Speaking With the Vice-Chancellor: “I Will Make Southampton a Top 10 University, and it Will Be University Of the Year”

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Sir Christopher Snowden came to Southampton last year with an impressive CV. In his 10 years at Surrey, he took it from a relatively unknown small University to one that ranks with the likes of Oxbridge and the Universities in London. A year into his tenure at Southampton, what has he done?

The quiet man, once described by Union President Ben Franklin as ‘a total babe’, sat down with Wessex Scene and discussed league tables, money matters and that Israel conference.

Here, in our three part series, we introduce you to the Vice-Chancellor, one year into his time here.

Professor Christopher Snowden (Image: University of Southampton)
Professor Christopher Snowden (Image: University of Southampton)

 PART ONE: SOUTHAMPTON AND THE FUTURE

Ever since it was announced that Southampton was getting a new VC, Wessex Scene has been trying to nab an interview with him. It took us nearly a year to get it, which isn’t surprising considering he manages 4,500 staff and over 23,500 students. We finally got a 30-minute slot with him for one day in the Easter break, and we sat down in Sir Chris’ office in Building 37 – a modest room for a man of his grandeur. Immediately, it struck us that he was a thoroughly lovely man, which made it very hard to criticise him personally.

But nonetheless, we sat down with Snowden and we started with an obvious question: You were great at Surrey, why leave, and why Southampton? Firstly I really enjoyed my time at Surrey, it was a great group of people to work with and I enjoyed taking them on a 10-year journey,” he tells us sincerely.

Like most people, I love new challenges, he continues. I knew a lot about Southampton, as its quite close geographically yet has a totally different composition, different activities and wanted to come and do new things! I really loved my time at Surrey, and the pinnacle for me was of course winning University of the Year, and thats something I want to replicate here.”

That all sounds great, I’m sure that most of us wouldn’t mind saying we went to “the University of the year” but actions speak louder than words; so how is he going to achieve that?

“Ive already implemented a new strategy for the University, and thats being rolled out at the moment. The strategy that the University was following, called Vision 2020, was principally focused around growth, globalization and distinctiveness.” It genuinely doesn’t feel like meaningless rhetoric and buzzwords when he’s speaking – improving Southampton is a genuine passion of Sir Christopher. But what is the real reason for this desire, and is it only for the sake of pride – growing for growths’s sake?

 “Theres nothing wrong with that, but it doesnt necessarily set out a path to achieve these things, and growth on its own isnt necessarily a goal that you necessarily have to have. My approach therefore is going to be based around quality of literally everything you do, from the reception you get when visiting the University, so obviously the teaching, the delivery, the research, as well as the quality of the services we provide and the student experience.

“Its also going to be based on collegiality, which is our ability as a University to work together as a great community, as the truth is if you have happy staff and happy students, then youll achieve a lot more. Also sustainability – today the world of universities has changed, and the government funds universities much less than they used to, which means that we have to stand on our own two feet, and the evidence for that is if you look at all UK universities, their cash reserves are being challenged because the government no longer pays for the maintenance of the University so we have to become financially more sustainable, as we want to invest in new projects and the things we currently do, but also we need to be more environmentally sustainable because obviously universities need to be in the vanguard in that respect. In addition we need to be more socially sustainable as relationships between people and organisations can be improved all the time.

He also highlights the element of internationalisation, and at this point Sir Christopher emphasised that he said ‘internationalisation’ and not ‘globalisation’ because ‘globalisation has too much of an imperial flavour to it’.

Internationalisation really reflects the fact that we are an international university so that we should be engaging in all the things we do but possible slightly more strategically. We’ll do anything internationally but the problem is how you’re going to resource it and can you do it well enough, so the idea will be to probably be slightly more strategic, but actually put more effort into it rather than less, and that is very important to us. What does this mean, and where are we going with it? Well because I think it matters to the University to achieve this, not because of their own particular goals. I would aim to get us to be a sustainable top-10 University and we’re currently in the 14th-16th range so it doesn’t seem like a huge gap, but you do have to bear in mind that we’re a big university so things move at a steady pace. Also we aim to sustainably become a top 100 University worldwide. We’re already 81st in the recent QA rankings so we have good momentum there and we need to keep that up and the reason it matters is mostly because league tables themselves aren’t necessarily a great thing, it’s what lies behind them, so if things like the national league tables reflect our rising that means things like the student experience are improved.

While that all sounds great, and being a top-15 University is of course something to be proud of, we’re quick to point out to Sir Christopher that Southampton is currently 44th in the NSS rankings and 84th in the teaching excellence rankings. “Theyre key to improving our overall ranking” he states, “and I’m glad you’ve picked up on these because they are actually the stats that I’ve given to the staff because there is always a temptation in the Russell Group to overlook these.

“Look, 44th in the NSS isn’t good enough, but you have to remember that we’re working on a compressed scale. I took Surrey from 96th to 4th in the NSS table, so I’ve done it, and I know the journey we need to go on, but the distance between 44th and, say, 4th, isn’t very much – 10% would take us there but I certainly do not underestimate the effort that we need to make to get there.”

The Vice-Chancellor is clearly a man with a plan. But if he’s so keen for quality and not quantity, why are we taking so many more students, and therefore building so many more halls?

The University had planned for student accommodation long before I came, and it wasn’t my strategy to recruit more students. It’s been a long effort to improve the quality of student housing, and to recognise that the city feels the burden of students, so the university have the strategy of providing more student accommodation.

“I think is a good thing as you can provide quality accommodation, and there’s been over 1000 new rooms over the last 18 months, with a few more coming along in September. We’re also looking at how we can refresh existing student accommodation to make it newer and better, obviously.

“I think the expectations of students have, quite understandably, become more demanding over the last 15 years or so, so we have to refresh it. So there’s an element which is independent of student numbers which is to do with the quality of student accommodation and whether its value for money. Then on top of that as you said the University had grown – it’s interesting really, as if you look at the stats the numbers have gone up and down, so there actually isn’t many more students than there were in 2011. They fell away in Southampton over the next couple of years, and although the city thinks we’ve gone mad with student numbers we haven’t actually! My focus isn’t necessarily on the size. If we continue to be a high-quality institution we’ll continue to get high numbers of applications and by definition we’ll become bigger.”

“Increase the quality of the University” is an in interesting phrase. Is that just a euphemism for high-grade boundaries and entry tariffs? ‘Not necessarily’, according to Sir Christopher. its more complicated than that.

“Its more to do with the range we take. We have some students here who are A*A*A*, but we also have a wide range who achieve BBB, or sometimes less than that, and I think there are several issues here. I don’t want to give the impression that we’re just chasing number targets, it’s nothing to do with that.

“I think you have to look at the experience as a student you have within the group you’re working in because if you imagine a scenario with AAA students down to those with BBB, then that’s quite a big dynamic range in terms of at least achievement to secondary level, and you need to provide an environment that’s stimulating for the brightest students in the group and is achievable for the students who come in with lower grades.

“I strongly believe that University should be about maximizing the potential of its students, and if you accept somebody then in my view you have an obligation to do your best to help them succeed and graduate. My approach, even though it may look like it’s driven by the metric, isn’t actually – it’s driven by the people involved.”

 

Come back tomorrow for part two, where we’ll be discussing all matters to do with money with the Vice-Chancellor.

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Deputy Editor of the Wessex Scene for 2015/16. I often write News, Politics and Opinion pieces. As well as writing for the Scene I can be found in the Surge Radio studio, where I am the Head of News. Also, as I'm new to twitter and desperate, follow me!! @95moliver

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