James Beeson, Editor, meets with Vice-Chancellor Sir Steve Smith to discuss the consequences of the General Election for higher education, the real story behind those staff expenses, and looming early mornings for Exeter’s students.
It is with some trepidation that I approach Northcote House, preparing to interview a man who earns more a year than I could ever hope to in my (proposed) future career as a journalist. Upon arrival, I am greeted by Sir Steve’s PA, who leads me to the Executive Suite – the home of the powers that be at the University of Exeter, where the Vice-Chancellor rules the roost. After a short wait, Steve welcomes me into his office. Charming and charismatic, on first impression it is hard to dislike the Vice-Chancellor.
Born in 1952 into a working class background, Steve was educated at the University of Southampton, where he studied for his bachelor’s, master’s and PHD, before teaching at Huddersfield and UEA on topics he professes to have known “nothing about”. After 13 years at UEA, Steve left to become Senior Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Aberystwyth in 1992, before succeeding Geoffrey Holland as Vice-Chancellor of Exeter in October 2002. I ask Steve what his job involves on a day-to-day basis. “Basically, when you become Vice-Chancellor, you end up giving up the research side” he laments, “I publish a bit, but nothing like I used to”. His primary role is to be “responsible to the governing body for the academic standards and the financial performance of the University”. At an institution where the average turnover is £330million, this typically means an 80-hour week for the Vice-Chancellor.
On a national scale, Steve is not only responsible for Exeter’s standing among other universities, but also to Government and the media. In light of this, I ask his opinion on the General Election result, and the potential consequences of a Conservative government for higher education. “To be honest … whoever won would pose threats”, he says, citing Labour’s pledge to reduce tuition fees as an issue, due to his “concern” that it would lead to cuts elsewhere in the university budget, which the party had not made clear. “We simply couldn’t see where they were going to make up the money”, he says. “It’s a bit like saying to someone ‘do you love me?’ and them replying ‘I’ll get back to you on that’ … You kind of know the answer.”
In March, Exeter’s VC was one of several university chiefs who wrote to The Times expressing concerns over the reduction in fees. I ask, given that large amounts of student debt goes unpaid, why Steve was so against the cut. “What puts poorer kids off going to university isn’t so much the fees, it’s maintenance”, he replies, “and if the government were to put £2.7 billion into the hands of students, we’d rather it go into maintenance to support kids from poorer backgrounds.” I counter by citing Labour’s plans to increase student maintenance loans, but Steve dismisses this as “a very small amount” and suggests that the overall impact of a Labour Government would have been to help students who were already more likely to pay back their fees.
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the Conservative victory also carries threats. “We are worried about three things”, he says. Firstly, the EU: “The University has taken the view that we will strongly advocate membership; it’s the right thing for the country”, he affirms. Secondly, he states his concerns about immigration: “The rhetoric from the Home Offi ce and from Teresa May is damaging.” Finally, Steve admits his “massive” worry about the 8 July budget: “The only money left they can take is research funding… that would damage us significantly,” he sighs. I ask if lack of attention given to education, in the Conservative manifesto, concerns him. His response is rather surprising. “In an odd way, no it doesn’t,” he says, “I think they carefully avoided talking about it because they don’t want to end up like the Lib Dems” Rather optimistically, Steve believes this is a signal the party does not intend to make any major changes in the sector, something many pessimists will find hard to believe.
Increasing tuition fees has also not been ruled out by the Conservatives. On the subject of whether he is in favour of further rises, the Vice-Chancellor is coy: “I would like to see fees rise, but only in line with inflation.” With 50 per cent of University staff receiving incremental pay rises, Steve believes universities have to sustain funding somehow. “You cannot have all your costs rising, and all your income stationary.” It’s a fair point, but only if you believe, as the Vice-Chancellor clearly seems to, that Higher Education should be a private, profit making venture, and not fully state funded due to the benefits it brings to society as a whole.
The increasing marketisation of the sector has contributed to the University’s insubstantial growth in recent years. Among the consequences of this is the extension of the University teaching day. Steve is keen to emphasise that the changes will not have an adverse effect on student and staff wellbeing. “Staff will be working the same hours, just within a different time frame. Half of the Russell Group already operate much wider hours than we do.”
