For LSE Directors, much like students and Premier League managers, the second year is the most important.
Dame Nemat Talaat Shafik – Minouche – has been at the School for less time than many of its students. She feels like she’s finally beginning to fit in.
“I always find the first year and a half of the job the hardest”, she tells us in her spacious Directorate office. “The learning curve is steep but, now I’m at the end of that first phase, I feel at the point of lift off.”
The critic’s response to Minouche’s optimism about LSE’s future is perhaps simple: It’s about time. At a university with a low-ranking student experience and high-ranking everything else, the paying customers have long waited for leadership that puts students first. Minouche thinks she can break that ceiling.
“A cohesive student community is absolutely central to the success of the School. We’ve always had fantastic students at LSE, but their expectations have evolved and the pressures are changing.” The Director’s argument in favour of expectations management among the student body is a contentious one, but a point she makes unapologetically.
And if there are sticks, Minouche’s thinking also features the occasional carrot. Resits will this year become widely accessible for the first time (“LSE has promised them for forty years”) and lecture capture is now available in every classroom of more than twenty-five.
These reforms haven’t gone unnoticed. When Minouche recently strolled past the Students’ Union building, a number of students took selfies and asked her questions. She is a relatively popular figure on campus, and certainly for an LSE Director.
“The most memorable conversations I’ve had with students have centred around mental health and stress.
“And I’m often asked how we can create a better sense of community. At such an urban, international university, that’s a tough task. But if you do it, it’s fantastically powerful.”
The Director’s much-talked about ‘2030 Strategy’, which plots the School’s journey over the next decade, will be published in the coming weeks. Minouche insists it puts the goal of improving the student experience front and centre.
“We want to free up faculty efforts away from admin, so more time can be spent with students. We’ll reward those who do that well with bonuses.”
On the flipside of that are punishments for academics and departments that don’t engage with students enough.
“There are some departments whose survey scores are very poor, and have asked to take on more students and establish more programmes. We’ve said ‘No you can’t, not until you get your NSS scores up’.” (Minouche wouldn’t say which. Our guess is International Relations.)
The Minouche’s time as Director of the LSE has however been clouded by the impending threat of Brexit.
“Luckily the School hasn’t been adversely affected by it yet. Our applications are up seven percent [on the last academic year] and the European numbers are holding up.
“But there are still pockets of weakness in certain countries and regions, and in the PhD sector especially. Thirty-seven percent of our faculty are European, too. We can’t be complacent.”
The greatest concern, nonetheless, lies in a feared hole in research funding. UK institutions currently benefit greatly from EU research grants, but Minouche doesn’t necessarily trust the government to fill the gap. “The problem is, the gap is so large.”
Though Brexit evidently presents new challenges to Britain’s university sector, Minouche has written in recent weeks about whether populism has effectively diagnosed recent liberal complacency. “Populists are succeeding because mainstream parties have failed to provide a credible vision for shared prosperity, economic security and common identity”, she wrote in the FT last month.
“Elites have been very good at hoarding opportunities for their children”, she tells us, “but not very good at creating opportunities for other people’s children.
“We should listen to what populists have pointed out in our societies but remember that their solutions are wrong. Closing the borders and remaking homogenous societies just aren’t realistic goals.”
Her staunch liberalism chimes ironically with the views – or former views – of the university’s most infamous student. After the controversial enrolment of prominent Charlottesville protestor Peter Cvyetanovic for a master’s degree in Government last September, Minouche was challenged by worried students at a packed town hall earlier in the year. Members of staff were told Cvyetanovic had “recanted his views”. Minouche contended that rejecting his application on political grounds would be illegal. But would she accept another prominent white nationalist to the university?
“Yes but I would make sure they’re aware of our ethics code before they came. If we can educate people in a way that makes them more open, then we’re doing our job.”
Some think that Minouche may soon be torn between a job she has and one she might be offered. If Mark Carney resigned as the Bank of England Governor tomorrow, would she take the job?
“I’d tell him, ‘Thank you very much, I’ve got another job to do’.”
Minouche picks up another mini box of Smarties – she has a sweet tooth – and does her party trick: retrieving her folder of revision notes from the bookshelf, from when she studied for a master’s at LSE in the eighties.
“I really can’t remember any of this stuff”, she says, as she pores over price discrimination graphs and tables about demand elasticity. I suggest she complete the degree again, in a creative effort to relate directly to today’s student experience.
“Oh God, no. I’m sure I’d fail.”