SCAN Interviews: Alan Milburn

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Photograph: Dan Chung

Lancaster’s 50th Anniversary year is significant as another watershed in the University’s history, as current Chancellor Sir Chris Bonington completes his 10-year chancellorship at the close of the year. 2015 will see his successor, the Rt. Hon Alan Milburn, take up the position. When SCAN spoke to Milburn about his appointment and the decade ahead, he said he was “honoured” to have been approached by the University to become Lancaster’s Chancellor for the next 10 years, as “Lancaster has played a very important part in my life, and over the years I’ve tried to keep in touch and help with a variety of things, so it was a real surprise when I was approached but I am absolutely thrilled.”

Whilst the two Chancellors are distinct in occupation, with Sir Bonington’s mountaineering career a stark contrast to Milburn’s political one, Milburn appears to share the same enthusiasm for the role which Bonington has exhibited during his time as Chancellor. “Chris [Bonington] has done a fantastic job, and I know he’s put his heart and soul into the job and that it really matters to him,” Milburn said. “They are very big shoes to fill, but I really look forward to doing it. Every time I come to Lancaster the weather ceases to amaze me, but it strikes me how much the University has grown, and all the new buildings that the campus has, and I want to be part of that and do as much as I can to help it.”

Milburn was perhaps an obvious candidate for the role as Chancellor due to his already strong links with the University, not least because he is an alumnus of Lancaster. Milburn graduated from Lancaster in 1979 and was a member of Pendle College, “which at the time was at the absolute far end of campus.

“I can’t believe now that – looking at the layout of the University – Pendle sits somewhere near the middle of campus.” Milburn was a history student at Lancaster, and back in Week 3 of Michaelmas term this year, he returned to the campus to give a lecture on the subject. On that lecture, he said: “One of my history professors, [now Professor Emeritus] Eric Evans very kindly turned up, and I suspect I learned a lot more from his lectures than he did from mine. He was a real inspiration and a fantastic tutor.” Rather than living on campus, Milburn spent his first year living in Galgate –  “not too far from the pub” – followed by a year by the canal in Lancaster, and spent his third year living in Morecambe.

Looking back at his time as a student as a whole, Milburn said that “My time at Lancaster really laid the foundations for everything I have done in my career.” However, like many undergraduates, he did not know this at the time. “At university I had no idea what I wanted to do. After university I moved back up to the north-east, and I began a PHD at Newcastle which, to my shame, I have never completed.

“I’m afraid I got bitten by the politics bug, so I became involved in politics. The PHD thesis is still in the house somewhere, probably in the attic; there are lots of handwritten scribbled notes which could still yet form some sort of thesis, though it probably will never be finished unfortunately. So I then went from there into politics and the rest is history.”

Milburn was Labour MP for Darlington from 1992 until 2010. During that time he served several cabinet positions under the Blair government, including Secretary of State for Health and Minister for the Cabinet Office. Now that he has retired from being an MP to pursue other areas, how does Milburn view the profession? “I hold the greatest respect for people who go into public service – it’s easy to say it’s hard, but I was blessed to be able to do it,” Milburn said. “People are very rarely lucky enough – like I was – to be able to change things.

“I think politics works at its best when you have people who have a very clear purpose and the determination to help do what is right. That may mean that what you are doing is controversial and people get upset about what you are doing, but I’m a great believer in purposeful politics,” Milburn told SCAN, stating his belief that British politics currently lacks such purpose, pointing to all of the political parties’ stances on immigration policy as an example.

Of course, many people do not view politics in the same way Milburn does. Given the current unpopularity of politicians, did it concern Alan how students may feel about having a former MP as their Chancellor? “I hope people will continue to see me primarily as a Lancaster University graduate,” Milburn replied. “While I have of course been a politician, I am someone who is able to work with politicians across the political spectrum.” In July 2012 Milburn was appointed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg to chair the cross-party Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which he continues to work for “and I am very proud to do so. There are some very important issues which we are encountering.” Pointing to other aspects of his varied career, Milburn said “I also have a good career in business, and I do a lot of charity work – in a few weeks I’m heading off to Sierra Leone, where I do some charity-based work with Tony Blair and the government in Sierra Leone.

“So I’ve done a wide range of things in my career. If I’m a former anything when I become Chancellor of Lancaster it is a former student of the University.”

During this long and varied career, Milburn has maintained an active relationship with the University. “I’ve done a variety of things, from holding receptions at Parliament for charity to working more privately with both [former and current Vice Chancellors of Lancaster] Paul Wellings and Mark Smith on issues on public policy which are important to the University: they raise issues with me so I can raise them with the government,” Milburn said. “It is certainly not as if I left Lancaster in 1979 and am now re-emerging in 2014; my relationship has been very much ongoing.”

Given his current work and interest in the area, SCAN asked Milburn what he thought of Lancaster University’s credentials on the question of social mobility. “I think it’s done pretty well, as I’ve discussed with Mark [Smith],” Milburn said. “One of the distinctive characteristics of Lancaster is the very high proportion of students who come from state schools. For a top performing university, which it is now, it is quite a success story. Now, could the University do more? Of course – it could and it should – but I think it is certainly on the right track.”

Indeed, Milburn labels Lancaster an “aspiration university: it is clearly full of young people who have got big aspirations and come from a wide variety of different backgrounds, so in many ways it has led the charge [in the area of social mobility].”
Overall, what does Milburn feel are Lancaster’s strengths as it celebrates its 50th year? “Lancaster is really strong in research; I think it’s also got a dynamism and energy about it which not every university has,” Milburn told SCAN. “If there were weaknesses when I was there in 1979, it would not be in the top 10 if it still had those weaknesses – the trajectory is really powerful I think.” Milburn also points to Lancaster’s growing global reputation as a significant asset. “[Lancaster] is beginning to get a global reputation, and – through the international partnerships – in certain parts of the world it has a lot of reach now.

“The final aspect which is a really important strength is, as we’ve said before, [Lancaster’s] social make-up, which I think is really interesting. There is a strong correlation between a person’s class and the type of university they go to, and Lancaster is helping to break that correlation.”
Considering his love for the University and his enthusiasm to take up the role, SCAN closed the interview by asking Milburn the difficult question of what he is most looking forward to about becoming Lancaster University’s Chancellor. “I’m really looking forward to the graduation ceremonies, because they are an amazing transition point in anybody’s life. During the academic year I’m also looking forward to spending time with students and staff, and just helping the University in whatever way I can – helping to continue that forward march.
“This University is a remarkable thing – it’s been remarkable in the recent past and I’m sure it’s going to be just as remarkable in the future.”