What is the future for Exeter? Megan Davies sits down with the Vice-Chancellor and Provost to find out more.
It would be an understatement to say the last 17 years have been eventful for Sir Steve Smith. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, (incidentally, one of the most influential figures in the higher education sector) will be leaving Exeter next summer
We meet Sir Steve, alongside Janice Kay, Provost, in his spacious Northcote House office overlooking Queen’s Drive.
Kay, who is at the head of academic matters at the University, was awarded a CBE in 2016, and has spent this year at the head of the Provost Commission – formed in the fallout from the Bracton Law Society scandal, it promotes and organises events dealing with diversity and inclusivity.
When Smith joined Exeter in 2002, “the institution had a very clear view of where it was and it was wrong”, he tells us when we meet him in his Northcote House office – a room roughly the size of two seminar rooms. Pieces of art on the walls include a portrait of Smith framed with Chinese text. Copies of the Economist and the Financial Times are left out on the desk. We’re offered water as both pour themselves glasses of sparkling water from 500ml bottles.
Smith got his job in Exeter after three years as Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth: “I’d been head of a massive department in Aber, then Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and I started applying for vice-chancellorships and Exeter was the first person to offer me an interview. Janice was on the panel and for some unknown reason, I got the job.
“I think we probably both agree on this point, Janice and I, the institution had a very clear view of where it was and it was wrong.”
Kay explains how she was blown away when interviewing Smith for the most senior executive post in the University: “he did a really, phenomenally good analysis, and I thought: “yeah, I know that. I know that too. I know about our applications, I know about…”, and then I thought: “Mm, no, I don’t know about that. No, and I certainly don’t know about that”.
“So the real forensic view of the institution was really clear in his interview, and I think that’s how you’ve carried on, Steve. But combined with a view of knowing where the University needed to be.”
Together, Kay and Smith saw opportunities to develop the University’s STEM output.
“We’re a university that’s always been really strong in humanities and social sciences, but there was a view that emerged, through Steve’s particular kind of leadership, that made us realise that the science really wasn’t at the right scale.
“It wasn’t big enough, it wasn’t material enough, so there was a large and sustained drive to build a STEM and medicine base. You know, the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine base.”
Then Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Kay explains that when she became Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education, she pitched and developed an extensive science strategy: “I always wanted to be involved in the leadership of the University, but I’ve had, more than anything, a passion for higher education. I was invited to join the senior team as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor and leapt at that chance.
I’m paid to be influential in the debates in government about where university finance goes and university access.Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor
She developed a strategy, she explains, “principally around what could we as a University be really good about?” Building on a pre-existing reputation in subjects like cancer research, “[the University] knew we could be really good in sustainability and the environment and climate change… No-one thought that was a good idea but actually, everyone wants to know about those things.”
But their roles have changed greatly, they explain, as has the University. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this is the growth in student numbers (from around 13,000 in 2006, Smith estimates, to a total of over 23,000 in 2018/19 according to the University website).
Kay’s position didn’t even exist until relatively recently.
“One of the changes we made a few years ago was to create the post of Provost, and basically, Provost runs the academic side of the institution, Registrar runs the professional services side,” Smith explains.
Kay points in particular to her work with staff and students, citing among other things Students as Change Agents. “The other key thing for me was that I was also involved in the management of the Deans as they then were in medicine and science faculty, which was terrific in terms of working with the Pro-Vice-Chancellors as they now are driving the appointments, driving the size and shape of the institution, and working in terms of the finances and meeting the various financial challenges that we’ve got.
“It’s been a terrific adventure, it’s been really good.”
Vice-Chancellors increasingly have to manage complex pensions, pay, conditions of work and mental health.Sir Steve Smith, the Vice-Chancellor
The role of Vice-Chancellor has changed too, Smith adds. “My chair as governor basically says that if I’m not in London, I’m not doing my job… that’s a slight exaggeration, it depends on the day of the week! But the key point is, an enormous amount of it is working with government, with the media,…” Smith was, when we spoke, preparing for the publication of the Augar review – he explains how he had been preparing for this throughout the week.
