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Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Paul Wellings, has recently come under fire from his students over a comment article he wrote for The Guardian. Speaking to SCAN, he explained that his reasons for writing the article mostly stemmed from his concerns that “the momentum around what was likely to be a 50,000 person protest, might have actually not been the right set of messages for the set of things then that were still at play in Lord Browne”.
He went on: “I was just concerned that we would drown [the issues] out and then not get it back on the table quickly enough in the context of what a vote in the House of Commons might be, or the details that would then go into the White Paper presumably between February and July next year.”
The article, which was published the same week as the national demonstration orchestrated by the National Union of Students and the University and Colleges Union, seemed to suggest that Wellings was against this type of action.
Wellings, however, wished to clarify his position on this: “I didn’t like what the sub-editor put as the headline, because I didn’t say ‘Don’t march’, and I think there’s a legitimate role for people who want to protest – you shouldn’t misunderstand me, because that simply wasn’t in the article.”
The question was raised over whether his fears had been realised in the violent action at Millbank. “50,000 people went and had a peaceful day, less than 500 people had something else. It’s slightly distorting because inevitably it’s a home run for the press […] you don’t have to talk about the substantive issue, you can just talk about broken windows and fire extinguishers or Socialist Worker Party.”
Welling also spoke about the place for protests on campus. “The debate for the protest [at University Council on Friday Week Six] has turned into a mash up of all sorts of ideas […] but that, I think, just makes for a confused set of messages and clearly then not every student is on board with every element of the issue,” he said.
“I’m already getting correspondence on that from students,” he continued, “You can see instantly that if you build, not just a complex message, but a mash-up message, you can deter people as much as you can bring them together on a single issue, I think.”
He also spoke of their effectiveness: “Does it make a difference? I mean, presumably it makes a difference to the protestors because they think their message got over, but in the long term, in terms of engaging with the government policy, I don’t think that it’s got very much traction, actually.”
When asked if the sentiments expressed in the comment article were a reflection on the relationship between the University and the Students’ Union at Lancaster, Wellings commented: “I think, sort of, fundamentally different, because ultimately, the University won’t determine the cap on fees and it won’t write the White Paper, and so we live at the operational end of it, as a student body and as a university.”
“On the bars we’ve had reviews that have been conducted that students have been involved in. One of the interesting things for me is that if there was a review three years ago […] student body politics turns over every year. I’m not sure that you’d want to rehearse each and every debate each and every time.
He developed his views on student turnover: “With annual change, consistency is actually not the watchword very often because of some of the representation.” He continued, “I don’t think the strategic intent ever would be to take out the student voice, certainly not while I’m Vice Chancellor anyway.”
Still on the topic of the bars, he said: “Whether you like it or not, I formed the view that said every college should have a bar […] If the choice came down to nine bars open six nights a week versus seven bars on campus, which to colleges are going to vote to see their bars close full time? Because that’s the alternative – it’s not nine bars running seven nights a week and all not being used.”
Summing up his views on the Browne Review, he pointed out that “students are not purchasing a degree, they’re purchasing a right to be in an environment to learn”.
He continued: “The layering of that inevitably just [asks] how do we produce something not only for this generation of students, but things for a subsequent generation?”
In support of the original review from Lord Browne, Welling was keen to explain his position, with regards to the Higher Education cuts, and the need for fees.
“Clearly if there were just cuts and no fees we would go back quite a long way,” he said, later adding “[Lord Browne] clearly had crafted a model where in the uncapped bit of the fees, had more and more penalties for universities the higher the fees they charged so there was a disincentive to moving towards infinity […] it solved the price and the volume problem.”