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Stuart Croft: “Meritocracy and social justice are so part of the Warwick DNA”

In the Boar‘s annual interview with the Vice-Chancellor, Stuart Croft tackles some of the tough questions facing Warwick at the moment including: Brexit, diversity and mental health.

What does Brexit mean for the University?
It’s not good. The trouble of course is that we don’t know what Brexit means yet. What it has meant so far is we have significant numbers of staff, both academic and non-academic, who are non-British EU passport holders, many of whom are thinking about what their future should be. I’ve been trying to do little bits of work around the government now to emphasise the obvious thing that the government should be saying to people that have come to this country to work: “Thank you for coming, thank you for choosing Britain; we want you to stay. It is really important what you do for our country, for our society and for our economy.” We haven’t heard it yet. I am hopeful that part of the puzzle will be resolved before we get into negotiations, but you never know.

Some universities have gone further down the line where they have said to staff that they will help them with advice on how to become British citizens. I am really keen that Warwick resists that, because I think it is the wrong thing for us to say to people: “You’re French, you’ve chosen to be French, but now I want you to be British and I will be part of making you British.” If the whole thing changes and it becomes much more difficult, and it looks like people might be forced out, that’s a different situation. But for the moment we have to hang on to the principle that it’s a really good thing if a university is international, including people from the EU.

What is Warwick’s plan to aid those who need mental health support?
A hugely important question; it’s a central thing we’re thinking about at the moment. There’s been a growing increase in number of students with mental health challenges, which has been very well documented. It has now come to the moment where universities need to invest and respond. I don’t have a blue-print now, but there will be more money and more people employed in this space. We need mental health to be a top-level concern.

You’ve been very vocal recently on the topic of sexual violence on campus – what are the next concrete steps you and the team are taking under the zero-tolerance stance?
I had a meeting with CRASAC (Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre) and we’re talking with them over whether one of their independent advisers could be, should be, or even ought to be, placed at the University or the Students’ Union. We’re trying to think about practically where this person might be best based – not only because this person will have a really important role in advising individuals when they come for help, but also this is someone who will have lots of access to the best practices around the country, which is something we will very much value. There are lots of really important statements that need to be made, but that’s not enough. We really need to think about what more we can do and partnering with the experts has to be the way to move forward.

What can universities be doing to increase the number of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) professors?
The number of British BAME professors is low at Warwick, it is low around the country, and it is low across the Russell Group. There are all sets of arguments and explanations about how we got here but, more importantly, is what we can do productively to be more encouraging and supportive. The first thing is we have to talk about this; this is an issue, and it is one of social justice fundamentally. We have to understand what are the contemporary issues that are preventing people going right through that pipeline from undergraduate to professor. It is really important that white old men like me spend a bit of time listening and not too much time talking. There is an awful lot of liberal denial: “It’s a level playing field now, it’s all okay, it will all come right.” I’m not convinced. We still have all sorts of constraints and structural barriers across higher education in all sorts of areas. We need to talk a lot more about it because only by talking can we find core strategies for dealing with it.

The UCU accused Warwick recently of having one of the worst gender pay gaps in the country. Is there anything in place to tackle and improve that?
It’s 2016 and we are still talking about gender pay gaps, so you should ask the question. Actually, there has been a lot of progress across a lot of levels over the last several years. We can now really hone down on where that gender pay gap lies: it lies in particular at Professorial level, particularly within Business and Economics. In some disciplines we are far less successful in recruiting women at Professorial level than in others – so there are on-going structural constraints and issues at play there. We have just started a professorial promotion round, and these issues are one of the first things that we talk about. We think about the mechanisms to manage this, so it might be that of the various committees one of them is not chaired by me, but by a woman: will that make a difference? I don’t know, but there is some research to say that who chairs important meetings can have significance. Fundamentally, there has been a lot of progress, but you must never ever be complacent.

Is there any way the University can make sure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds still have the same opportunities?
There are alternative ways into higher education that a lot of Russell Group universities don’t engage with – foundation courses and higher degree apprenticeships, for example. These are potentially fantastic routes for people into higher education from backgrounds that are non-traditional in terms of access. I would love that in 10 years time at least 10% of our undergraduate intake is coming through those routes. Meritocracy and social justice are so part of the Warwick DNA – you don’t always see it or feel it, but I really notice it when I talk to staff and students and it comes up again and again. In some ways it was part of the founding DNA of the University – Warwick was set up in part because people couldn’t get into Oxford because they didn’t study Latin or whatever. We have to keep remembering that.

What is your vision for the University?
The question I ask is: “What kind of university do we want to be by 2030?” This gives us the opportunity to think to the future and lift our sights. One is education – so what is education going to look like in 2030? It may not look how it looks today. The social mobility agenda in education is a really exciting possibility. The one ray of light in government policy is that they are talking about taking social mobility seriously.

We need to be forward-looking and radical, thinking about how we want to do things differently. Let’s keep our eyes up – a lot of government policy at the moment is forcing us down to think about the very short-term, but it’s important to find time and have conversations to lift our eyes up and ask: “What are we here for?”

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