Petra Wend

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
As well as having a love of foreign languages - she speaks five of them - the principal and vice-chancellor of Queen Margaret University is a keen painter and a season-ticket holder at Arsenal. She is passionate about the vital role that higher education can play in Scotland's future. Photography Mike Wilkinson

Can you think of something interesting about yourself that people might not know about you?

I love art and painting. At weekends, I normally work as well, but I manage to distract myself by painting scenes of the university. What I love most is going to Italy, sitting under an olive tree with my paints in front of me and painting the landscape. Another thing not many people know about me is that I am a football fan. I have an Arsenal season ticket. I don't manage to go to all the home games, but I try to go to as many as possible.

As someone who speaks five languages, what are your thoughts on language teaching in Scotland?

Language teaching needs a lot of work in the UK as a whole and I am pleased that it is quite high up the agenda of the Education Secretary. It is a shame that language teaching is not compulsory to a certain level here, and that it is not taught in a way that encourages kids to want to continue studying it to a higher level. There is just a very different attitude on the continent as a whole. It is not that everyone thinks we all need to learn English; our attitude is that we need to learn foreign languages to learn about the world, to increase our cultural awareness, and to become more flexible and open to other cultures.

How would you describe your own educational experience?

It was incredibly life-shaping for me because I come from a poor, working- class family and my older brother and I went to the same primary school. My parents had decided that I should stay on in primary school and not go on to grammar school like my brother, because first they did not have the money to see me through a long education, and second they thought I was not particularly talented. I was very shy and quiet. But my primary teacher saw something in me and she battered the door of my parents' flat down and said that I needed to go to grammar school and persisted until my parents agreed. I was sent to a type of grammar school where I could do what was known as the "pudding Abitur", so going down the domestic science route. But I did cope: I did not go down the domestic science route, but the academic route - and I did my A-level equivalents. That enabled me to go to university. School and university were the tools to having a better life.

How do you feel about the target of getting 50 per cent of school leavers into higher education? Do you think it is too high?

There are two answers to this. The first one is, if I were to rewrite history in the UK, I would put a lot more emphasis on vocational training. But ages ago, the decision was taken that a lot of what is done in continental Europe as part of an apprenticeship should be done at universities. As a result of that decision, I firmly believe in the participation target of 50 per cent, because it is absolutely vital that more people get into education - vocational or academic.

What do you think sets Queen Margaret University apart from the rest of the sector?

We are very distinctive in terms of having three flagship areas: health and rehabilitation, creativity and culture and sustainable business. In these areas we are really at the forefront of Scotland and attract students not only from Scotland, but also from the rest of the UK. We are also very small, so we are very flexible and very responsive. I think we are also special because we have a real community here on one brand-new campus. In the international student barometer, we were voted best worldwide for student support, and we were also voted the best in the UK for living experience.

What are your views on the review of higher education governance in Scotland?

It is always good to have a review. I myself am looking into governance in the rest of Europe - for two reasons. First I am holding a lecture, which is going to be my belated inaugural lecture, on what universities are for; second, I want to support Ferdinand (von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University and chair of the review) with evidence. It is quite clear that all of Europe is looking at governance in the UK because they feel what we are doing is a model which they perhaps should emulate or at least learn from. In terms of how governance is carried out at the moment, I think it is working well, but I don't have anything against a review.

What are your personal hopes and fears for the sector in the next couple of years?

A challenge is always an opportunity and my fear is always that those who have a say do not recognise the importance of universities and the role we play in society. We are not in an ivory tower; the work we do benefits everybody. We in universities can make a difference, Scotland can be a much better place if it gives universities the space to do it.

Personal profile

Born: Gutersloh, Westphalia, Germany.

Education: Stadtisches Gymnasium Gutersloh, Westfalische Wilhelmsuniversitat Munster, Bologna University, Leeds University

Career: Taught German and Italian at Middlesex University, dean of the faculty of humanities and education at North London University, deputy vice chancellor at Oxford Brookes University, principal and vice chancellor at Queen Margaret University.

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