For this academic year’s interview with the University of Warwick’s vice-chancellor, Stuart Croft, The Boar asked the professor about topical issues in higher education and the University, such as Brexit, accommodation problems, the group chat incident, and Warwick’s future.
Having spoken out against essay mills, do you think universities should take a more active role against them?
We do a lot of work to check for signs of plagiarism. We’re quite clear in terms of penalties. I’m not sure we can do this as an individual institution.
There is going to be a few more activities to try and get a focus on this. Hopefully, the government can take it as something they need to take some responsibility for as well, rather than saying universities can solve it all on their own.
Nationwide, for mental health, student suicides are on the rise. Should universities do more, and if so, how can Warwick contribute?
At Warwick, we’ve put in more investment into the mental health provisions support, and we are doing a lot of work around suicide-safe universities. Someone new is coming to oversee that, who has a lot of experience within the sector but also beyond the sector.
I think the minister’s contributions haven’t been terribly helpful. Universities UK [UUK] have done a lot of work in this area, partly due to the terrible events seen at Bristol University. The UUK are looking at other sectors and possibly other countries as well.
We need to bring together one clear and visible strategy that we can adopt. The fundamental problem is that nobody has an extremely clear explanation as to why the mental health challenges of the contemporary generations are increasing.
This academic year, SU President Liam Jackson described the University struggle with student accommodation as a “crisis”. Last year, after similar incidents, you told The Boar that you felt the University had over-provided to prevent the same problems again, so what would you say the issue was this year?
Last year was very much about the total provision – we over-provided nomination agreements that we have with private sector providers. For postgraduates, there was an absolute guarantee that there will be a bed for them somewhere.
This year, we didn’t have a crisis. We planned ahead, that if more students turned up than we expected, we would use the Felden conference centre.
We had an extraordinary change last year, there were more student applications than ever before in every single category – more British, EU, and international applicants. For the postgraduate applications, we had a 25% increase.
We wanted to be open and provide fair access to students while managing the numbers.By the time we got to Welcome Week, in terms of undergraduate numbers, we were 0.2% over the target we had set. By the end of that week, that had increased to 4% over the target.
Student behaviour is also changing – it’s less predictable. A lot of the algorithms that we had set to try to work out are needing to be looked at again. We have a project coming out for that this year. We’re working towards giving the accommodation to students that we said we would.
Regarding the group chat incident, whilst many students were horrified, some criticised the media for invading a private conversation. Do you agree?
Private chat very rarely stays private. Private social media spaces amplify things, and there are people who are going to check. Frankly, anybody who assumes that any kind of social media isn’t going to go public is deluding themselves. It is only a matter of time. None of these things will ever stay private because it involves people.
So, I think that the distinction in this sense is quite a false one. If you did not intend to say something in public, maybe don’t say it in private, because it could become public. You should be consistent as to who you are, in terms of being authentic as a person.
Vice-chancellors seek to secure a financial basis for universities. Will this task become more difficult in light of Brexit?
Brexit is a disaster. The catastrophe option, of course, is the “no deal” option. In terms of research projects, 16 million pounds a year is spent on them, and there’s a lot of people and jobs that depend on that. They would be absolutely at risk.
The government says they will invest some money in the short term, but we don’t know what the position will be in terms of fees for students in the rest of the European Union (EU). The government says we can just charge international fees – we don’t want to do that. We want to keep the same basis, because we have fabulous numbers of students coming in from the EU, and we want to support that.
We are also absolutely committed to students who go on Erasmus exchanges, which will fall away in a “no deal” scenario. It would be phenomenally hard – there will be a lot of resources that we will need for staffing, for redeveloping relationships with all of our partners.
The main problem is about the relationships we have with the rest of Europe, as a European country, as a European university. We cannot have those connections broken, or even put at risk, frankly, by what the government is doing at the moment.
We’re working very hard to put together an application for a European university network, officially called a Macron network, which is about trying to get a relatively small number of universities to work much more closely together and learn from each other.
We’re cultivating these measures to deal with Brexit because the fundamental problem is we are a European university
– Stuart Croft
The first university is University Paris Seine, which is a conglomeration of a number of institutions. What the French are doing at the moment is that they’re putting a lot of their universities, and higher education institutes together into new super-institutions. Paris Seine is the one we are collaborating with, and we’ve also already got some joint fellowships with them.
Second is Vrije Universiteit Brussel. We’re looking to have a joint institute with them, we’re looking into have joint programs with them, there are research programs as well.
We’ve also now got to an agreement with University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, which helps us as a university to connect to the west of Balkans, which will be a really important part of Europe in the next few years, and in the next decade certainly. Ljubljana is highly ranked, very international, and a great place actually to have collaborations with.
We’re looking to get more universities involved in the network, from other parts of Europe as well. It will not replace full membership of the EU because nothing can replace full membership of the EU. But it is something we can commit ourselves to, to maintaining a European identity.
We’re cultivating these measures to deal with Brexit because the fundamental problem is we are a European university. We have to stay part of Europe.
Should tuition fees rise, will the value for money of university decrease? Will services improve, or are students paying more or the same quality of education?
The Universities Minister and government perceives “value for money” in terms of postgraduate salary. Warwick scores very highly, because we have brilliant, very successful graduates.
I don’t accept that as the definition for “value for money”. It is much more about the journey that you are all on, about good degrees, and good jobs afterwards.
