vice-chancellor stuart croft
Image: The Boar

The Boar’s 2019 interview with Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft

In this year’s annual interview with the University of Warwick’s Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft, The Boar spoke to the professor on topics ranging from Brexit, to student activism, to the group chat case.

The full 30-minute interview is available on YouTube. The questions below do not follow the order shown in the video.

By topic, the order of questions from one to 10 are Brexit; the group chat case (which spans two questions); Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students; student activism; the University’s environmental commitments; overcrowding; Clearing; the Augar review; mitigating circumstances and extensions; the “studentification” of local neighbourhoods; and casualisation.

1. How has the University dealt with ongoing uncertainty over Brexit internationally, for example effects felt by EU, Eramus and year abroad students, as well as relationships with European universities?

Erasmus and study abroad networks are absolutely crucial, key to what we are and what we’re trying to do. We’ll support all those commitments we’ve made to students who have those experiences.

We’ve been interacting with every single one of those universities with whom we have bilateral or multilateral arrangements – which is somewhere over 400 – to make absolutely sure that everyone’s focused on what we’ll do in all the scenarios, from no-deal to remain, to make sure we’re absolutely secure for this year, going into next year.

Beyond that really is going to depend on what the situation will be. We absolutely will provide more mobility options than we have at the moment in the future, which is one of the reasons that the European university network is so important because it’ll give us an opportunity, a framework, in the worst-case Brexit outcomes.

For the European university network competition, 17 were supported by the EU, and there were around 120 universities. Only three were British, which may be an indicator that some others are not as clear on their position going forward.

We’ve been developing a lot of those networks, as you say, but we haven’t found particularly strong tensions. For example, one of the interesting things we’ve done recently is a lot of work with the chinese universities and academies of sciences. At a recent meeting with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, they said we’d be really interested in meeting with your European university network, so I think there’ll be ways we can build those networks.

When people talk about ‘global Britian’ and all of this kind of stuff, well, a university has to be global so not as a British institution but a global institution. I don’t think we’ve had those sort of tensions for that reason.

I think one of the reasons why we don’t have some of the tensions elsewhere is that our position has been pretty clear: we’re a European university, we’re an international university.

2. The Boar recently covered the University’s failure to inform victims of the group chat who returned this year that two of the perpetrators banned for one year would not be back on campus. Given that you personally apologised on the BBC for failing to communicate with the victims, as well as the complainants, and in the context of the independent review outcome’s promises, do you feel that you have failed those victims?

It was a very complicated case about who had what knowledge about who was involved, because this isn’t about the victims who complained – this was about others who were affected, but their personal data is as protected as it can be.

In our newly launched system, where we will have a Liaison Officer to work with students, that situation will not happen again because we will have people who will directly be working with, informing and contacting those who have complained, and those who have been affected, about what developments there are.

I am really sorry. I am really sorry that you ran that story because of those complaints. I am sorry that happened, and I want it not to happen again.

That’s why we’ve set up the new system of having Liaison Officers, so students can understand where we are in the process, what’s going on and advance information about what is coming up.

3. Much of the disciplinary reform at the University as a result of the group chat case addresses the issue of sexual misconduct, in line with Dr Persaud’s review. However, have other issues arising from the group chat, such as the use of racist, ableist and anti-Semitic language, been given the same priority?

The way in which the work has been developed, there are two distinct phases, over which there are 30 recommendations. What you have just said is absolutely core business for Phase Two.

The first phase has a focus on values, disciplinary framework and sexual misconduct. The second will include all of the elements you described, precisely because hate crime is unacceptable.

We are committed to make sure we have the supporting framework in all these different domains. This will include working with the Students’ Union (SU) so that we have a suite of policies that will address them. There are things we can and must do immediately, which is what we’ve been focussing on.

4. Other universities in the UK have introduced unconscious bias training, additional welfare support, and ways to tackle higher discontinuation rates among BAME students. What measures does Warwick have in place to address the lack of representation and discrimination felt by BAME students?

Let me start at the feelings of discrimination, because that’s at the heart of the things that we need to do. We need to do a lot of listening to know what people’s real life experiences are.

This is not just about students, but everybody on campus from a BAME background. One of the purposes of our Social Inclusion Committee is for those voices to come forward, to have a space where those sets of issues can be raised, that then informs training and mainstream work.

If somebody says something which has made BAME people feel excluded, and the person that said it doesn’t realise it or has just done what they have always done, there has to be a mechanism of putting those things together. This is what some of our training courses and mainstream work is all about. It’s also about culture, which is long term and important work.

The sharpest evidence is the Black Attainment Gap, which is utterly unacceptable and back in universities five years ago, utterly invisible. That has now surfaced and we can understand what might be at the heart of this, through working with the SU and students.

One of the things we are doing a lot of work on at the moment, through Chris Hughes and the Education Executive, is to understand in a lot more detail about non-continuation, where and what is non-continuation, and its impacts.

