AS a long-haired student in the 1970s, Chris Higgins left London to study in Durham because it was “as far away as possible” – at least partly. Three decades later, he would return as the university’s head. Mark Tallentire reports.
WHEN a young Chris Higgins travelled north for his fresher year as a Durham University undergraduate in autumn 1973, he could have had no idea how big a part in his life the city would come to play.
The future Vice-Chancellor’s early life was marked by change, as the family shifted across the Atlantic and back following the work of his father, Philip, a mathematician.
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Chris, the eldest of four boys, was born in Cambridge, where his father was a Fellow of Trinity College.
By the time Philip and Betty had their second child, the family was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, where Philip was working for Harvard University.
A couple of years later, it was back to England, firstly at Queen Mary University, London, and then King’s College London.
The young Chris was a talented musician – playing the violin to such a standard to study at the Royal College of Music.
When the time came to go off to university, he opted for botany; and Durham – partly because it was “as far away as possible”.
But, he admits, he spent much of his time concerned with music – leading an orchestra on overseas tours and more.
“It was a fantastic time,” he recalls, sitting in his office in Durham University’s gleaming new Palatine Centre headquarters, on Durham’s Stockton Road – the Cathedral becoming increasingly shrouded in darkness as the winter light wanes.
“It was great fun. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without coming to Durham University. It provides so many opportunities for students to develop.”
The young student learned skills which have lasted a lifetime and gave him a much more international outlook, he reflects.
Of course, Durham was a very different place back then.
Chris’ first term at Grey College was during the notorious three-day week. His memories of the power shortages – of three hours on, three hours off, and colleges only providing a hot meal every other day – remain strong.
Undergraduates were supplied with candles to study by, he remembers.
But he must have enjoyed himself – because when he decided to take his studies further and pursue a PhD, he remained in Durham.
In 1978, father followed son north – with Philip being appointed head of maths at Durham.
Indeed, Philip and Betty still live in the city – only around 400 yards from their son – and remain part of the Senior Common Room at Collingwood College.
Years later, a third generation of Higgins would follow suit, with Chris’ daughter Julia studying at Durham.
Chris left in 1979, again heading across the pond to take up a molecular biology research role at Berkeley University, in California.
He was curious to “understand how things work”, he says – particularly how molecules get out of cells.
His research began on plants, before switching to bacteria – a field in which he would make significant breakthroughs.
In the cancer field, Chris investigated how cancerous cells resisted chemotherapy treatment. Progress was also seen on tackling Cystic Fibrosis.
From Berkeley, he went to Dundee, then Oxford to run the Imperial Cancer Research Fund laboratory.
In 1993, he became Nuffield Professor of Clinical Biochemistry at Oxford – the first non-medic to hold the post. Five years later, it was on to Imperial College London.
He has published more than 200 papers in cell biology and genetics and served as an adviser to Parliamentary committees.
By 2007, he says, the research questions he had been investigating since he was a student he had “got as far as I wanted to take them”.
Hence, to stay in his field would have meant starting something new.
Instead, he was approached by his alma mater about the Vice-Chancellor’s role.
By chance, Julia was studying at Durham at the time, so dad rang to see how the place had change since he left in the late 70s.
“I couldn’t say no,” Chris recalls.
“It’s the job I wanted, because I believe in the institution.”
In the six years since Chris took the job, Durham has moved up the university league tables from between tenth and 15th to firmly in the top five.
From being in “pretty poor shape” financially, it is now making a “significant surplus”, Chris says.
Finally, it has increased its international outlook, establishing a standing in the world’s top 100 universities.
Chris has charge of an institution with 4,000 staff, 16,000 students and a turnover of £270m.
Asked about the future, the 57-year-old father-of-five says: “This is my last big job.”
So, if that long-haired 1970s student had been told he was a future Vice-Chancellor, how would he have responded?
“I would have said: ‘What’s a Vice-Chancellor?’,” Chris replies.
“I had no idea how the University was run. It made me think: I must get around to meet students all the time. I now spend most evenings at student events.
“It’s hard work but extraordinarily worthwhile.
“It’s about helping students get the best education and go out into the world – that’s so important. We provide the best education for the brightest and best.”