Speaking With the Vice-Chancellor: “The Government Needs to Look at Maintenance Funding For Students and Universities”

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Earlier this year Wessex Scene sat down for a thorough chat with Sir Christopher Snowden, the Vice-Chancellor. In part two of our 3-part series, he discusses all things money, what he thinks of Westminster’s attitude to University funding and big questions over halls of residence. Be sure to check out part 1 of our interview here.

Part 2: Money Matters

Money, or rather the lack of it, is one of the biggest concerns listed by students. The current student loans system puts a lot of students in a position where their maintenance loan doesn’t cover their rent. In particular, this often occurs when students are in halls – where the fees are sky-high and there’s currently a push towards more premium accommodation. We asked Christopher why he’s doing this. “The University’s very sensitive to what the level of hall fee funding is because we’re not trying to make a profit, we’re trying to provide a service,” he tells us, and you can really see the businessman in him here.

“But equally we’ve got to make sure there’s enough money coming in for the maintenance otherwise we’ll end up in a situation where things are just getting worse – for example every so often the kitchens need to be renewed and every now and then the showers need to be redone. Also, we’re talking about embarking on major maintenance of Wessex Lane over the next few years.” 

This maintenance will involve the demolition of the South Stoneham Tower and and expansion of the complex. In addition, the University has bought up land close to Southampton Airport. As well as this, a proposed expansion of the University Campus has been given planning permission and is scheduled to be completed by 2020.

University of Southampton
University of Southampton

When you build a new residence, it actually doesn’t make much difference within reason the type of room you have; we’ve had some discussions as to whether we build en suites or rooms with communal bathrooms. There actually isn’t a huge difference because by the time you’ve built the communal bathrooms it works out nearly as much as putting the bathrooms into the rooms themselves, but there’s a big difference over whether you can use them in the summer for conferences. These conferences can help offset the cost of the fees, and you actually want to use the room as much as possible as it helps you keep the cost down.

The problem is you can’t build what I’ve described as new cheap accommodation, as even if you take all the frills out you’re still left with a room that probably cost you £40,000 to build, whereas if you build with an en suite it’ll probably cost you £50,000 and, if you look over the life of the room, the cost difference won’t be that much.

That seems like a very reasonable logic, but still doesn’t help students who are struggling financially. Does that mean the government needs to review maintenance funding? “Yes,” Snowden says.

They need to look at maintenance funding for both students and the universities themselves. Governments throughout time have been awful at this – if you go back to the 80’s, Universities used to have windows falling out it was so bad, in the 90’s they put a lot of money in to us and over the ten years from then things improved. But now funding’s stopped again totally, so it’s now been put on the University to generate a big enough surplus – not a profit as all money generated goes back into the University – so we can pay for the maintenance, but you’re right, the government looking at the whole system would help a lot, so we don’t have to pass too much cost onto students.

Whilst Snowden is talking passionately, we gently remind him that as head of Universities UK, he pledged to increase tuition fees.

“The challenge we have is that the fee was fixed in 2010, and there has been no change since then, but all of the costs to Universities have continued to go up, such as salary costs, (we spend 55% of all our income on this) which have of course continued to go up by 2-3% per year, which, after a few years, is quite a big shift, but the income have remained constant. So with increasing expenditure, something has to give. So surpluses have gone down which, although on the face of it might seem like a bad thing, you have to remember that that same pot now has to pay for the maintenance of the University, which in turn puts pressure on any potential new investments, even for things like new computers. And so what I’d campaigned for would be to have the cap lifted which would essentially allow fees to rise in line with inflation.”

Again, when phrases it like that it makes sense. But we all know that upping the costs from the student end would have the potential be off-putting to potential students from poorer backgrounds – would it not be better to campaign the government to provide more funding?

We did, and we do!” he declared.

“You’re quite right though, and can go one of two ways, and you have to remember that I’m not campaigning for fees, I’m campaigning to fund the University. You’ve got to look at it from this way: if we don’t do this, something has to give, and I’m not willing to let things get worse, so we’ve got to think about how we address that, so the truth is that if fees were to go up by just a few percent it wouldn’t make a tangible difference – let’s be wild, and imagine a 10% increase: £9000 to £9900 isn’t a massive difference overall, but it might make a difference, for example, to how many tutors you’ve got, or what state the library is, and other things like that because if we multiply these relatively small increases by everyone in the University then that is a lot of money, and if we don’t raise this money, I’ve got to look bluntly to see where we can cut costs which isn’t ideal.

“We campaign all the time to get funding from the government and we compete to get competitive funding, but we go beyond that. We also raise money through philanthropy, so we have a student hardship fund which is supported by that, we’ve raised money to build our new cancer immunology centre at the General Hospital and we go to companies to help support students through, for example, bursaries or scholarships.

“We try and take a broad-based approach, and we’re very sensitive actually to the cost to students are high so Southampton has a colossal amount of funding available in bursaries and scholarships, but I think we could do a better job publicising it!

“We literally spend many millions on bursaries and scholarships, which is a good thing, as how do we help people not be put off doing their degree? Is paying fees worth it? Absolutely – it’s life chances really, and it’s a special sort of debt in that if you don’t earn enough, you don’t pay it off, and the £21,000 is a living threshold which makes the system nicer than it first seems.”

University of Southampton

It is all well and good to campaign for extra funding, but in many Universities there is a colossal amount of waste and inefficiencies. We challenge Sir Christopher on the point that maybe the University could look at its own infrastructure to reduce inefficiencies and save money.

“If you look at environmental waste, we recycle a colossal amount which we sell to get money back in so for example there is very little that is thrown away on campus that isn’t recycled, but also we’re interested in and very conscious about wasting time and resources doing things that may not need doing and/or aren’t productive.

“We’re always challenging ourselves about whether we should be doing something, or whether it makes sense. Have we bought the right soft of software when looking at business systems that run the University – can we we have fewer of these that perform better? So we’re always challenging ourselves. The last thing you need to do is waste money on things that are not needed.

“One of the things we need to do is renewing old buildings because they are huge users of energy and the older ones are not very efficient. We do upgrade older buildings to reduce wastage and money lost in the long run – going back to the residences, we’ve been re-insulating the walls and installing double glazing, which also makes them frankly more pleasant to live in!”

So that concludes part two of our interview with the Vice-Chancellor. Come back tomorrow for the third and final part, where, amongst other things, we examine the University’s relationship with its students.

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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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