Professor Caroline Gipps

Doctor of Laws

13 July 2009 - Orator: Professor Judith Squires

Mr Vice-Chancellor, Caroline Gipps

Professor Caroline Gipps graduated from Bristol with a good BSc degree and an uncertain career plan.  She started her career as a primary school teacher and ended up as a university Vice-Chancellor.  She is living proof that not having a career plan can get you to interesting places in the end – if you are talented, committed, flexible and willing to grasp opportunities as they emerge. 

Professor Gipps attended a girls' independent school in Llanfairfechan where she received good teaching but no careers advice.  She came to Bristol to read psychology, of which the headmistress did not approve, on the grounds that it would lead her to question her religious beliefs.

In fact, it gave Caroline Gipps a range of transferable skills, which have proven to be useful in later life.  She learnt, for instance, to make rats run through mazes by starving them and placing rat nuts at the end of the tunnels.  This prepared her admirably for a career managing academics.  She learnt early on that one can encourage academics to do many things for small amount of reward – though probably something more than a bag of rat nuts.

Having been awarded her Bristol Psychology BSc in 1968, Caroline’s first aim was to become an educational psychologist.  She spent two years as a primary school teacher, here in Bristol at Holymead Junior School.  But primary school teaching was not her forte, and she soon took a sideways move to become a research assistant at the National Foundation for Educational Research.   Her first research project focused on developing tests of language proficiency for immigrant children and learning-ability tests for non-English-speaking children.  

Caroline spent the next seven years as a full-time researcher.  She found that she loved it and seemed to be quite good at it.  She successfully completed a series of research projects, all underpinned by her long-standing commitment to widening access and equity:  projects focusing on immigrant children, children with special needs, equity issues in assessment, the achievement of girls and of ethnic minority pupils, and projects exploring how e-learning helps widening-access students.  

Here again, Caroline learnt a range of useful transferable skills.  Her training as a psycho-metrician and educational researcher involved observation, semi-structured interviewing, thematic analysis and discussions among research teams about what was really happening.  From this Caroline learnt how to analyse situations with intense lucidity.  As a contract researcher Caroline also learnt how to move a project forward, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. She had to learn this: one can’t simply go back to a funder and say ‘I’m sorry but I can’t get the promised sample’: one needs to work a way around it.  Again, her experience as a researcher provided invaluable lessons for her future career, allowing Caroline to develop the skill of being able to analyse and resolve complex problems to tight deadlines.

Having developed a successful track record as a contract researcher, Caroline Gipps’ career then took another interesting turn when her husband was awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in Vancouver.  Displaying her characteristic flexibility, Caroline took a two year ‘career break’, which is here a euphemism for starting a family, writing up her PhD, undertaking part-time work as an assistant at the University of British Columbia - being, in fact, much busier than she had been back in England.  This ‘break’ in her career was a very productive time, and Caroline learnt another series of useful lessons: that having a busy life with input from family members with quite different careers, coupled with the demands of young children, gives one a broader handle on things, and that what might initially appear like a career setback  can be a productive experience.

Caroline then returned to England, and to a post at the Institute of Education in London, as a research officer, where she stayed for the next nineteen years.  During this time her research focus shifted from developing tests, to looking at uses and impact of tests and assessment on teachers, pupils and the school system.  Twenty five years on, Caroline is an international expert on educational assessment.

Caroline became a Professor of Education and then a senior manager at the Institute of Education, taking on the position of Dean of Research.  She was at first unsure whether to go down the senior manager route, but thought she would try it.  She found that she did like it, in fact she loved the strategic side of the role, developing plans and forging teams to deliver them.  At this time Caroline was responsible for developing the taught doctorate in Education. She had to argue it through University of London Senate, against significant opposition from those who felt that this was not a proper research degree.  But she won the battle and it has turned out to be a very successful doctoral programme.  This she really enjoyed.

The next step in Caroline’s career came when she took up the post of Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University, a post she held for six years.   Caroline takes particular pride in two things that she achieved at Kingston. 

Firstly, she brought together a range of previously discrete support services, including the library, IT support, the registry and student services, and got them to work together as a team, improving the quality of the student experience.  So successful was this team that other departments wanted to join it, recognising its constructive way of working and ability to move things forward. 

Secondly, Caroline was responsible for developing and implementing an e-learning strategy rolled out across the entire University within two years.  This strategy rejuvenated teaching across the University, improving retention rates and student satisfaction levels. 

Following this success Caroline Gipps was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton in October 2005 - the University’s first female Vice-Chancellor.   

The challenge of the Chief Executive post interested Caroline, and allowed her to focus on precisely what she is most committed to – widening educational participation.  Wolverhampton is a university with one of the highest percentage of students with non-traditional backgrounds.  The challenge for the University of Wolverhampton is to give these students a good experience and turn them out with useful degrees, and it is highly successful in this. 

The University is a key player in the city and region, offering students an opportunity to go to university that many would not otherwise take.   The University of Wolverhampton has an exemplary track record in working with business, particularly Small and Medium Enterprises, with a Science Park in Wolverhampton and a developing Technology and Innovation Centre in Telford.  It works closely with the City Council, the Health Service and the local football team in Wolverhampton,  the three biggest local employers, in a joint effort to enhance the standing of the city. 

Caroline is the first to acknowledge that there are still plenty of things to be done at Wolverhampton and that there are challenges ahead for all universities.  But she is a model to us all in her determination to do the best for the University of Wolverhampton. 

We don’t all have well-crafted career plans.  For those looking forward, wondering where their degree qualification will take them next, Caroline Gipps’ experience since leaving Bristol offers a wonderful insight into how it is possible to capitalise on University experience, pursue a high-powered and fulfilling career and also give something back to society.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Caroline Victoria Gipps as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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