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'More than a third of students leave Northern Ireland at 18; we cannot afford to lose such talent - but they'll only return if there are opportunities'

The Big Interview

Published 30/05/2016

Professor Patrick Johnston, president and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University
Professor Patrick Johnston, president and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University
New DUP Minister for the Economy Simon Hamilton
Professor Patrick Johnston welcoming former US President Bill Clinton to Queen’s University
Professor Patrick Johnston in his office

Queen's University vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston tells Rebecca Black that a prosperous society will not emerge from austerity unless Stormont starts investing seriously in higher education to help drive the economy.

Q. You are originally from the Waterside in Londonderry?

A. I came from both sides of it, actually. I grew up in Beechwood Avenue on the Derry side then lived on the Waterside. I started off in school at Nazareth House, the old orphanage, then St Joseph's, then ended up in the Waterside Primary School. Then St Columb's in 1969.

Q. You studied at UCD. Did you consider Queen's University?

A. I never applied for Queen's. At that stage I was ready to spread my wings, I wanted to get away and the opportunity came up to go to Dublin. Then I worked in Dublin after I qualified.

Q. Did you specialise at that stage of your career?

A. I did what was called senior house officer training at the time, then I started to specialise in oncology and haematology. I knew early on I wanted to do oncology as a career and I was lucky enough to work in the National Transplant Centre in Dublin, which had just opened, then I moved to work in the Mater Hospital (in Dublin) in oncology, and after that I went to the United States.

Q. What did you do in the US?

A. I went to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, which is the largest health research organisation in the world. It was having seen relatives suffer from the scourge of cancer that sparked that interest. People have forgotten how much people in the 1960s and 1970s suffered, they really did suffer. The treatments weren't there, the surgery was blunt - if I could put it that way. Our expertise in treating cancer was pretty appalling. I remember one particular event of taking care of a 15-year-old boy who had a cancer that rapidly spread throughout his body, and feeling completely inept in his clinical care. I started to read a lot of cancer literature and became interested in cancer both from a point of view as an exciting but challenging sub-specialty, but also it was at a time when new drugs were being developed and new ways of treating cancer patients. There was real hope beginning to emerge. The 1980s really were a very exciting era for real advances in cancer care.

Q. Were the States way ahead of us?

A. They certainly were, it was night and day in some respects. It wasn't that the doctors and nurses were any better, but back in the early 1970s President Nixon had declared an Act of Congress, the War On Cancer was actually the title of the Bill. They started to invest very serious amounts of money in new ways to treat cancer patients, new methodologies, new technologies, new drugs and so a decade later those were beginning to become manifest. They were not readily available here. We had still relatively poor training programmes, we certainly didn't have the clinical trial infrastructure, nor training that modern oncology demanded at that time. Thankfully, it has all changed now.

Q. How long were you in the States for?

A. Close to 10 years. I didn't think I was ever coming back to Ireland, let alone Northern Ireland.

Q. So what changed?

A. I got a phone call one day, someone asked would I be interested in coming over. The chair of oncology at Queen's was being advertised. Initially I didn't think I would be interested, but after talking it through with my wife I decided to have a look, and to my surprise when I came over I was very interested in what they were trying to do - to develop a modern cancer programme.

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I began to realise there was really serious thinking behind developing a proper and comprehensive population-based cancer programme for Northern Ireland. That did not exist either in Ireland or the UK at the time, so at that stage I was in my late 30s and felt it could be an opportunity to do something really important.

At that time the first peace process had started and we decided we would come, and arrived in 1996.

Q. Did you ever think at that point that you would end up leading Queen's?

A. I didn't even think that two or three years ago. It wasn't really something I was giving serious thought to. I have always been someone who looks at jobs and what the opportunity and challenges are. I have been offered many jobs across the world, and have only ever done jobs where I am going to be involved in making a difference.

Q. Is it frustrating to come into this job when the university has seen so many funding cuts?

A. That has been the biggest challenge, but in any job that is worth doing there are always going to be major challenges, and certainly 2015 was not a year that any president of any university across the world would want to relive within the Northern Ireland context - having to announce close to 240 job cuts; the loss of over 1,000 students is not a pleasant thing to do.

The funding situation has been very challenging - between 2010 and 2014 we had, in real terms, a 24% cut.