This, combined with special arrangements for anyone with caring responsibilities, means that the view amongst most University executives is that the extension can be defined more as a “transition” than a radical change to students’ university experience.
It has been well publicised that Sir Steve has ambitions for Exeter to become a ‘Global 100’ University. I ask the ViceChancellor whether he thinks that the growth in student numbers, a consequence of this ambition, is placing unacceptable strain on University resources. “You’re absolutely right,” Steve says, “If we continue to grow the University it will place unacceptable growth pressure on facilities.”
Setting a maximum of 22,000 students across all campuses is one of a number of measures the University has in place. “We would like to reduce undergraduate numbers on Streatham a little,” Steve affirms, a statement that sounds totally at odds with the growth the University has seen in recent years.
The Vice-Chancellor attributes this growth primarily to the rising popularity of Exeter as an institution – 17,200 students with predicted grades of three A’s or better applied to the University in 2014, and this is only expected to increase further in 2015. Despite this growth, the University has been criticised for the ongoing ‘Professional Services Transformation’ that will lead to over 200 members of staff losing their jobs. Steve describes the voluntary severance schemes on off er at the University as “very generous” and argues that the losses will be balanced out with investment in capital and new jobs in other areas such as more staff .
I ask Steve whether he thinks it is right that he is paid such a high salary when lower paid staff continue to suff er. On the subject of his own personal salary, the Vice-Chancellor is defensive: “I’ve had one salary increase in six years… I’ve had a couple of offers recently to work abroad, both of which offered me two and a half times my salary. I’m very happy here; it’s not about the money.” Despite this, he does admit he is very well paid: “I’d be lying if I said it’s easy to justify the salary… but it’s pretty much where the market is in the UK.”
We touch on the topic of the expenses of University staff , a controversial issue that resulted in the University threatening legal action against Exeposé back in February. Does Steve think that his expenses were justified? “Basically yes”, he replies, “The expenses of the senior staff are all scrutinised externally… I don’t get paid one penny in expenses without a signature from the Chair of Governors. The core issue here is: are the expenses appropriate for the task in hand?” To evidence this, he cites personal experience. “For my job I have to be in London a lot… I only stay overnight if I have an evening engagement. Staying overnight is absolutely not something I try and do.”
In terms of the purpose of the expenses incurred by staff , Steve is insistent that any claims have to be for the benefit of the University, “one dinner brought in more money than I and the senior team would claim in the next decade” he states emphatically.
On the subject of whether the amount claimed is excessive, Steve admits that the figures do sound large, but cites University guidelines: “It’s very straightforward; no receipt, no expenses. There is a maximum that anyone can charge, and the expenses apply to you whatever your job at the University.” he says: “If I fly more than seven hours, I can fly business class, but so could a 23-year-old events person… We don’t have ‘the bosses’ bit and ‘the plebs’ bit; everyone has the same expenses.” The fact remains, nonetheless, that the key issue is the amount being claimed, not necessarily who claims it.
I ask Steve for his thoughts on the investigation carried out by Exeposé into University expenses, which caused so much controversy earlier in the year. “My main issue was the notion that there was a scandal and that in some way my expenses were not dealt with in the normal way,” he says, “I live by the same rules as everybody else”. Somewhat controversially, Steve also claims that he believes the University would be better if more than the reported £2 million had been spent on expenses if they further university interests, a statement many will find hard to swallow given the cuts being made elsewhere.
To conclude the interview, I ask the Steve where he sees the University in ten years time. “I think we’ll see a university still in the top ten, and comfortably in the Top 100 in the world”, he says, “I hope that in ten years time you can say you went to Exeter, and people will say ‘that’s a great place’. I want people graduating to be proud of their institution, to be proud of being an Exeter graduate.” It’s an admirable sentiment, but one that relies on the students themselves enjoying their time at the University, and hence it is their wellbeing that must come first; something the Vice-Chancellor should be mindful not to forget.
James Beeson, Editor