There is a huge amount of work going on in the Higher Education Academy (HEA), for example, about decolonising the curriculum. It is quite scary to some people, but it actually isn’t – it’s about where the really important voices in your subject that haven’t been heard are. This project is going ahead quite quickly in some departments, while other departments are thinking harder about what it might mean. It’s a way of thinking about things we need to do differently. One of the great things about this place is we have not had pushback about decolonising the curriculum. It hasn’t become a kind of scandal, a really terrible, scary thing, because it has really been about why you are not looking at all the voices on this subject that should be listened to.

There is a programme by the Education Executive which addresses a number of these sets of issues including the admission of students into this university. We have been extraordinarily successful in the last few years in terms of the increasing number of BAME undergraduates coming to the University. It has been incredibly successful, especially at attracting Black British students.

Helping BAME students is a core element of our education strategy, a core part of our social inclusion and what we are doing in terms of our governance. But it is a lot of cultural change related work that we have got to engage with.

5. Student activism is on the rise across universities in the UK and this has also been seen at Warwick, in the form of strikes and protests on the handling of the group chat and international issues like climate change. Do you think that activism is an effective way for students to change or inform policy at Warwick?

Yes. One of the fantastic things about this place is we somehow have managed to attract people who want to study, and change the world at the same time. That’s brilliant, sometimes quite uncomfortable, but also brilliant. What is university about at the end of the day if it’s not about finding ways to make things better?

Student voices are obviously very, very powerful, and in the whole series of issues around the climate emergency, are absolutely critical. It’s really interesting the way in which national debate is framed, the battle between climate emergency versus Brexit for example, and having to decide which is most important.

You know I hate Brexit and everything to do with it, but it is the climate that is going to kill us. Somehow, we’ve got to be able to express that and have that debate, and student activism is really one of those routes.

The only thing that I would say is that there are ways to do activism and ways of not doing it. There are ways that are respectful for people – I’m not talking about myself – going about their work, going home, picking up their kids or whatever it might be, and there are ways that are not.

6. How, in the coming year, will the University balance its recently announced environmental commitments and its ties to the automotive and manufacturing industries?

The ties we have got there at the moment, the big research work, is about electric vehicles and their batteries, and about light-weighting the cars themselves so that the batteries will go further. It’s all about that autonomous electric car of the future.

Beyond that, we’ve got a big stake in the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, which is opening very soon. It will be about how to produce the batteries we need in sufficient numbers – which is a big challenge – so that the whole of the UK car fleet can move across into that kind of space. But again, that is not enough.

At the moment, when you put batteries in a car, it will run out when it still has 80% of its life left. We’re asking: “Can we take that battery and then give it a second life?”

Some of these vehicles that go relatively short distances might take that battery from 80% to 60%, 50%, so can we think about the third life. Can we take these batteries at 50% or possibly even less and put them onto our green fields to store electricity generated by wind or by solar or whatever it might be?

If we can get some real success in this domain, we could have the opportunity of being a part of something called a “gigafactory”. The point of a gigafactory is to be able to go to a real commercial level of production, that’s not for us to make money out of but for us to be part of the research and design team to take what will be done in the Battery Industrialisation Centre into a place where these batteries can be commercially produced, and if all that works there will be a lot of really high quality jobs in Coventry.

7. Warwick students are reportedly already feeling the effects of overcrowding, for example sitting in corridors after failing to find any available spaces to study on campus. Given that new building projects will not come into fruition until late next year, how will the University combat overcrowding issues especially during busier times such as exam season?

We are creating a lot more study spaces. We know that’s a real issue. How to create more study space is really difficult to give a big answer to, because it really is a building by building, space by space piece of work.

We have had a big project, going around with the Students’ Union (SU) and around campus, looking to see where we can designate more areas as being space for students to not just study but be in.

We encourage students to work with us and the SU to try and identify some of that space, and where space is not used that much. There is more capacity coming online. We are also looking at enacting the creation of more space in halls of residence. If people in their first year are not using quite as much space on campus, then that is helpful as well and it’s just a really detailed piece of work that we are having to do.

In an ideal world, we would have done quite a lot of the building a couple of years back and been ahead of this, but we couldn’t afford to do it at that point, and we are where we are now.

We are now trying to make sure that each year, for new students arriving, there is more accommodation than needed. There will always be a spare room, rather than what it used to be.

What we have done a really good job of, I hope you agree, is that quite a few universities have had challenges – and we did a few years ago – of having enough accommodation open in place for people right at the start of term, and there has been a fantastic amount of effort by colleagues and investment to ensure that is not a problem that we have.

So, I think that’s been progress and we have built and refurbished a lot more teaching space. But I completely recognise what you are saying, this study space is something we are trying to work out. We have worked out and created more, but there is a lot more to be done.

8. Do you think the University is playing a part in the commercialisation of higher education by increasing the number of courses offered in Clearing each year?

No, but I haven’t heard the question quite that way before; it’s an interesting way of putting it. It depends what you mean about ‘commercialisation’ and ‘marketisation’.

One of the elements at the core of putting more courses into Clearing is choice; so is student part of the marketised system or not?

