Head to head with Sir Muir Russell

Published

Sarah Smith

As he prepares to say goodbye to Glasgow University, Sir Muir Russell looks back on his six years as Principal and Vice Chancellor.

How does it feel to be at the end of your time at Glasgow University?

It feels as though a lot has been done. I’m pleased with a lot of the things that have happened but I’m still working pretty hard. It’s not one of those things where you can close down towards the end – there are new challenges every five minutes and the job is still absolutely full-time.

In that sense it seems in one way as though I’m just going ahead quite normally but, of course, there are things that happen for the last time. Various things have gone on that are happening for the last time for me so I’m conscious of that.

Why have you decided to leave this year?

When I came here I signed up for a six-year term to take me to when I turned sixty. This is the end of the term so it just feels the natural thing to do. I’m not moving on to another executive job – I’ve been doing things like this since about 1995, which is quite a long time to have been doing this sort of thing. It feels right to retire and move on to a different world.

What do you feel has been your greatest achievement as Principal?

I’m very proud of the way in which the whole learning and teaching activity of the University has developed. When I came I talked to the interview selection board about teaching and about the student experience. It’s been great to see all of the support and professionalism strengthened there.

Other big achievements have been helping to get the University more focused with more direction and more strategy. We’ve developed a feeling of people really pulling together and communicating more with the outside world. I get the impression that people know rather more about Glasgow University and what it’s doing so I’m proud about that.

I’m also proud that the University is back in the black – it had been operating in deficits for over ten years and it’s now in a position where it’s much more stable. We now have what we call a ‘small but sustainable surplus’, which makes it much easier for people to plan ahead and make responsible decisions.

Has there been anything you have been disapointed with?

There have been no big failure-style disappointments. When you do a job like this there are some times when you say ‘I wish that little thing had happened better’ like if a colleague misses out on a grant or somebody goes for a prize and doesn’t win it.

You do think ‘that’s a pity, could we have handled that better?’ but really the disappointments are at that kind of level rather than some big strategic objective that I had that didn’t work. I hope that doesn’t sound too smug but things have gone quite well.

What do you feel has been your biggest challenge?

Getting and sustaining the strategic focus of the University, remembering what it’s for and having people operate on a basis that really aims at the excellence of the teaching and research, the good facilities and experience. When you’re doing stuff like that you need to be watching almost everything that’s happening to make sure it goes with the strategy. You’re watching and cajoling and moving things forward all the time – that’s the essence of the way you go about it, which is the challenge really.

What is the strategic focus?

The whole strap-line has been ‘building on excellence’ so we’re saying this was a good place; let’s make it great. The focus has then been to drive up standards to make sure that the focus is on teaching and the student experience. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of post-graduate offerings and that’s part of the business of raising the quality, standard and content of what we do.

You mentioned your aims to ‘build on excellence’ with a particular focus on teaching. Earlier in the year, Graduate Teaching Assistants claimed that they weren’t being paid enough to ensure quality of teaching. How have you addressed this?

The essence of the approach has been to provide proper training and induction in the techniques of teaching and that’s something that we will continue to work on. As far as the issues that the GTAs raised, I know that the Human Resources people are trying to get together some of the facts of the background and the information to work with them there. It looked quite a complicated set of propositions about hours and times and what the hourly rate actually turned out to be and we’ll have to go through that. I don’t know quite where the discussions have got to but there are people on the case.

The UCU have warned that there may be strike action over job cuts. In 2006 you were criticised over your handling of the industrial action. What advice would you offer the new principal if he faces a similar situation?

I think the key thing with actual or potential disputes is to communicate as clearly as you can to people and to make sure you tell them the truth, tell them straight and tell them often. You must adopt policies that are evidence-based, defensible and explicable. With the last industrial action, which was in ’06, the criticism was really about the fact that folk were being told how it was.

You have also faced recent criticism over the revelation that you are the highest paid university principal in Scotland – what is your response to this?

I don’t decide my pay – a committee decides it and although I am on that committee for the purposes of other people’s salaries, when they are talking about me I am asked to leave. It’s a completely independent process and they have evidence of what are the going rates and the trends across the sector. My salary may be high in Scotland but it’s well within the normal average for the big universities like us. It’s a very responsible job: the budget here is about £400 million; there are pushing 6000 members of staff; and 24,000 students. It’s quite a big business with a lot of representational and corporate activity. There’s a huge amount that you do in this job so I think it’s a pretty reasonable salary.

Do you have any advice for your successor, Professor Anton Muscatelli?

The advice is keep on doing what you’re doing. He’s been a good principal at Heriot Watt and he’ll do a good job here. He’s getting a fair start with a stable foundation that I’m quite proud to hand on to him.

When you first started was that foundation not as stable?

I’ve said the things that needed to be done about strategy and money and some of the changes that I had wanted see around the excellence in teaching particularly. I wouldn’t say it was unstable but there were things that needed to be improved on.

What will you miss most?

People like me say universities are their people but it’s actually true and it’s been a great privilege to meet so many folk with so many ideas. You can fill a room with the most amazing people and I shall miss that. I will miss the friendships that come with those relationships. I also like the graduation ceremony and people saying how proud they are. I’ll miss that really rather a lot.