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An interview with Principal Simon Gaskell

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Last week, Principal Simon Gaskell sat down with Rosalind Stannard, Head of Internal Engagement at QM, to share some memories from his time at university.

For a recording of Professor Gaskell's Welcome Week talk, follow this link to Q-Review.

From your time as a student, do you remember your first day at university?

I do. I was a bit lonely actually, not knowing many people. Many people say university is about making new friends, having too much to drink and wonderful socialising, but I think it can be a really difficult transition. I had a year of schooling in California on a scholarship before university, so I was making the cultural shift back to the UK at the same time as I was making the cultural shift into university. I tended to look at some of my peers in Bristol University, and think, well I don’t really have the same experiences as these people.

Do you remember your first day as Principal at QM?

My first day at QM wasn’t at all uncomfortable. I had visited a few times before I started, and therefore knew a number of people who I knew would be extremely supportive, and they were. So the immediate atmosphere was very friendly and welcoming. It was also clear immediately that QM was proud of what it had done recently, but actually open to suggestions of what to do next, very open to new ideas.

Do you remember what poster you had on your wall in your first year as a student?

I’m pretty sure I had a Jimi Hendrix poster. I went to school in California in the late 1960s, which was quite an interesting time for all sorts of reasons. While there, I remember going to a concert in San Francisco called Winterland where Hendrix played, along with Big Brother and the Holding Company and John Mayall, so that’s where I came across him.  

Anything you would have done differently in your first weeks as a student?

Yes, I knew a few people from school, but I guess I would have made more of an effort to introduce myself to people and get to know people. It would have been an effort mind you, but to bowl up to people and say hello, we are both new, where are you from and so on. I’d probably join more societies too – even if you join too many and discard half of them a month later, I think it's good to make those connections and be able to decide what to continue to keep doing as an insider, rather than try and join belatedly.

Are you still friends with people you met at university?

Actually, no I’m not. I’m still in contact with PhD contemporaries, but not undergraduate ones. That’s interesting. I think men are a lot worse at that than women. My wife certainly is better than I am; we have kept in touch with her friends who were at her university.

Did you work when you were a student?

I did. It was a different time then, and students didn’t have to worry about fees, but I still needed to cover the cost of living or at least the socialising cost by working during the summer and at Christmas. In those days it was very easy for students to get temporary jobs with the post office to help with Christmas deliveries, so I used to do that each year. In the summer it was fairly straightforward to go into the labour exchange, or job centre as they call it now, and they would look you up and down and say “Are you a student” and you’d say “yes”; they’d say “Does that mean you’d do anything?” and you’d say “yes”. So I remember in successive summers working in a cement factory and a glue factory.

It was smelly and extremely dirty in the cement factory. We’d be pouring large sacks of ingredients into a hopper which would then disappear up into the ceiling, carrying everything and anyone with it, which would probably not do to well with the current health and safety regime. The advantage was they gave you incentives the harder you worked, so you could work incredibly hard for fairly decent money, knowing you could stop two months later.

There weren’t any horses in the glue factory were there?

No, actually it was making adhesives for floor tiles, so no, we didn’t have to stew up horses feet or anything like that. Unpleasant but not that unpleasant! It was interesting, as you’d mix with people who tended to think that if you were a student, you were a bit up yourself, and probably from a different social background. So it was interesting to break down some of those automatic barriers that your fellow workers had which were based on preconceptions as to where you were from and what you might be like.

How did you save money?

Badly. I remember at one stage, as a PhD student, seriously running out of money. My friend won a lot of money on the football pools, and most evenings, after working in the lab, we’d go for a pint, which was okay for him as he could afford it, but I got into significant debt. I had to borrow some money from my parents, which I did pay back eventually.

However, I think we were fairly canny in terms of cheap eating. We would never eat out – even in a fast food place that was considered cheap it was too expensive, so we would buy really cheap food and prepare it ourselves. I was in a flat which I shared with friends and we would cook quite a lot together, taking it in turns with a pretty meagre budget for food. We also walked a lot, rather than taking public transport.

Did you have a recipe that you would recommend to QM students?

Yeah – something we would cook a lot we called fricassée (stew), which wasn’t an accurate description of it at all. Basically, you would see what tinned meat or fish you had, see what else was in the fridge, get some rice, boil the rice and then throw that in the frying pan with chopped spam, tinned tuna, sweetcorn, peas, or whatever came to hand, and then pretend it was a recipe. It was actually reasonably nutritious and not unhealthy. And it is very hard to make a mess of that.

What societies did you join?

Erm, I had a brief foray into playing rubgy. I’m really not built to be a rugby player. I did play scrum-half for my hall I think, but not particularly successfully. I guess my major activity as a student was being the departmental RAG rep, so I was heavily involved in fundraising and the RAG procession which was a big deal in Bristol. That was probably my major contribution.

Were you a student representative?

I don’t think there was such a thing. Mechanisms for student feedback to teaching staff and departments in universities were not well developed at all. I guess the way you would feedback discontent, although there wasn’t a culture of doing that, would be through your tutors. But I’m pretty sure there was no student rep.

Then, and I hope less so now, the university as an entity was pretty remote. You knew which department you were in, but there was not much interaction with other students, and awareness of the greater university was pretty low. For example, I had no idea who the Principal was, and it didn’t matter to me. Bristol was a big university and I knew I would get a degree from a respectable place, but there was no attempt by the university to convey underlying values, and certainly very little awareness among students of what those values might be. I hope that’s changed.

I think students should get involved now, to gain what was arguably lacking in my education, which was an appreciation of the wider benefits of being a student, of the fact that there is an opportunity both as a student, and certainly after being a student, of making broader contributions to society, and therefore you need an awareness of what that society is and where your institution fits in. So I think there was a deficit in the education there which can be, and I hope is, counteracted in a place like QM, by that greater awareness, that greater involvement.

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