“So I face outwards. I know what’s happening inside, as I said, 70 meetings with staff, but I’m paid to be influential in the debates in government about where university finance goes and university access and admissions and unconditionals and all these things.
“I spend a lot of time fundraising, that’s been the other big change. When I came, the university came in under a million pounds a year, well under that. Now, last year we got in 15, this year we’re already at 8. That’s a big part of the job.
“But the key difference… is that vice-chancellors increasingly have to manage the complex pensions, pay, conditions of work, mental health and stuff nationally, student welfare issues, admissions, there’s all these things, and we can deal with them internally, but each of those issues I just raised – but the context is set externally.
“We can’t just sit there and let it hit us, we have to attempt to work with UUK, with Russell Group, to try and ensure that the interests of institutions like ours and the staff and students of the future, not just today, are protected. That’s what I think the job is.”
An inclusive University
It got to the point with the Bracton Society that I think we all felt enough was enough…Janice Kay, Provost
We bring the conversation back to issues in Exeter. Perhaps among the most pressing, and recurring, topics in Exeter is its history with racism, misogyny, and anti-semitism.
This was brought to light in 2009 by actor Emma Thompson, and with worrying regularity over the past few years. It’s become difficult to recap these individual incidents – graffiti, white T-shirt socials, high-vis tabards, vandalised posters, not to mention the Bracton Law Society group chat – without dismissing the seriousness of each one. Even the Provost Commission’s website admits that a culture change is needed.
Janice Kay is at the head of the Provost Commission, which was created as a reaction to the Bracton Law Society group chat scandal in March 2018. “I think we had a number of, a small number, actually, of deep issues to do with racism and sexism,” Kay explains.
What made Kay realise that a culture change was needed? Kay explains how “it got to the point with the Bracton Law Society that I think we all felt enough was enough, and actually that we were – even though we had been addressing particular issues, sort of at the head as it were, trying to stop these issues, it didn’t appear … that we were necessarily taking the right actions or that the actions were slow.
“And so the Provost Commission was actually set up to look at root and branch, across students and staff, looking around culture change. It isn’t just racism, it’s looking at diversity in general and making the institution a much better place in which people can study and work.
“You know, it’s a really big thing to do. Culture change is very difficult. And I don’t think we shied away from some very big things, one of the things that we’ve been working on that we’ve just started at is student induction, it’s not… it’s very difficult, I think, if you are a member of a minority group, by definition, to take life to the full and to be engaged in academic work in any university. And I think we want to look at that really quite strongly.
“We’ve been doing that hand in hand with students, and indeed for staff, with staff.”
On this point, Smith emphasises the changes Exeter has undergone, stressing the University’s international recruitment. Out of about 13,000 students, he explains, only around 700 were international, “even as late as 2006”.
We don’t want to second guess the professional judgement of academic colleagues. If the VC wants it or the Provost wants it, that doesn’t mean it should be done.Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor
“So it was very, um, English. It had a fantastic history of recruiting from the home counties, and by definition, you therefore ended up with a very monocultural student body in a very monocultural part of the city.
“I can remember it, but you take Exeter back 15 years ago there wasn’t the shopping, there wasn’t the culture, there wasn’t the Chinese New Year, there wasn’t Diwali, it was very… we were the ethnic diversity! I remember, there was 1.6% of the local population only were black minority ethnic, so it was really… and therefore it’s not something that’s been an issue just recently, it’s been an issue about the downside of being monocultural.”
He and Kay worked with the local school system, on top of Smith’s work with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown on access to higher education. “But that doesn’t mean we’ve solved it, it does mean it’s not a trivial thing, it’s a deep issue about the nature of our identity.”
Apart from the Provost Commission, individual departments have been working on decolonising the curriculum – a movement started in South Africa which, broadly, aims to broaden the material, knowledge and theory studied beyond an Anglocentric view. Keele University, for example, has set out a manifesto which describes it as a “culture shift”.