As a university, we don’t want to be completely commodified. Students coming from Europe should all be treated in the same way because we’re a European community. I don’t have much confidence that this government, at this time, shares that view.
There is this big review that Philip Augar is putting on at the moment, which clearly comes out of the Labour party’s offer to turn fees to zero. In fact, the Labour party’s position is more sophisticated than that, because what they’re saying is the student doesn’t pay, the state will pay.
We know that this is a system used in many other countries and it’s going to cost them – including their commitments on maintenance grants – 11 billion. Where there are concerns is, first of all, where that 11 billion is coming from, and the second thing is inflation increase per year, which was experienced by universities through the 80’s and 90’s when the government paid for everything.
Over a period of 20 years, teaching resources has since radically declined, which is why we have moved towards the fees regime. People then say to the Labour Party, “well, 11 billion, you might find it now, but what happens in 2025, what happens in 2030?”
Actually, I think they’ve got quite good answers to where they will go from there. In contrast, the government has set up a review, which is looking at the whole of post-18 education – I think that’s a really good thing.
Students coming from Europe should all be treated in the same way because we’re a European community
– Stuart Croft
Why would you look at higher education in one space, further education in a different space, apprenticeships in yet another space? But a lot of what is coming from the government at the moment is that money will be cut from the headline fee from universities, and some of that money will be moved to other parts of further education, while the money cut will not be made up by government teaching grants.
If that’s the case, depending on the scale of it, there are major financial implications for universities. So one tentative number that floats around is £6,500. Students will have to pay £6,500 through the Student Loans Company.
But universities do not get the fee made up from £6,500 and, indeed, this is a flat line, so in time, as inflation increases, the value of that declines. That would have a massive financial implication for universities.
For universities that are very heavily dependent financially on undergraduate British and European students, it could have a catastrophic impact. If suddenly you lose one third of your income, it is quite hard to imagine how you would cope with that.
As a university, we’re in a very different place – only half of our income comes from all student fees, and that which would be affected would be much smaller, so we are not facing any kind of existential threat.
But of course, it would mean that we would have to reschedule quite a lot of our plans, were we in that position. So, the fear that universities have at the moment is about what the Augar report might do, and what government might do with it, much more so than what the Labour Party is saying.
I think that is 100% different from this time last year, when universities were worried about what the Labour Party was saying, and not so much about what the government was saying, and it could all change again in a year!
With regards to the recent higher education pay dispute, 71% of those who returned their ballot papers at Warwick – which equated to 261 members of staff – voted in favour of strike action. However, the turnout was 36.1%, which was not hitting the threshold. The UCU [University and College Union] have expressed that they feel that this result and turnout exemplifies how trade union laws frustrate national support for strike action and pay. Do you agree, and do you think more should be done at Warwick?
I’d say, for Warwick, 261 is not a very large number of people to come to vote for a strike which would have very significant impacts across institutions.
The broader point is about pay, and pay levels. This dispute is not just limited to the UCU – employers as a whole were unable to come to an agreement with trade unions.
Right now, there is massive uncertainty across the whole of higher education, because of Brexit and its financial implications.
A resolution to the pensions dispute will be more expensive for employers. We also have to consider the review the government commissioned to look at fee levels and funding for universities.
Each of these problems have financially negative consequences. There absolutely are universities in this country that worry about becoming bankrupt, that frankly really struggle to pay the 2%. Warwick is not one.
A low number of staff returned their ballot papers. Would you say this is voting fatigue?
No, I think a lot of staff actually understand the wider financial context. It is very hard to see a radical change in pay, before the pensions position is decided. As there is no agreement at the moment, USS trustees have invoked their emergency mechanism – to ensure that employers and employees are contributing enough to keep the system alive.
Currently, we have been paying 18% of some people’s salary into pension, and that will increase to 24.9% in 18 months. That’s six plus per cent of extra costs, which is seven to 10 million pounds more, depending on institution size.
The people who have the opportunity to vote have paid a lot of attention to the pensions dispute, and are well aware of money involved. Therefore, we’re actually quite a knowledgeable electorate.
It’s so important that we get a resolution, and accept the resolution that protects benefits on pensions, in the next few months.
Where do you see the University in five years’ time and do you still see yourself as vice-chancellor then?
Yes to the second part! [laughs.] We don’t know about Brexit, fees, and all the rest of it, but we are confident that the direction of travel of this institution is a positive one.
We’re also becoming more at ease with ourselves as an institution. Our education strategy is evolving, and courses involving student input and co-creation is a massive part, since we are required to listen quite hard to student voices.
Moreover, there’s a lot going on to decolonise the curriculum, which is fantastic and non-confrontational. Decolonising it is simply saying, ‘actually, who are the really important people who have done things, which aren’t on the reading list at the moment?’
The commitments to the University from our community is definitely highly appreciated
– Stuart Croft
Building further our popularity and making it interdisciplinary is a really important future driver for us, along with creating much more undergraduate research opportunities. Last year, we received the highest amount of research income for our university, which is a fantastic thing.
The quality and international impact of the University has also been incredibly strong. The acceptance and support in our region has never been greater, and that’s because we are of a size where we are a major employer, and we have characteristics that people really appreciate. We do not do zero hour contracts or outsourcing, and we pay living wage foundation rates.
The commitments to the University from our community is definitely highly appreciated. These are all on really strong foundations, despite the nonsense around us.