“The difference is that if you do come from a faith background then being here might be seen as offering a more protective environment given the fact that we’re half way urban and rural areas.

“Another difference is that we are sensitive to issues which Catholics are sensitive to. So if there are potential issues then we address them - we don’t just automatically say ‘Well, everything is okay’ We talk about them and find a way forward. We think more carefully about how we deal with things like sexual health, for example, and the other week we had a discussion here about gay marriage.

“But the students at Trinity aren’t, on the whole, any different to those of any other university. They’re just as boisterous, cheeky and love the nightlife. You don’t have to be a goody two shoes to come to this university.”

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