In Exeter, “this is really important and indeed I have funded some of that work with one of the students and it is actually part of the strand that Andrew McRae is leading as the doctorate dean as part of the Provost Commission,” says Kay.
“That is consistent with the view that we are a diverse institution and we want all our students to have the sense that they are global and that they are international.” Both academics agree that the process has to happen on a college or department level.
Smith explains: “There’s a tension for us in being too prescriptive at the centre. As an individual, I completely buy and am sympathetic to the decolonising the curriculum point. But I think one important point about the way we should operate as university is that we don’t want to second guess the professional judgement of academic colleagues. If the VC wants it or the Provost wants it, that doesn’t mean it should be done.
“So we place a lot of responsibility and autonomy on the subject units, and actually there’s quite a lot going in Humanities, which I’ve observed warmly and supportively, but the great thing about universities is we’ve got some stunningly capable staff and members, and you leave it to them, other than saying that we really support a more decolonised agenda for teaching.
“The difficulty would be if we tried to move to make that a requirement, we would probably be crossing the line on academic freedom. We want our staff and our student communities together, and that’s the key.”
USS pensions dispute
It was about an alienation with marketisation… the world that people thought they joined as an academic is no longer the world they were dealing with.Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor, on the USS pensions dispute
The other transformative event we talk about is the USS pensions dispute, which saw four weeks of strikes from academic staff last spring. It led to profound change, Smith says.
“There’s some obvious manifestations, the most important and the most immediate is the election of Jo Grady as General Sec of the UCU. And not just a narrow election, a whopping majority! And the second candidate, Matt Waddup, the kind of internal candidate came only 84, 85 votes ahead of the third candidate, who was also broadly on UCU Left.
“So you’ve got increased turnout from 13.7 to just over 20%, you’ve got a very, very energised UCU group nationally and locally, you’ve got a clear breakdown of trust between employers, USS, UCU, UUK,… So relations are difficult.”
It’s hard not to agree with Smith’s analysis. Turnout went from 13.7% in 2017 to 20.5% in 2019, and Jo Grady’s election – an industrial relations academic and self-defined “wildcard, rank & file candidate” candidate in this year’s General Secretary election. And this reflects the wider issues brought to light last year.
Because the strike was about more than pensions, just as the EU referendum was about more than the EU, he says. “It was about an alienation with marketisation, it was about change, you know, the world that people thought they joined as an academic is no longer the world they’re dealing with.”
He describes how this anxiety translates all the way to senior management.
“We had a senior team meeting this morning just running through the angst that we’re all going through about Augar, due on Thursday, what’s happening with Brexit, who’s going to be PM? What I mean is, all of these things affect all of us.
“I would be misunderstanding the strike if I took it to be solely about pensions. It was about a lot of deeper things, and the job of the senior team here is to steer a path between the overwhelming issues of the needs and desires of students and staff and a group of governors who have to sign off every single major investment decision we have to make.
“And the job of the senior team is actually to keep all those bits in alignment and not allow dealing with staff concerns to trump – bad word! – to trump the concerns of the governing body, or vice versa.
“So that’s been a profound change and I think, I suspect that if Jo Grady’s manifesto is what she then does – she’s a woman clearly of enormous integrity, I can see that – but obviously the point is, you could expect this hasn’t gone away.
“Because the pensions thing isn’t sorted, and you can see that in so many things. So I think it was a turning point, but pensions were the proximate cause, maybe not the underlying cause.”
Now, Smith explains, “what all of us have to do is to try and these are not kind of pious words, we’ve got to come up with the solutions to the problems that were raised by the strike … but in ways that protect future pensions. And that’s the complication, because whose future pensions? Those nearing retirement or those about to come into the profession?”
Kay describes how university managers re-evaluated their own roles.
“Every single one of us in the University underwent a lot of kind of looking deep into ourselves over the last year because it was very uncomfortable and very difficult [and positions us] in relations to staff and different groups of staff and students where we didn’t want to be.
