University of Southampton Vice-Chancellor, Don Nutbeam responded to student queries at a special Question Time style event on Friday afternoon, dealing chiefly with questions regarding the implications of the Browne Report and Comprehensive Spending Review on the future of the University.
In the Cube that was far from full, the VC, flanked by Student Union President Billy Fitzjohn and VP Academic Affairs Rob Stanning, spoke of his belief that higher education is a public good and that he has never personally backed a rise in tuition fees. However being faced with a situation where the government is taking away around a third of the funding received, university bankruptcy would be the result if there were not an increase in fees. He did however express a hope that in the future such rises could be reversed as and when public finances allow. He also emphasised the ongoing contention and debate between government ministers across the coalition about the measures, whom he says he is in frequent contact with, and emphasised the need now more than ever for students to make their voices heard about the direction that they want modern higher education to take.
Dealing with financial matters, the VC explained that funding cuts facing universities was the per-student grant component, which equates to around 35% of the funds received. In financial terms this is understood to be around £32-34 million. He explained that STEM subjects (sciences, technology, engineering and medicine) receive an extra grant to reflect the higher teaching costs and that this would remain, so degree costs should remain consistent. He offered the explanation that, in the future, funding will be primarily ‘demand led’, and that the funding will follow the student into whatever subject they choose to study. This would mean that STEM subjects would not see subsequent increases in university funding focus necessarily, as long as other subject areas continued to be demanded. The suggestion here was that universities will have to look hard at their courses on offer and if needed to cut courses where the demand levels were unsustainably low, although he stressed that at present no courses are being considered for this.
When pressed on which courses were most at risk now he stated that he did not currently have that information. He also highlighted that certain subject areas are considered ‘vitally important’ and as such would be protected even during periods of low demand, citing the example of low levels of physics students in certain years in the past.
Regarding a fees cap, the VC explained that he felt there were likely to be two levels of cap, one of which would be around £6000 and the other somewhat higher, although a tuition fee of £12,000 would in his opinion be ‘infeasible’. The £6000 figure would however not ‘come close’ to replacing the levels of funding being lost. This is likely to concern many prospective students fearing the £7000 and upwards fee levels discussed in the media, although it is his understanding that as per the Browne recommendation, courses would continue to be free at the point of use via the loans system.
On the subject of loans, he spoke of his lack of support for the suggested Lib-Dem policies which are insisting everyone would be required to make use of the loans system (rather then being able to pay up front with private funds) and preventing people from paying back the whole loan shortly after graduating, believing them to be overly intrusive.
The questions put to the VC highlighted at times a level of general confusion or lack of awareness in the student body about university policies or offerings. He stressed that students already on courses at the university will not have to pay the increased rate, whatever that turns out to be, in a ‘finish how you started’ style policy.
Only those new students entering the university in 2012 would pay the higher rate, something that seems to be true for most universities and seems sure to contribute to a huge surge in applications for places starting in 2011, the last year before the rise. It was also revealed that every year the funds allocated by the university for bursaries and financial aid for students are not fully taken up.
Rob Stanning highlighted the results of a recent student survey where around 75% of those who responded had ‘little or no understanding’ of the bursaries system and financial hardship funds that may be available to them. In the future it seems likely that these allocations will need far greater uptake, both to justify their existence and to help undergraduates.
Responding to a question about international students, the VC said that he didn’t see a rise in international student fee levels as inevitable as the impact would be on home students. It is also important to maintain the standing and competitiveness of the university in the global education market. The higher cost for international students was justified by pointing out that the families of home students have already contributed to the running of the university via the tax system. The VC also discussed the contact universities had foreign governments to try and encourage more provision for scholarships so that those from poorer backgrounds are still able to study abroad. There will, however, be an impact on the fee levels for EU students and a seemingly inevitable impact on the competitiveness of British universities within the union, although this extent of this is unclear at present.
Closing with questions about university expansion, the VC stated that he had come from a 50,000 person university and did not intend that for Southampton. And that while expansion was desirable, in part to make up for the need for funding from tuition fees, it would need to be staggered and following development of the campus and university accommodation, which needs to address issues for example, of demand for specific kinds of desirable accommodation. Speaking of his ambitions for the university now that he has been in the role for just over a year, he explained that he was confident the university could continue to prosper and advance, and remain important within the Russell Group.
The questioning dealt with a wide range of topics within the field of university finances, but rarely probed too deeply or posed particularly tough challenges for the VC to respond to. The room was furthermore far from capacity, with seemingly no more then 40 students at any point, despite the importance and relevance of the topics being discussed and the event being advertised both online and with adverts on campus.
It is potentially concerning that at this point in time; where student participation and need for a voice seems more important then ever (a point emphasised at numerous times by the VC) there is an apparent lack of interest in attending opportunities to directly question the public face of university administration.
The SU is running coaches to the national student demo in London against fees on November 10th, it remains to be seen what the uptake on this will be. Speaking after the session the VC expressed his desire to see more of this style of questioning event in future, as he is keen to stay in touch with students and gauge their opinions. In his own words, ‘everything is still to play for’.
The Wessex Scene was blogging live during the event, the transcript for which can be found here: http://www.wessexscene.co.uk/news/