New University of Hertfordshire vice chancellor speaks to Welwyn Hatfield Times

The Welwyn Hatfield Times speaks to Professor Quintin McKellar, the new vice chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire.

IT’S been less than five months since the WHT was last invited into this particular University of Hertfordshire office, but already there are a few differences.

Gone is the abstract artwork that used to adorn the back wall, replaced by a series of framed pictures of various rowing triumphs.

Gone too, is the retired Professor Tim Wilson, and in his place stands Prof Quintin McKellar, the new Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire.

Prof McKellar left the Royal Veterinary College in Brookmans Park to take over the role in January, and when he meets the WHT for his first face-to-face interview since joining the uni, he is preparing for his inaugural lecture that same night.

His subject, he says, is “whether universities are engines of prosperity or guardians of civilisation”.

“Just a small topic,” he quips. “And my conclusion is they’re both.”

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Prof McKellar grew up in Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, Scotland. His father was a sheep farmer (“which might be where the whole vet thing came from,”) and graduated from the school of veterinary medicine at Glasgow University.

A former international rower, Prof McKellar rowed for Scotland in the 1986 Commonwealth Games, and has represented his country on numerous other occasions.

The pictures on the wall are testament to that, but Prof McKellar, 52, modestly plays his past achievements down.

“It was a long time ago,” he says, simply.

Prof McKellar is clearly a fierce intellectual and a devoted advocate of higher education – a good thing too, given that our interview occurs the day after his university announced it would be charging undergraduates up to �8,500 a year from 2012.

He’s quick to point out that, on average, Hertfordshire students will be paying a grand less than that.

But surely the prospect of accruing �7,500 a year in debt, before even taking into consideration living costs and rent, will be enough to put off prospective students?

“I sympathise with that question,” he says. “We have a job to persuade people that it’s important to come to university. But I would say this university has made sure our fees are offering genuine value for money. I would encourage people not to be put off by it; the investment is a good one.”

There are other challenges too, not least the dreaded “town versus gown” debate.

The Vice Chancellor says that the university is backing the landlord accreditation scheme proposed by students’ union president Nica de Koenigswarter, which is the first time, to my own recollection, that the university itself has publicly supported the project.

“Obviously there are tensions,” he admits. “But these are young people moving away for the first time, and they will do what young people do. We’re working extremely hard with the borough council, and our staff visit them all to tell them how to behave appropriately. Usually one visit is all it takes.”

He adds: “But there is no question the university benefits from the town and the town benefits from the university.

“The contribution this university makes to the town is enormous.”

That, it’s fair to say, is a sentiment his predecessor, who earned a knighthood for service to education, would certainly agree with.