“And I think we have worked with our staff and students collectively, all of us, to actually think about how can we actually do things differently?”
They explain that they have reversed how major strategic decisions are decided, consulting staff and reaching out to academic departments.
We looked deep into ourselves over the last year because it put us into relations with staff and students where we didn’t want to be.Janice Kay, Provost
If the senior management team make decisions before putting them out for consultation, “people then think we’ve already decided, they don’t bother to reply, and we say ‘well, everyone’s happy!’
“From this time on, every major policy we’ve put out to every academic department and we’ve said things like ‘right, we need – what’s the REF strategy going to be? What’s the strategy towards our globalisation as a university? What’s our strategy towards car parking?’ Of all of them, by the way, that’s got by far the most responses, 900!”
The best way to deal with a deepening rift between higher staff, students and higher management is “ultimately, bringing back the academic disciplines into decision-making much more and we’ll see where that takes us. But that’s where we are at the moment and a lot of staff want to be involved, so that’s good. That doesn’t mean you’ll ever make everyone happy. And there’ll be very different views from different groups of staff.”
The two list an impressive number of meetings with staff – Smith cites over 70 meetings with over 2,000 staff members since February last year, as well as bringing department heads onto senior management.
Kay explains that she meets senators regularly, as well as meets monthly with five or six randomly chosen staff members from each college.
“So in about 300 years’ time, I will actually have managed to meet all the members of the University,” she jokes, “and then I’ll start again!”
With senators especially, big questions include how the University can improve communications. “Every large organisation has this, of it being, you know, in a sense it’s very top-down, and it’s cascaded down. How do we involve people? Actually, I don’t think ultimately it’s down to comms, it’s down to a feeling of involvement, a feeling of agency, a feeling that you’ve got a stake, that’s what we’re working collectively on.
Ultimately, though, “we’re trying to do it that way, but the truth of the matter is such is the cynicism and such is the understandable kind of issue about trust that that’s going to take – we’re going to have to prove we do it for a long while,” says Smith.
Growth, student numbers and housing
If we were quote ‘a business’, we would build more Holland Halls. We would!Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor
There are a number of demographic challenges that the University, and universities across the country, are facing in the near future. On the one hand, Exeter has been building relentlessly and its admissions numbers have been on a steady upward slope. On the other, numbers of 18-year-olds are set to diminish over the next few years, and then increase again.
At the same time, on a much more immediately tangible level, the University has been expanding student numbers and is currently building new accommodation, especially after the City Council asked for more students to be housed on campus.
“We’ve been working very closely with the City Council, I’ve been holding meetings for 17 years with them.
“We meet each other formally twice a year in a working group, but we actually see them far more frequently than that. And the big issue of the last decade has been student accommodation,” Smith explains.
Because Exeter was previously dominated by houses of multiple occupancy (i.e. houses with more than three tenants that form separate households), which “were a ripoff for students and upset the neighbours”, the City Council asked the University to move towards building purpose-built halls.
Smith dates these discussions back to 2008 – work is now underway, both with East Park which will house 1,200 students and 14 other residences. Most of these are built by commercial organisations.
“I could be wrong on the date but I think it was 2009 or 2010, we signed a deal with the city whereby we would be involved in getting dedicated housing for 75% of additional students.
Since 2014, the University has grown by 4,000 students and we’ve only taken four houses out of circulation in the city.Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor
“So when we expand, we know we have to find purpose-built student accommodation for 75 of every 100.
“And we’ve done that. In fact, we’re well over it and the City Council is very pleased. Since 2014 is great stat: since 2014, the University has grown by 4,000 students and we’ve only taken four houses out of circulation in the city.
“There’s four additional houses of multiple occupancy than there were five years ago and yet there’s 4,000, 4,004 or something like that students.”
The University has reduced the number of students living in HMOs, which also had the effect of keeping housing costs down for locals.
“There’s an increase in the number over the last decade of those houses that are available for the local population. Because the really awful thing was that if you were a young family on not very high salaries or wages in the city, students were able to outbid you for housing. And that’s where we really work with the city, as we have over arts and culture, as we have over education, to try and solve the problem.”
