Nicola Dandridge: ‘We have to be very lean, flexible and fit as we’re moving into pretty rocky times’

In an exclusive interview, the new chief executive of Universities UK tells Lucy Hodges why universities need to sell themselves better

When Nicola Dandridge sees the phrase "ivory towers", she gets irritated. It's incredibly misleading, she says, because it suggests that all universities are removed from the practical concerns of everyday life when that is patently not true.

In fact, the prevailing image of universities in Britain seems to be one of ivory towers, says Dandridge, the new chief executive of the umbrella group Universities UK in her first interview with a national newspaper. It's an image that she is determined to change.

With this in mind UUK will shortly be launching a campaign to get British universities onto our radar screens. Called "What's the big idea?", it is taking place in Universities Week from 14 to 20 June with the aim of persuading the public of the value of British universities.

This has never been done before and no one knows if it will work, but Dandridge thinks it is worth a try. One hundred universities have signed up to it and there will be a survey to gauge its effect.

"We talk a lot to ourselves and to government at UUK but we don't really talk a lot to the public," she says. "What we're trying to do in this campaign is to demonstrate the diversity of what's out there, from the small specialist university to the huge research intensive institution.

"Even though you may feel don't fit into University A, you may find that university B, C or D will meet your needs. We're trying to get across this incredible richness. The other thing we want is to make the public aware of the value of higher education."

Dandridge has been the new boss at UUK for nine months after the 14-year tenure by Baroness Diana Warwick. She arrived at the same time as Professor Steve Smith, the new president at Universities UK. This new broom couldn't have come at a more critical moment with universities being hammered by cuts, the Browne review on funding to report later this year, and a new government getting its feet under the table.

A charming and clever lawyer, Dandridge is introducing changes. A number of staff have already departed but Dandridge would not be drawn on that. All she would say was: "We have got to be a very lean, flexible and fit operation because we're moving into some pretty rocky times with a new government, with the Browne review ahead and the likelihood of cuts. However you look at it, there are going to be some interesting years ahead. We have had to look at how we operate as an organisation. We're no different from everyone else."

In general, she wants to make her outfit more outward-facing and to engage with journalists. UUK has to make the case for continued public funding of universities. It has been working with the Institute of Fiscal Studies to understand what is in store for the country in terms of spending cuts and that does not make happy reading, she says. "It is incumbent on us at Universities UK to make the case that if you cut us you are cutting a key mechanism for economic recovery."

Government does understand the significance of universities in a knowledge economy but that does not necessarily translate into not cutting funding. "We need to be open and reasonable and communicate regularly the effect of cuts," she says.

Everything UUK says has to be based on evidence, she says, which is why it is making changes to strengthen its evidence and analytical capacity. Unlike other groups, it can't say things that are over the top to garner headlines because that will destroy its credibility.

"I don't think we have any choice," she says. "Anything we say has to be solid and have facts underpinning it."

But the evidence is there anyway, she says. "I don't feel that coming into this job I have to create a lot of fluff and fantasy to bolster our arguments. But, if you look at all the reports, from the Leitch report, the Sainsbury report onwards, everyone says that we are going to thrive as a knowledge economy. Working back from that you can make your case quite easily about the value of higher education. There will be no departure from that. If we can't bring the journalists with us then that's too bad."

UUK hopes to make the British appreciate their universities more. Certainly, we have a less positive view of our higher education sector than the Americans do of theirs. We have 133 universities and higher education institutions that punch well above their weight in global league tables, yet the general public appears not to realise it. The United Kingdom is second only to the USA when it comes to research citations, yet we take little interest.

"On any measure the performance of British universities is phenomenal in relation to our size," says Dandridge. "Why don't we trumpet this? Why don't we say more about this. The fact that tiny little Britain is second only to the US in terms of research citations - it is phenomenal."

Universities Week hopes to educate the public about how much work universities do with business, about the significance of research, and about how people's lives can be transformed by going to university.

Universities support culture and sport in the community as well, something that is not well known to the general public. Universities Week will celebrate success stories like that of Sheffield Hallam University in providing the inspiration for David Brailsford, director of the most successful British Cycling team in history at the Beijing Olympics.

Other universities supported Amy Williams, the Bath graduate who won a Gold Medal in the Skeleton Bobsleigh event at the Vancouver Winter Olympics this year. Not only was she backed by Bath, where she trained, but engineers at Southampton University designed her bobsleigh equipment.

British universities need to talk about their value because the coalition government is busy cutting budgets. If the public cared more about universities, the argument goes, politicians might think twice before axing them. Dandridge, however, denies that the campaign has anything to do with funding.

She wants to get over the message that British universities are excellent. As someone who attended three incredibly different institutions, Oxford where she read classics, London Met where she converted to law and Glasgow where she learnt Scottish law, she says she found them all "completely outstanding". and