50th Anniversary: The Baroness Brown of Cambridge

The Baroness Brown of Cambridge

The Baroness Brown of Cambridge

After 16 years as an academic researcher and University lecturer at Cambridge and Nottingham Universities, The Baroness Brown of Cambridge joined Rolls-Royce Plc in 1994, where she held several senior positions including Managing Director of the Fan Systems business and Engineering Director of the Marine business.  In 2002 she became CEO of the Institute of Physics, and in 2004 was appointed Principal of the Engineering Faculty at Imperial College London.  Baroness Brown became the Vice-Chancellor of Aston University in December 2006. Under Julia’s leadership, Aston has been transformed into one of the UK’s leading universities for business and the professions, where original research, enterprise and inspiring teaching deliver global impact. Aston has recently been ranked in the top 80 Universities in the world for graduate employability.

Her academic research includes over 160 papers on fatigue and fracture in structural materials and developments in aerospace and marine propulsion.

In 1997 Julia was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and in 1999 she was awarded a CBE for services to materials engineering. She was awarded a DBE for her services to education and technology in 2012 and three years later was elevated to the Peerage as a crossbench member of the House of Lords. Julia was awarded an Honorary Degree from Aston University in July 2016.

Baroness Brown will be stepping down as Vice-Chancellor of Aston University in October 2016, after ten years in office.   

What do you think makes Aston truly excellent, distinctive and different?

Aston is truly excellent because of our focus on employability. We have excellent links to business and industry, and a commitment to relevance with our practical professional degrees.

We focus on ensuring everyone having access to the highest quality teaching. A huge proportion of our students are bright young people from less advantaged backgrounds [61% of Aston students are in receipt of an income based scholarship]. 

At the other end of spectrum, it’s the efforts we go to to make sure our research is accessible to small and medium sized enterprises who might not otherwise have much contact with universities. And of course the high quality research that we do.

Both these areas are about widening participation. At one end, making the best higher education available to everyone who can benefit from it and at the other making world class research available to the types of company which might benefit from it. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement as Vice Chancellor at Aston?  

Giving the University the self-confidence to go on and achieve fantastic things. Seeing staff and students and graduates now winning entrepreneurial competitions, appearing in Maserati for the top 100 entrepreneurs, having hugely successful careers and winning major research funding. 

What I have done is to help give the Aston team, the widest possible team, the confidence to go out and do those things. I am extraordinarily proud of that.  I leave it as an institution that really does believe in itself and believes in what it can achieve. That’s hugely important. At one end we need to make sure students have a great learning and teaching experience, while they are here, but we also need to give them self confidence that they can believe they can succeed.

What is your fondest memory?

I have far too many to recount. But some of my fondest are the times that students or staff members have found the time to say ‘you have helped make something happen’ or ‘you have helped change things’ or ‘you have given me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have otherwise have had’. All of those things are real tear jerking moments. There have been lots of them. 

What advice would you give to today’s graduates Aston? 

For most people success doesn’t come without working hard. Occasionally you will meet people who are successful without apparently working hard, but generally successful people have worked very hard. They have worked through the bits they didn’t 100% enjoy to get to things that they found really motivating. They say you make your own luck, and people who work thoughtfully and hard, and get themselves in the right place at the right time and create their own luck. 

If you want to be noticed then make sure you are the sort of person who provides solutions. Don’t be the person who analyses a situation and goes to the boss and says this is what is wrong. Be the one who goes and says ‘I understand what’s wrong, these are the things we can do about it’. Or better still, these are things I can do about it. I call that being a ‘solutions person’. In any organisation, the people you really value are those who are enthusiastic to deliver solutions, not ready to give you their analysis of all the things that are wrong in great detail.   

How do you see alumni helping Aston into the next 50 years?

A university education is hugely important for anyone who is bright enough to benefit from it, and that’s an awful lot of people. As we go into the next 50 years, the cost of the university education is going to go up.  That will be increasingly challenging for students who are worried about whether it’s affordable and whether will deliver value for money for them. 

Aston alumni can help give future students the university experience, the chance to grow up and have a lot of fun and learn to learn. That great set of experiences that you have at university. Our alumni can help enhance the university experience by coming back to talk to students, and share advice as they advance in their careers. They can also help support the scholarships fund and help others achieve a university education and get the leg up the career ladder that the Aston degree gave them. 

I hope that alumni will also come back and tell us what kind of companies they run and what sort of skills, knowledge, attitudes and approaches they need to help take their businesses forward. Aston can then ensure it continues to deliver some of the most sought-after graduates in the country. 

Is there anything you wished you could accomplish if you had slightly longer in role?

Well, I could have been in the role for longer! After coming back into academia from industry, you have to recalibrate yourself because the change cycle in academia is inevitably longer. We have four year courses, we are actually quite constrained in making changes in any way to those courses, from the day the students apply to the day they depart. In fact it’s almost five years when they apply to when they depart. There is a natural periodicity around when you can do things in universities that is much longer than in other sectors. 

It would have been lovely to have seen the growth that we have seen in the last four years or so, in the first four years of my tenure because we would have made a lot more progress. We have achieved great things but it would have been good to have done so more quickly. 

I wish that we had built up research income to a higher level. We have met the targets we set in the Aston 2020 strategy but perhaps we should have set tougher targets! On the otherhand, it has been quite a rapid increase. 

I wish we had been able to increase the number of academic staff more quickly. Our growth in the last four years, in student numbers and research income, will have a slightly time lagged increase in academic staff members. Which will be very good for the University, but it would have been nice to have delivered that sooner.

I would have liked to have managed to do more of what we have been doing over the ten years. But ten years is long enough for the institution and also for me.  Change will be a good thing, it will be healthy.

I wish everyone at Aston the very best for the future.