Times Higher Education interview

Rower Katherine Grainger is Britain’s most decorated female Olympian. She has balanced academic and athletic careers, winning five Olympic medals and completing a PhD at King’s College London. She is a board member for International Inspiration, a charity promoting wider access to sport, and has been Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University since March 2015. She was made a Dame in the 2017 New Year Honours.

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Where and when were you born?
I was born in Glasgow, 1975.

How has this shaped you?
I’m proud of my Scottish roots and I believe it has given me a certain tenacity, a stubbornness; a competitiveness to take on a challenge, alongside a healthy sense of humour and of normality. I also like to chat a lot, which I think stems from my roots too.

What impact do you want to have on Oxford Brookes during your tenure as chancellor?
I am aware that there is a limit to how much I can and should influence the university, but I would like to be able to motivate and inspire staff and students in a challenging climate for higher education. Perhaps as someone who attained undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral qualifications while being an elite athlete, I can be an example of how it is possible to balance other successes alongside the values of academia.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
Changes to tuition fees have undoubtedly been significant and we are now seeing that students are even more focused on employability and making sure they get the most out of their degree. The removal of the student number cap has been the most far-reaching change. Universities now have to fight for students and the market has opened up. It’s a much more competitive sector and this has to be good for the students – everybody has to try harder and make sure that what they offer is absolutely top quality.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I was given great advice when I left for university, which was just to try to say yes to as many opportunities as possible as you never know what you might enjoy or be good at. Going around the fresher’s fair showed me just what incredible opportunities there were and I would never have stumbled on the boat club if I hadn’t had an open mind and been willing to say yes to something I had never considered before. The only thing I’d add is possibly to have more confidence. And stay away from tequila.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000+ fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
It’s such a tough choice facing students and their families now. However, I gained so much in so many different ways that I would take on debt to go to university. The skills that you pick up not only in learning but in how to think, to assess, to debate, to challenge your own and opposing ideas are ideally suited to university learning. The collegiate atmosphere and interaction with fellow students are priceless, and all the additional opportunities to access clubs, sports, social events, training and social enterprise widen minds and horizons in an invaluable way.

What did you learn during your time in academia that helped you in your athletic career?
My academic career and rowing career hugely helped each other and I feel fortunate that I was able to enjoy both. Academia taught me how to analyse, how to question, how to examine things in detail, which is crucial in sport when tiny margins can make huge differences. It also taught me to respect differences of opinions, to stay true to my beliefs but at the same time be open to seeing other ways of doing things and accepting those other ways could be better. It taught me to respect what had gone before but not be limited by it.

Does sport help to break down national barriers or does it provoke nationalism?
My personal experience of international sporting competition at the highest level over 20 years convinces me that sport breaks down far more barriers than it puts up. Competition on the field of play is always fierce but there is a wonderful camaraderie and friendship away from the sporting field that is built on mutual respect and shared appreciation among athletes.

If you were the higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
Like most of the sector, we are very conscious of the fact that universities are global institutions with a genuine international outlook. In a year of such political change there are naturally concerns about international students and their ability to study here, but also for the recruitment of the best staff from around the world and continued global research partnerships. Therefore if policy could reflect the clearly evidenced benefit to the UK…of universities being able to operate as truly international institutions, that would certainly be very warmly welcomed.

What is something that has changed your way of thinking?
Overcoming unexpected challenges, as unpleasant as they can be at the time, teaches a wonderful lesson about just what we are all capable of, and [how] our limits are far, far, far beyond where we think they are.

Do you have a personal rule that you’ll never break?
To live life with passion: always seeking new experiences and refusing to accept limits.  

Interview by Hilary Lamb, Times Higher Education