Speaking With the Vice-Chancellor: ‘It’s Not Good Enough to Be Second-Rate; We Have to Offer the Very Best We Can”

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In our final installment of our 3-part series with the Vice-Chancellor, we speak to Sir Christopher about his relationship with students, with the Union and what’s next for Southampton. Make sure you check out parts 1 & 2 here and here.

PART THREE – The University’s Relationship with its Students.

Students are of course the most important part of any University – it’s how most of the staff wages get paid! Speaking to Sir Christopher, we got the impression that students are at the forefront of his vision, as without satisfied students you cannot have a top-quality University. We posed the obvious question to him: What is the University’s relationship with the Student Union like?

“I think we have a very good one, and it’s one of the things that is very important to me. I was very fortunate at Surrey to have a very good relationship where we worked quite well together on projects, and I met last year’s Sabbatical team before I started, and obviously I’ve worked with this year’s team, and I think we have a good relationship. They can bring issues and concerns to me to, so for example Shruti (2015/16 VP education) is really keen on looking at lecture issues, so looking at recording them and other aspects related to this.

“We’re trying to work and listen to them as it provides another relationship to students, so we can hear what matters most to people. Equally we’re keen to try ideas out, and play it back to see what the reaction is to them. So it’s very much a healthy partnership because we don’t want to stop the independence of the students’ union in any way but at the same time we want to work with them.”

The environment is of course a big concern to many, and many students submitted their questions to us concerning the University’s relationship with companies that are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Recent developments in this area have included the University divesting away from companies in the fossil fuel sector. We asked the Vice-Chancellor about the University’s attitude to sustainability, and whether it is viable to continue to move away from investing in fossil fuel companies.

“We don’t invest a huge amount in fossil fuels anyway, but some of our investments are in fund packages, so we would need to change the whole fund structure, and you always need to find something to invest it which is both ethical and sustainable – for example we don’t invest in British American Tobacco. A lot of ethical investments don’t generate huge sums, but having said that we actually have recently moved funds into an ethical investment fund so we are responsive to the concerns of students and the general environmental picture.

You have to bear in mind though that some of the fossil fuel companies are also the ones doing the most in reusable energy. For example I worked with BP some years ago and at the time they were the world leaders in solar cells. If you take the investment away, then they don’t have the funds to research. So these are the things we’re going to have to look at carefully in order to figure out how to get to the right place because I understand completely why people feel very strongly about this issue – I do. I think about my son’s future, and I don’t want the world to suffer an environmental catastrophe for obvious reasons!

The conversation now turns to a more controversial topic, and one that often provokes a reaction from many – freedom of speech. Earlier this year, controversy of a proposed conference over the legitimacy of the state of Israel made national news and resulted in a court challenge, despite the University’s positive reputation from embracing freedom of speech. We asked Sir Christopher whether not allowing a conference to be held on the state of Israel goes against Southampton’s positive reputation for freedom of speech.

“Firstly, I think the students’ union has done a really good job in working with the University to promote freedom of speech, and this is reflected in our number 1 ranking. But regarding the Israel conference, it’s quite complicated and there’s a limit to what I can say because there’s legal issues associated with the fallout from it. Firstly I can tell you that we utterly support freedom of speech and if you need any particular illustration in this area it was just before Christmas when the students’ union had a debate on Israel and it was very successful and we were very happy with it; the University was involved with it.

“It’s not to do with subjects or topics at all, but rather how things are organised and whether the appropriate Health and Safety measures were taken, whether security was done correctly, and in this case also whether it was financially viable. So it’s a complex series of reasons, but I can assure you that it’s not in any sense to do with the suppression of freedom of speech because that’s part of the reason Universities are here!”

We also asked him whether he thinks it still could happen.

Well it could do, we have no pre-position on it. I know it may not look it, but it’s absolutely the case, and it has been all along. There are only two elements of it – we are now governed by the law on this, through what’s called the prevent strategy, but that doesn’t stop it. The Israel debate at the Students’ Union was organised through this framework, and the other part of it is that we do have a policy on organizing events and conferences at the University which simply sets out that you have to be cognizant to the health & safety aspects of it, cognizant to the security (obviously a big issue today) and also it has to be financially viable; there’s no golden fund that’s going to come along and pick up the bill. It’s a mixture of those, and you have to show that you’ve organised it properly and you’ve taken care of all parts of it, which for example the Students’ Union did at their Israel debate.

