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".

www.universitiesweek.org.uk and http://www.facebook.com/UKUniversities

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Teacher

£80 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: KS1 & 2 Supply teachers ur...

1-1 Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Special Needs and 1-1 Learning ...

Year 4 Teachers needed for day to day and long term

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album