Northern Ireland, as a result of that, lost 2,250 student places - that's over 10% of the total undergraduate student places. Some 38% of students have to leave Northern Ireland at the age of 18, that's a really serious situation for any society because, in particular, your most talented people are leaving. You do want people to leave and come back - people only come back to where opportunities sit.

This situation still prevails and has to be addressed if we are going to develop a prosperous economy.

Q. As the new Executive is formed, some have warned the financial situation is only going to get worse, with more cuts on the way. How will Queen's cope with that?

A. Let's wait and see what the new Executive does. I think it is a very challenging time, but there is an optimism now that Fresh Start will deliver something different, and certainly I tend to be an optimist and am very hopeful that will be the case.

I think the big danger in not funding higher education properly is we very quickly lose our global competitivity. Queen's is in the top 1% of universities in the world, it contributes over £1bn to the local economy, it has already got very significant international linkages, it is number eight in the UK for research and it is a member of the Russell Group.

It's the number one UK university for knowledge transfer partnerships and it is also number one in the UK for commercialisation of intellectual property. The university has developed more than 70 companies that have a turnover of over £170m. Its impact from a company development point of view is significant. Most of the chief executives of Northern Ireland's leading companies are Queen's graduates and most of our leading politicians, and indeed ministers, now are Queen's graduates.

I am in this position almost two years with a very clear vision of what I wanted to do - to turn a great university into a global, world-class university. I want to double the size of the international student body at the university, increase the number of postgraduates by somewhere between 55% and 60%, and really focus down on those areas where we truly were world class. That's why we set up four global research institutes in areas such as health, electronic engineering and cyber security, food security, and in social justice (the Mitchell Institute, which will be opening next month).

With the cutbacks, you could argue it had never been more important to have a plan, because in essence the future stability of the institution was going to depend on the success of those things - because you couldn't grow the organisation because Government wasn't going to fund it any more. The challenge with that was, we were the only part of the UK where we weren't investing in higher education, and number two we were the only part of the UK which was sending all its talent elsewhere. Every other part of the UK - England, Scotland and Wales - is a net importer of talent, we actually are the only exporter. These are things we have got to address.

I think our policy makers and political leaders have now begun to really understand the importance of this, so I am actually hopeful that we will see a resolution of this and will see investment in higher education. If we don't, we are in trouble - we will not deliver on corporation tax, we will not deliver a prosperous society, we will begin to lose some of the global leaders that sit in Queen's today to other institutions across the UK and in the world that are actually investing. That's the issue - universities compete in a global world, they live in a local world, but they must compete globally.

Q. So if there is no investment in higher education, there is no point in Stormont reducing corporation tax?

A. It isn't going to be corporation tax on its own (that transforms the local economy), it's what are the distinctive contributions you are known for, and that starts with the quality of the graduates and the number of them that you produce.

Even today we know we have a jobs deficit in terms of graduates in some sectors, going close to 2,000 graduates. It takes four or five years to produce these graduates - that's why prosperous economies plan a decade ahead in terms of what they are trying to do.

I am hopeful, based on discussions that we are having and messages we are hearing, that our new Executive really does understand that and understands the importance of making that a priority.

Q. Have you reached out to the new Economy Minister yet?

A. No, although I have met Simon Hamilton previously, but we will be over the coming days.

Q. Are there any more cuts coming for the university?

A. There aren't any more cuts this year. What we have done now through the resizing and reshaping of the university is we looked at every subject area, and the good news is we are not stopping any subjects nor closing any schools. We are amalgamating several schools, because some of them are not large enough in terms of scale.

We are also stopping single honours sociology and anthropology, but intend to strengthen those subjects by allowing them to partner with other subject areas which actually make their relevance more connected. Society doesn't need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.

 

It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward. I don't talk about producing graduates, I talk about producing citizens that have the potential for leadership in society.

Note: Queen's University has since tweeted a statement clarifying Mr Johnston's comments in relation to the above question. Audio from the original interview is above.

Q. Some have criticised your £250,000 salary and benefits, particularly when the university faced cuts. How do you respond to them?

A. The reality is that my salary is set by a remuneration committee and senate, it is not set by me. I have been offered salaries multiple times bigger than the salary I am currently on. I don't have a car provided for me - that is a myth - and I pay rent for the house that I live in. I don't get a house free. There are certain myths out there.

If you actually look at the other leading universities, you'll find my salary is - by a significant country mile - the lowest. I don't do this job for the salary.

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