We move one from one contentious issue to another which causes considerable debate: the pay gap between men and women. We challenged him on the point that women employed here earn 7% less on average than men.

“I’m aware of the difference but it varies, and let me say that since I’ve taken on being the Equality & Diversity champion I’ve been very aware of the issues we face, and we are tackling that. It’s complex, because you have to look at different groups of employees, and it certainly isn’t as simple as headlines will portray it. It depends on the group you’re looking at and why – if you want to fix something you have to disassemble it and have a look why.

“I genuinely think we’re getting thorough the bad old days of discrimination in terms of, for example, academics, where before if someone had a career break to say have a child, and then when they come back they would be removed from consideration for promotion because of a lack of publications. That’s gone, so now you will be evaluated on merit for any potential promotion. I can assure you that I am absolutely opposed to discrimination on any grounds, and we’re dealing with a situation where it’s a mixture of legacy and the fact that in some of the lower paid areas we predominately have women working. So there would be natural lower pay for women there, which would bring the average down.

“That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s acceptable, because we have to look at what we need to do to provide career progression opportunities, so that is one of the key things we are looking at. This issue of lower average pay for women is something that we’re aware of, and I can assure you that this is something that I don’t find acceptable.”

During Sir Christopher’s tenure at the University of Surrey, the politics department there came close to ceasing to exist, and during his All-Staff address earlier this academic Christopher noted that some departments would need to considerably improve. We asked him whether abolishing these under-achieving departments would be an option, especially as Southampton has a history of this, having abolished its sports science course back in 2010.

“Not as a starting point! Having been round the University, and I’ve now visited most departments, I can see that this is a phenomenal University, and I think that we have a really good array of subject areas which in my view is very important for a University and I haven’t changed my view at all. The challenge we have is that we have to recognise two things really: are we achieving our goals in terms of quality, and are we achieving it sustainably?

“You can only subsidise so many subject areas. Some you have to subsidise due to the very nature of them, and that the government funding of some subjects is very poor. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that typically arts and humanities won’t receive as much funding as STEM subjects do. This means that we have to look at the quality issues that we’ve touched upon earlier, and whether we can afford the structure we’ve got. I don’t have any specific reasons about this other to say that we aren’t operating to a poor level, but we’ve demonstrated in some subjects here in Southampton that we can achieve significant improvements over very short time periods anyway, and Archaeology and Film are great examples.

“Looking at Surrey, the issue was based around quality. I’m an evidence-driven person and if you look at the stats there, it wasn’t in a great place. I was the one actually saying we shouldn’t close it, but I was saying that they had to do something to improve it because the subject was losing a lot of money, they have done, and they’re doing fine now. The thing is, you have to face up to facts – the quality of the student experience really matters to me and in particular the education that the students get, and it’s not good enough to be second-rate, we should offer the very best we can, and that drives me very strongly too, so that’s one of the big factors there.

We concluded our 30-minute meeting with Sir Christopher with a nice, open-ended question: If you have one thing you want to achieve in however long you plan to stay here, what would that be?

“Having one thing is very difficult! It’s worth saying that I’m very focussed around people, and that’s very important to me. If there’s one thing I want to do for Southampton I would like to firmly place it amongst the very best UK Universities, and I’ve put it that was because to get there means that we would have created a fantastic thing here at the University, and for everybody in the University community, as we couldn’t possibly be in the top 10 otherwise. Because I can only have one thing I’d pick that because it’d mean tat we’d be achieving all our other goals, such as having a great student experience, a great environment for staff to work in that’s very collegiate and at the same time we’d continue the great research that’s taken place. This is a fantastic University, and I want to see us only getting better!”

Our initial impressions of Sir Christopher were of how nice he was, as well as his ability to answer all our questions thoroughly whilst acknowledging problems that still need to be faced. It was a real privilege to have the opportunity to interview such an approachable and knowledgeable person.Now that Sir Christopher’s first year as Vice-Chancellor is over, it will be intriguing to see how he fares in the coming years, and whether he can replicate the success he had at Surrey here in Southampton.

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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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