Clearing is both Clearing and Adjustment. We know there are students who do better than they thought they would do, often from less advantaged backgrounds, and when they get their results, they look at Warwick and think, “Well, maybe I could come to Warwick after all.”

One of the things we want to do is to try to open up those routes. There are many routes but that is just one of the routes for people from less advantaged backgrounds to come to this University.

The wider point is that there is a huge challenge. I think that it is entirely unclear in government policy how they see the university sector. Do they see us as a privatised area or do they see us as a charity sector to be regulated? I think depending on which government minister you listen to, you can get either of those answers.

9. Do you agree, as put forward in the Augar review, that government funding should be adjusted for different degree subjects with respect to graduate earnings, in order to reflect their economic “value” and teaching costs?

I wouldn’t support that for a second. That’s the absolute wrong way to go, and again I think depending on who you listen to in government, some have moved away from that kind of idea.

It is a highly marketised idea that the value of your salary at the end should be directly related to the value of the fee. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense. I hope it won’t come forward again and I hope that’s not the way forward.

My argument is that you need to support all subjects equally. Some need additional top-up funding. For example, if you are doing medicine, that costs a lot of money – in the training of students, in their education, in a hospital, in the health service and so on, so there will need to be government top-ups for medicine and some other high-cost subjects.

10. The ill mental health of university students is a recurring subject covered in national news. Do you think the current mitigating circumstances and extensions systems at Warwick works for students who apply for them due to mental health?

The new mental health system we have brought in is one of specialism and speedy reactions. When somebody arrives and says they have a challenge with wellbeing in terms of mental health, and a parent, or their family or friends, or a tutor is in touch, as long as there is that first connection, the person will be seen that day. Then they will have specialist support and assessment within two weeks. In many parts of the NHS, that will take you 18 months.

That then provides for us a completely different basis of information and engagement to think about how we deal with issues like mitigating circumstances. We had a big reform last year, which went through Senate in the July meeting, to think about how we can handle mitigating circumstances more efficiently, even more humanely, and in an even more engaged way.

We will be rolling some of that work out this year. It’s going to be a really important project with the SU to understand how to implement it, but also how this hopefully greatly improved system of support could support students that have those kinds of challenges.

I get very frustrated with the national debate about mental health issues in students, because actually if you look at all the data, the challenges around mental health are challenges with young people as a whole – it is not a student-specific problem. In fact, very, very slightly it is less likely to be the case if you are a student than if you are not a student. What do we then do with that as a university?

One thing I want to say is that in the last 10 years, whatever your politics, austerity has ridden really deeply, and what austerity has done is hollow out the state. There are a series of areas where we can see this. We can see this in the police: we have to carry out more police functions now because there are fewer police officers. We see this in lots of areas of health. Mental health provision must now be provided by the universities, because we get relatively less good support from the NHS.

11. Locals have expressed their frustrations towards the “studentification” of their neighbourhoods, leading to disputes over waste, noise pollution, and other issues. Does the University do anything to integrate students into the local communities surrounding campus?

There are a lot of people in local communities that really welcome students. It is a much more mixed message as students do a huge amount of voluntary work and other kinds connected to their communities.

We do have some particularly sensitive issues. There are, unfortunately, a minority of students whose behaviour is not good. We support the Street Marshals programme in Leamington and the fantastic collaboration with the SU, that’s really important.

We are working with the city council in Canley, especially in terms of housing, putting some money into funding, and looking into the behaviour in these areas. There is a lot of challenge in Coventry around student behaviour as it is less about out students, and more about Coventry students where more of them live.

We have opened up a conversation between us as a university, Coventry University and the city council, on whether there is more we can do together to help in some of these spaces, where we have put in some support mechanisms. There are one or two resident groups that are incredibly hostile to university students and to the university as well – that is one of the relationships that we have to manage.

One of the things locally around the University that causes the greatest upset is students parking their cars on people’s front gardens, which again takes us back to needing a better transport strategy, so that people don’t feel like the only way to avoid waiting an hour for a bus is getting in a car with four other people and parking in someone’s front garden.

Our relationships with the local councils and communities have improved radically within the last few years – a community coming together, so they can decide what will be really helpful in terms of facilities they need.

We are working with an NGO to try to do that, and that will provide – I hope – a kind of blueprint of resources which we will then support the community.

12. What is Warwick doing to combat the issue of casualisation of staff and students employed at the University?

We have a big programme, that I describe as “de-casualisation”, that should be complete by the next academic year which will put a very, very large percentage of people in the category which you just described onto regular contracts.

It is a two-year programme that people will be able to go onto, which is fully paid. It will have a sort of apprenticeship model, where you will have a lot of training courses and learn a lot of skills, not just for teaching but of presentations and a lot of other things as well.

We had a really important meeting two weeks ago about the proposals that have been built up together with the trade unions and with Warwick Anti-Casualisation, who were content for us to move these proposals forward through our governance mechanism.

My hope is, as promised 12 months ago, that by the end of this cycle, we will have not only adopted the proposals but implemented them by the next academic year.

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