Bill Rammell: 'It's got to be all about the student experience'

As a Labour Higher Education Minister, Bill Rammell presided over the introduction of top-up fees. Now he's a university vice-chancellor – and the hike in fees presents him with a challenge, he tells Richard Garner.

A familiar face is returning to the corridors of power in the world of higher education world this month. Last time he was seen, though, Bill Rammell was Higher Education Minister in a Labour government that was responsible for the introduction of top-up fees for the first time.

Now, aged 52, he returns as vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University, grappling with the implications of the Coalition government's decision to raise them further to up to £9,000 a year.

He inherits the mantle from Professor Les Ebden, who presided over a period of unprecedented growth for the university, which saw its student numbers rise from 8,000 to 25,000 in an eight-year period.

He will also preside over a further expansion – one of the largest being undertaken by any UK university at the present time – with a new campus being opened in Milton Keynes, which will see an extra 2,000 students.

Bill Rammell is quite clear about what he sees as a top priority for the university in the months ahead. "In the next three or four years, it's absolutely got to be about prioritising the student experience," he says.

He argues that if they are paying £9,000 a year for their courses, they will expect more quality time with their lecturers.

Measures he has in mind include building on the university's enviable employability record – 90 per cent of its students were in full-time employment six months after graduating, according to the latest statistics.

He hopes, though, to improve on this by providing students with more work experience, including paid-for work on the university campus itself. "I want them to be involved in more of the delivery of campus services in return for pay supported by training," he says. He also plans to initiate a system he introduced in his previous job with Plymouth University – an amber or red card system which can give the university an early warning system if a student is in danger of dropping out. "It would be an early warning system which would monitor whether coursework was still being delivered on time, for instance, and attendance at lectures," he says.

"If a warning is triggered, then a series of interventions would kick in, offering them help to see them through the process." These measures, he believes, become more essential as a result of the introduction of the new fees system.

He is reluctant, though, to criticise the Coalition's decision to introduce the rises. "I decided on taking this job that I didn't want to get involved in political battles or political point-scoring like that," he says. "I've always believed there should be shared contribution towards the cost of degree courses," he adds, thoughtfully, "Although now it may be tipped too far in the direction of the contribution by the student."

He concedes, though, that the repayment arrangements are more generous than exist at present – with graduates having to repay their loans only once they are earning at least £21,000 a year, compared with £15,000 a year now.

He has decided to give up any further thoughts of a Parliamentary career, having lost his seat at Harlow at the election. " I became an MP because I wanted to achieve change," he says, "and I decided I didn't want to wait another five or 10 years before I could pursue that again."

Some of the issues that he championed during his 13 years an MP will still remain with him as he sets about his new role – for instance, he is a fervent advocate of promoting widening participation. He himself was brought up on a council estate in Harlow by parents who both left school at 14. He went to a local comprehensive, Burnt Mill, and was inspired by his French teacher, who had a degree in languages from Cardiff, to follow in his footsteps.

"That changed my life," he says. "My mother was always supportive of me going to university, insisting that I should do so. I'm passionate about the life-transforming powers of going to university, as I grew up on a council estate and went to a comprehensive." (Interestingly, the comprehensive he attended can now boast two of the country's vice-chancellors. The other former alumni of Burnt Mill is Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of Leeds University.)

After university, he went to work as a management trainee with British Rail before taking on a job as a regional officer with the National Union of Students. He then became head of youth services at Basildon Council, which he believed at the time could be a stepping stone to a career in local government.

However, that all changed when the Thatcher government introduced legislation barring local-government employees from seeking political office. He had joined the Labour party in 1979 and was anxious to play a role in campaigning with it so went back to work for a students' union – at Kings College, London – while seeking to become an MP, eventually winning the Harlow constituency for Labour in 1997.

As he takes on the baton at the University of Bedfordshire, he agrees that he has a lot for which to thank his predecessor, Professor Ebden.

When Professor Ebden inherited the mantle at what was the University of Luton, it was on the "at risk" register of the Higher Education Funding Council for England over funding. The university negotiated with De Montfort University to take over its Bedfordshire campus and, as a result, saw student numbers soar.

During the past few years, the university has also seen the number of overseas students it takes on increase to the point where they are responsible for more than half the university's income from students.

"I'm not going to say there's not a financial element to that increase," he says, "but what I am keen on is accentuating the globalisation of the university.

"If you've got a multiplicity of students from different cultures and different backgrounds, it should be a force for positive progress. I'm anxious to see them and the local students integrating and working together." To that end, he will be encouraging more students to spend some of their degree courses on secondment to universities abroad as part of their studies. The university has built five trans-national partnerships with universities overseas – under which students spend part of their study time abroad.

He inherits, therefore, a position where the university looks as if it is better placed to cope with any difficulties arising from the new fees structure than some of its rivals. "There was a small dip in applications this year, but not as many as some others and we're ahead of where we were in 2010," he says.

As it entered the recruitment race with rivals, seeking to snap up students during the clearing process, it unveiled a scheme to give all its students a minimum sum to purchase books and equipment for their courses from John Smith's, the booksellers.

Bill Rammell does not have to promise to turn the university around as his predecessor had to do, just build on the solid base that has already been created.

In one sense, though, he has already achieved that aim by moving the main reception area to the more picturesque rear of the building from the less than salubrious high street façade.

Given a fair wind, though, he hopes that when he has been in post for five years he will have created an environment that will have secured Bedfordshire's graduates better employment prospects and at least value for money as they enter the new high-cost era of courses for students.