On Monday 26th February in response to a student occupation, the Vice-Chancellor (VC) Sir Christopher Snowden came and spoke with us. After pressing him on issues ranging from student representation, pensions cuts and maintenance loans to his influence and pay, I gained a renewed and broader perspective than expressed in my previous article, which explained the origins of the crisis and focused on democracy and local controls as a solution to prevent future cuts. Here, I will outline and explain some key moments in the conversation and how this helped reach a two-fold, renewed solution that should be adopted nationally to the currents cuts crisis.
While holding the VC to account in building 37 where his office resides, we prompted some crucial revelations. Snowden suggested that to keep the current USS defined benefits pension scheme “would cost this university 9 million pounds, and to do that we would have to make cuts elsewhere”, that “the cake is the same size”. On the suggestion that the pensions scheme “could be covered by increases in both employers and employee’s contribution levels and return them to the 1997 levels”, Snowden responded “The 1997 levels would have to go to 12 million, from this university, and the employees would have to contribute another 40% which is a lot from them, so, my point is, if we could, we would”. He continually professed an anti-cuts stance saying, “I spoke on Friday at the UUK meeting about the fact that as employers, first of all, we have a moral obligation to have the best possible pension scheme we can have”.
In a way I agree with him. If we assume his claims are correct, that it’s simply a matter of costs and if the defined pensions scheme could be kept then it would be, then we must ask why the funding to do this isn’t available?
Snowden admitted that “universities are not public sector so the government doesn’t underwrite it so we have to bring the money in from other sources. About half of the money at Southampton comes from, in one way or another, the taxpayer or student fees… And the other half comes from a wide variety of other sources”, by which he means private companies like BAE systems.
After saying “student fees don’t cover the cost of the education for the UK/EU students… [and that]my view is that the government itself should realise that there is a social benefit in having education anyway and shouldn’t rely so heavily on fees”, he was asked “could you then use your position and influence other management personnel to call publicly for the government to fund universities rather than us having to?” He said he had done this when he was president of Universities UK (UUK) and to the question “Why do you think it’s not changed then?” he gave the most crucial response:
Well because the governments don’t want to… Last week I met with the new minister to call for, or remind them, for the umpteenth time, that they should have maintenance grants not maintenance loans… Putting it bluntly, this shows that we have had successive governments that haven’t put higher education as a priority on their agenda, which my view is they should… I have met with the prime minister to make these points plain, I’ve had a difference in opinion with David Cameron in the early days.
He said governments had “transferred the… support for higher education to students from the government” and to the charge that he’s “literally being forced to implement these measures? There’s nothing you can actually do?”, he answered: “Yes… absolutely”.
This to me, is the crux of the discussion. He conceded “we don’t have the local controls” and admitted he was powerless over the pensions cuts. His comments tell us the problem is one of central government and its lack of education funding since the 1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act.. This created student loans and tuition fees and led to the corporatization of universities which now rely on deals with private companies and ever-increasing personal debt from students for funding. As the burden is pushed on students and austerity pushed on staff, we have seen corporation tax reduce further from the 83% of the 70’s to 30% in the 90’s and 19% currently, one of the lowest rates in Europe amid soaring global wealth inequality when nearly three-quarters of the world’s adults own under $10,000 and this 71% holds only 3% of global wealth, as well as 8 people owning as much wealth as the poorest 50% of humanity. On the local level in 2017 the wage ratio between an average FSTE 100 CEO when compared to all UK employees was 160:1 and 60 of the FTSE 100 CEOs earn more than 100 times the UK average salary.
The message from our VC’s comments is clear: We need a two-fold solution – a change of government policy nationally to fund education and end austerity, combined with local democratic controls to prevent future cuts. If our VC is indeed being forced to impose cuts but genuinely wishes for the best possible pensions scheme for staff, maintenance grants and local controls, he should be held to account and encouraged to act on his words. If austerity is going to have to happen then it’s unquestionable that those earning the highest (like our VC paid over £400k) should face pay cuts to save money before staff and students are affected. But to end and prevent future cuts we need a new movement that combines a national and local approach to end the marketization of education with our VC joining the 17 other VC’s who called publicly to end the pensions dispute, and pressure them to lobby the government for policy changes to end austerity using the richest who can well afford to pay.
This is our Vice-Chancellor, this is what we unify over – this is our restructure.