Photo: flickr/ Warwick Economics; slider photo: Warwick Media Library

Q&A interview with vice-chancellor Nigel Thrift

Media societies – the Boar, Radio at Warwick (RaW) and Warwick TV (WTV) – interviewed Warwick University vice-chancellor Nigel Thrift on Thursday 15 May.

The question and answer session was attended by News editor Ann Yip, Features editor Rami Abusamra, RaW head of news Ed Clark, and WTV joint webmasters Josh McNamee and Amar Dhokia.

Prof. Thrift began the session urging students to participate in the development of the University: “We want to hear from all parts of the community about where we ought to be going next as a university. Students, please participant in the Strategy; there’s opportunities to do so online and meetings etc. If you don’t, you can’t then complain if the University goes in a different direction.”

The questions and answers are seen below. Discussion topics included:


WTV:     Mr Thrift, you have in the past associated yourself with the left-wing tradition. Is that still a movement you consider yourself associated with?
THRIFT:  Does [being vice-chancellor of a Russell Group University] automatically make me not part of the left?… I’m not a member of the left who states principles and doesn’t go farther than that. I’m interested in doing things… It’s a nice cosy position where you simply state your principles and say anyone who doesn’t agree with it should disappear off the planet. But it doesn’t work that way when you’re running the University, you’re involved necessarily in making decisions that are not going to satisfy everybody.

Democratic accountability of the University Council

RAW:  You mentioned earlier how students should contribute to the University Strategy, yet the University Council, which makes decisions that impact students’ lives, is not elected by students.
THRIFT:  Not everything about the University is completely a thing in democracy and it’s not going to be. There are all sorts of decisions that are going to be difficult to vote on, and unsafe to vote on.The Council is meant to be representative of the general community, which is why there are academics and students on it. The students are there to convey what the students’ views are. Student representation on the Council and at the University is actually quite high compared to most universities. When I came here from Oxford, I was amazed that the Students’ Union (SU) president was on the main managing committee.
BOAR (Rami):  But how is the Council meant to be representative of the general community when, of its 26 members, two are students, six are women, none are ethnic minorities, and as far as I know, no openly LGBT or GSRM members?
THRIFT:  … We have actually had ethnic minority members on the Council, but we don’t have any at the moment. That’s something we have to get right and it’s not right yet….I don’t disagree with the tenor of what you are saying. It’s rather more different to what you might think to get people you need at this level. I don’t think we have any deep aversion to having any people from any of these communities on the Council, but it takes a while to do and the registrar is striving hard.

Tuition fees

BOAR (Ann):  In your last interview, you mentioned that there would be no rise in tuition fees because of the fee cap. But fees for non-EU or postgraduate students are marketised to the inflation rate; next year, their fees will increase 4.5 percent. What do you think of this?
THRIFT:  I can see no prospect of Home/EU fees increasing. I saw a thing recently where the Russell Group was saying it ought to increase, but it’s just not going to happen. One university vice-chancellor said that [they wanted to charge higher fees] and everyone assumed that everyone else must think that. It just isn’t going to happen. Indeed, there is the prospect that tuition fees might go down if the Labour Party get into power.Yes, fees for overseas students are higher. The only thing we can do is to offer more scholarships and we are doing that.

At the same time, the University isn’t a golden bottomless chest of money, and therefore have to make decisions about allocations of funding. We are aware of these things and in an ideal world, you’d do a lot of things differently, but you can’t. I’m the accounting officer of the University, I have to make sure the books balance.

UCU pay dispute, No More Page 3, Fossil Free Warwick

RAW:  With the marking boycott that has been recently settled, do you agree with using students’ academic futures as leverage in the pay dispute?
THRIFT:   Let’s be careful about this. We’re tilling old ground in the sense that the dispute has been settled and it’s been settled in most cases with an 80 percent vote for those accepting the pay-rise. In that sense, the argument goes away pretty straightforwardly.Having said that, on a personal level, I’m not sure it’s terribly appropriate to use students in that way and one might prefer that that doesn’t happen.
BOAR (Ann):  Going back to the issue with women, there was controversy earlier this year when the University compared Page 3 to naked calendars. I was just wondering what your opinion was.
THRIFT: Some things in life are genuinely dilemmas. Page 3 is quite a good example. On one side, quite rightly, a lot of women say that they feel demeaned. On the other side, you have a problem that once you start stopping publications in universities, you really are in some difficulty. There are bound to be people who think one thing or the other.Our view is that you shouldn’t buy it if you feel that it is demeaning people. It’s as straightforward as that.
BOAR (Ann):  Considering the University’s commitment to sustainable development, what is their stance towards Fossil Free Warwick whose aim is to have the University divest £1 million from the fossil fuel industry?
THRIFT:   That is going to be an ongoing discussion. It turns out to be much more complicated than it looks. We work mainly through funds which have all kinds of companies within them, and finding ones completely pure in the way that one might wish is not possible. So one needs to think that through.

University finances and student satisfaction

RAW:   Your goals and strategies talk about the financial situation universities are facing, but it also highlights the millions of pounds being invested into new structures around campus. How is the University planning to offset these two things?
THRIFT:   …The University has always surmounted [its financial challenges]… Having said that, the only way we can produce buildings in one form or another is from our own resources. One of the reasons why we are trying to carry a surplus of some size is because that’s the way we pay for these buildings, and these buildings involve a lot of student facilities.We’ve invested over the last year about £4 million in just sprucing up facilities. This autumn, we will start the new Teaching and Learning Centre, £15 million at least, and a series of things because we’re aware that students want better facilities. But I’m not trying to make out that this is easy to do because it isn’t. We as a university effectively have to earn our own way.
WTV:  On the issue of your pay-rise, do you not think that this gives the wrong impression of you and the university to students?
THRIFT: My pay is not actually something that I have control over. That’s something that is involved with the renumeration committee at the University. My answer is, go and ask the head of the renumeration committee.
RAW:  On league tables, Warwick has never fared particularly well in terms of student satisfaction. Is there a reason that you can attribute this to?
THRIFT:  I’m very very proud of the teaching at this University. We have some of the best academics in the world, really the best, and, that’s not the case in other universities… I think that [the teaching at Warwick is] better than what some of the students might actually realise because they don’t have comparators with other universities.And we’re not like some universities; we don’t go around indoctrinating people into the University being absolutely fantastic, we preach students as adults who can make their own mind up.


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