When Caroline Gipps took over the helm at Wolverhampton University two years ago, she decided quickly to do something about the institution's image. Wolverhampton has some fantastic new buildings and a reputation for taking disadvantaged students and thereby widening access, but it is not known for much else. Professor Gipps believed it should be.
"The first thing the university guides said was that we had the highest proportion of working-class students of any higher education institution in the country," says Gipps. "That is very unaspirational."
So, in her first year she worked on a new strategic plan, outlining what the university was good at, and what it planned to excel at over the next five years. "I phoned every single one of the editors of those student guides and said, 'Look, let me turn this on its head. I don't want you to write anything that's not true, but let me send you some ideas of what other things we're good at.'"
When she got in touch with these editors, she mentioned the interesting research, the impressive knowledge transfer, Wolverhampton's overseas profile, its links with Shenzhen Polytechnic in China and with City University of Hong Kong, and so on. The message was that Wolverhampton was a complex institution that was doing its bit on the national and international stage as well as regionally – and it worked. The university guides now reflect that.
But that wasn't all. Gipps also appointed a new director of marketing and communications to ensure the university became better known. Within two and a half months she wrote a paper containing ideas about how Wolverhampton should be restructured. She decided to reorganise the student services, which were a bit "all over the place". The offices to support students through counselling and guidance were brought together with the students' union. And she appointed a dean of students and gave a pro vice chancellor responsibility for student affairs.
In addition, she appointed a new pro vice chancellor to handle education partnerships. He is Professor Sir Geoff Hampton, a former super head who was brought in by John Brooks, the former vice chancellor, to turn round the school of education. Partnerships with schools is an area in which Wolverhampton is playing a pioneering role, working with schools to raise their sights, and to reform their curricula. Arguably, Wolverhampton has done more than any other higher education institution in this respect.
Gibbs is ideally suited to taking the lead regionally on school improvement because of her background in education. She spent almost 20 years at London's Institute of Education, starting out as a lowly contract researcher working on early national assessment programmes and rising to be professor and head of department, and, finally, dean of research. All that means she is more aware than most of the part that a university can play in raising the standards of education.
Schools in the Black Country, in which Wolverhampton is situated, desperately need attention because their pupils have some of the worst exam results in the country. The university has formed partnerships with some new academies in Sandwell and Walsall and also in Wolverhampton itself as well as with scores of comprehensive schools throughout the region. The aim is to improve exam results and the staying-on rate for A levels, not to mention progression to higher education. "We're seeking to play a key role in the renaissance of our region," says Hampton.
When she arrived in the Midlands from the deputy vice chancellor job at Kingston University, Gipps felt that locally there was a bit of a gap in education strategy. "I see it as a university's role to provide strategic thinking," she says. "So, we offered to the Black Country Consortium that we would lead on educational strategy if they wanted. They were very keen."
If the university is successful in driving up standards, everyone wins. The university should gain more, better qualified students. And a region that has suffered from the decline of manufacturing industry should prosper from having a well educated workforce that is able to spin out ideas for new companies.
Certainly, the university is trying to help to produce graduates with entrepreneurial mindsets. There is a science park in the city, which includes a creative industries incubator called Spark. In Telford, where there is another campus, is a building designed entirely for knowledge transfer and innovation, which is for IT-based companies. And in Walsall, where there is a third campus, the university is in the process of raising funds for a Black Country Performing Arts Centre, which will be part teaching and part incubation centre. This will contain recording studios and space for drama, dance and community arts. "We're working to persuade the regional development agency that this will fly," says Gipps.
As a new university, it is second nature for Wolverhampton to talk to local employers and to be flexible in the courses it lays on. But the new VC does not believe that higher education has communicated that message to local businesses well enough. To that end, the university is reexamining how it presents its courses for adults who want to refresh or upgrade their skills and is designing a new website as well as talking to employers about what they want it to offer.
You might think Gipps would be keen on the Government's push for employer engagement, in particular its desire to see more degrees part-funded by companies. That makes sense in the South-east where there are a large number of big companies, she believes. But it does not make sense in Wolverhampton where the employment scene is dominated by small and medium-sized companies, if not by micro-companies containing as few as one to seven employees. They cannot afford to help with the funding of degree courses for workers. "We are encouraging our graduates to set up their own businesses, but they need supporting rather than be asked to co-fund training," she says.
All this has been relayed to the ministers John Denham and Bill Rammell, as well as to the Higher Education Funding Council. "Hefce understands," she says. "We are, with Hefce, trying to think of ways around that."
As a newcomer who wants to make her mark, Gipps is keen to embrace change and is busy thinking of new ways to configure courses for students. She believes that students could benefit from undertaking Masters degrees where they could pick and choose modules from different universities in the region. These Masters degrees could include employer-based training too, for which students could receive retrospective accreditation. "I don't see why we shouldn't be able to do it," she says. "It's an example of the way universities should be trying to think."
When she was at Kingston, Gipps established a three-way professional doctorate in education between Surrey, Kingston and Roehampton universities which enabled the three institutions to provide some very good research methods training. It took 18 months to broker and is still going, although Surrey dropped out. "Those models do work," she says. Research is something she is hot on, having been in charge of the research assessment exercise (RAE) submission at the Institute of Education. "We've focused our research effort at Wolverhampton," she says. The university has some interesting research in advanced materials which is relevant to the aircraft industry and car manufacture. It also has a strong biomedical research unit and is doing research on Chinese herbal medicine. In addition, it has two world-class research units in IT.
Last time, its performance in the RAE was modest. It got no grade 5s and only a couple of 4s. Next time, it is hoping to improve.
Gipps is certainly making her mark. Under her predecessor Brooks, it acquired wonderful new buildings as well as an amazing new "social learning space" where students drink coffee and surf on laptops. Gipps is hoping to concentrate on what goes on inside the marvellous buildings.
"When I got here, everyone was talking about buildings," she says. "I said, 'We're going to stop thinking about the next stage of the master plan and start thinking about what goes on in there – the intellectual and academic provision.'"
Her approach seems to be working. And her campaign to get the word out about the university's strengths will slowly percolate through to the national level.
Caroline Gipps: a life in brief
2 February 1948
Attended a girls' independent school in Llanfairfechan where she received good teaching but no careers advice. Read psychology at Bristol, which the headmistress did not approve of – on the grounds that it would lead her to question her religious beliefs. After a BSc in psychology, she taught in a primary school for two years.
Research assistant at National Foundation for Educational Research. Trained as a psychometrician; research post at the National Children's Bureau; two years in Canada. Institute of Education, where she was a researcher, professor, head of department, dean of research.
Travelling, sailing, swimming in the sea.
Husband is director of Bristol Zoo; two sons in their twenties.
Likes early music and opera.
Engleby by Sebastian Faulks.