Over the years, the University have found that of the space they have in halls, there is “overwhelming” demand for high-end rooms. “If we were quote “a business”, we would build more Holland Halls. We would! We have five applications for each room – that might be a bit out of date, but it used to be five for every room in Holland, but in Lafrowda it was two.
“And so although we’ve put in low-cost provision in to East Park, economically, the likelihood is the ones that will be vastly oversold will be the most expensive ones,” says Smith.
According to the University’s calculations, Exeter is one of the 50% cheaper universities for housing costs in the country, excluding London.
“We look at all our main competitors and we look at their costs and this is – there’s different views on where we are but in our analysis we are certainly in the top half, but we’re not in the upper quartile.”
Kay adds: “I really wish that students wouldn’t feel that in October or November of their first year, they have to rush out and get a house. And you get all kind of a sense of panic and anxiety, and very young – often – students about where they’re going to go to and I think there are issues there in terms of the way landladies and landlords actually look at the student population.”
As the university grows, the number of 18-year-olds starting university is due to decrease over the next few years, before increasing again. Smith explains that despite an email from the Office for Students warning that if universities plan for rising student numbers (as they currently do), “something’s going to go wrong,” Exeter is “comfortable with our projections because we’ve got this massive reservoir of students who, of course, I admit not all will have the grades of the students who come in at the moment.
“But they want to come here, so if we absolutely needed to fill places, we could easily do it – but we’d have to drop from an average of three As, or an A* and two As, to three Bs. for those students. But we don’t think we’ll need to.”
This isn’t the bigger concern, however, Smith and Kay agree. “We’re actually, to be honest with you, much more concerned about the upturn. I mean – a 23% growth in students, in 18-year-olds from 2022 to 2030.
“If government is going to continue to offer opportunities for students, you know, if they’re going to restrict numbers, who’s going to be restricted? It won’t be the wealthy.”
A changing sector: A hard act to follow?
The thing I worry about the most is the drift towards alternative, cheaper providers who don’t protect the interests of students.Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor
As we spoke, the advert recruiting a new Vice-Chancellor had just been published. “There’ll be a tremendous field and it’s a great job, it’ll be a fantastic job for someone to get,” Smith says. “What a hard act to follow,” Kay adds. “Steve will be really, really hard to replace. But the University is thinking about this very deeply and indeed involving as many staff and students as we can to actually get views.”
She adds: “Be sure of this: Steve will be Vice-Chancellor until the second before he leaves.”
Looking to the future, then, what are the biggest issues facing higher education?
Private providers, Smith says, which don’t prioritise students. “The thing I worry about the most is the drift towards alternative, cheaper providers who don’t protect the interests of students.
“And those students, especially those from backgrounds where there’s not much social capital, are being sucked in – as in the American example – into paying for higher education and not getting the skills and the support that they need.
“So I think in the long run, in the next 10 years, there’ll be a lot of bumpiness about institutions and mergers and numbers and changes, but I think the sleeping issue is the rise of a private sector, some bits of which, if they mirror the United States, will not necessarily provide great value.
“I think that means the boundary between further education and higher education is going to be much more fluid than it is at the moment.”
Both also point towards rising mental health issues, both for students and staff. Kay says it’s “something that exercises a lot of our time in terms of student mental health and wellbeing but also our staff, too. And that’s a whole new conversation for which we can have at least half a day.”
There are some things that we, together, have to mend.Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor
But overall, Exeter must be sustainable over the next decades. Smith is known for calling Exeter a “forever institution”, but for this to be true, “we have to keep ensuring that this institution remains as incredibly strong as it is at the moment on teaching and research. It can’t jettison either, [and] it’s got to be sustainable – with its students and with its staff. And that points to some of the things we, together, have to put right – and have to mend.”
And Smith is optimistic. “The overwhelming feeling I have is that Exeter’s an incredibly strong place to do that and I feel very confident about the future.”