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Before he leaves for his new job at Southampton University, SCAN and LA1TV caught up with Vice-Chancellor Mark Smith. We spoke about his time in the role and the issues that still face our student community.
Thank you very much, Mr Vice-Chancelor, for taking the time to speak to us today. We wanted to talk to you as you prepare to leave in a reflection on your time at Lancaster and to look at where the University is in comparison to the last time we spoke to you. So I suppose the best question to start with is, have you enjoyed your time as VC?
So first of all, thank you very much for the interest in wanting to reflect on where the University is, it’s a great pleasure to be here today.
Well, the short answer is, absolutely yes. If I reflect back on my decision to come here, there is always a slight element of trepidation when you change role. But, coming to Lancaster has been a fantastic thing. I’m very pleased, and it’s been a great privilege to be the Vice-Chancellor here. So I can emphatically say in answer to your question, have I enjoyed it, is yes.
Now that’s not to say that there haven’t been tricky times. My first few months here were fairly tricky because the University was in discussions with Liverpool about whether there should be a merger between the two universities. So, I inherited a live discussion, and when you’re new in a job, you’re trying to find out about the institution, and you’ve got a big decision to make. That was quite a tricky few months.
The only other time I reflect on that was slightly bumpy was around the pension strike in February/March of 2018. There were a lot of staff who were unhappy for understandable reasons, and students were unhappy, so that was a tricky time.
Overall, these almost eight years have been fantastic fun, made by the people who make up the University.
And it was that time in the strike period when SCAN and LA1TV last spoke to you, so it’s been quite an interesting few years since then.
We also wanted to ask a typical exit interview question. So, what’s one thing you’re particularly proud of and one thing you would change from your time as VC?
Well, there are many things, the problem is that it’s a loaded question in whatever I pick. So, I’ll pick something that encompasses the whole of the University, I think, when I got the call, almost two years ago actually, when the University of the Year was announced. When my office says “the press want to speak to you”, your heart normally sinks because there’s some issue you need to talk about. But, the conversation I had with the editor of the Sunday Times was a very interesting one. With the very pleasant surprise at the end of it that he told me in advance that we were going to be announced as the University of the Year. If you’d of asked me in 2012 “Would Lancaster be University of the Year?”, I’d have bitten your hand off and said that would be fantastic. So that’s a highlight for me, and it does encompass the whole University.
What would I have done differently? Well, there are several things, but the one that stands out, also as an all-University thing, which is the Design the Spine project because the Spine project was very painful. I think you can see some of those darker spaces along the Spine are now much more open, much lighter. It’s been a definite improvement, but the journey to get there was very painful. And if I’d have known how painful it would have been, I might have tried to push it off to someone else. It would have been as difficult actually to do it. And the disruption that affected lots of people, obviously students and staff, for an extended period is probably something we would want to rethink next time. Well hopefully there won’t be the next time, that should last for quite a long time.
Do you think it’s been of benefit to the University?
The Spine? The problem is that people only remember it as now, but if you think about how it was old-fashioned, it was very low in places and pretty dark. So, I think the way it has opened up, and if you look at some of the views you get along the Spine both north and south now. It’s difficult to remember how they were. I think they look a lot more pleasant compared to how it was. So I think the answer is yes, but it was a long journey to get there.
And a long journey travelling around campus too!
It was! The only minor upside is that there were certain bits of campus I never knew existed until I got diverted round them.
I think it was a difficult project, but in a way, I think it signifies Lancaster’s overall spirit. People had every right to moan and groan about it. But they shouldn’t have had to put up with so much for so long.
We’ll move on to some questions about where the University is now, and where we want to go forward. One of the news story’s that SCAN covered this year is that referrals to the counselling service have increased again this year and have done now for several years. Do you think there is adequate mental health support at this University, if not what advice would you give the next VC to rectify this?
Well, the first things is to go to the end of your question. It is not my business to give advice; it’s for them to make their own mind up.
However, of course, I have a view. It’s one of those things on my checklist of things I’m looking at all of the time. I’m asking the question; are we putting enough into mental health? The demand for it is increasing. You’ve always got to balance the demand and with what is right to put into the service. Can we deal with the urgent cases when they need to be dealt with? Are the wait periods for the less urgent cases reasonable and sensible? All of those things need to be factored in because you can always spend more money, but where does the turnover come in terms of what the right number is?
However, the other point I wanted to make is that that is all downstream, trying to cure the problem. I think we should think about, as a community, the upstream, about what is it that is causing these problems. And remove the cause rather than trying to solve the problem down the far end.
Now the whole thing about wellbeing and mental resilience needs to be about asking how an institution prepares its students to be able to cope with pressures. So, fewer of them get into problems that then mean they need the counselling service. I think this means actually working with the student and staff community to understand what the key drives are and what’s causing it. How can we alleviate the causes of it, so you don’t get into the problems of needing the counselling service in the first place? I think that’s important, across the whole sector that’s a huge issue. We need to concentrate more on that, so I think what the University, any university, needs to do is look at the upstream side of it. What are the causes, and what do we need to do to alleviate them?
What do you think those causes are?
If I knew, then immediately I think we’d be doing it, but I think there’s a whole range of things. I think it’s the expectations and the fear regime which says “Well, I’m incurring debt. Therefore I need to make sure I get a good outcome because only very good degrees will get me the job I want”. All of those pressures are much higher than they used to be —alongside university life; both the study side and living on your own. All of those things, they’re all adding up, so I think it’s very difficult to say “this is the one thing that’s causing it all”. It’s trying to understand and unpick how these things are coming together to put pressure on students that are succumbing to mental health issues. Therefore, understanding how you can take that pressure off them in the first place. I don’t think any single thing stands out as the cause, its a whole mixture of things coming together.
One of the significant, and upcoming events for the University is REF 2021. How much money and resources are being put towards this bid and do these match the benefits a higher REF ranking will bring?
You very kindly for-warned me of these questions, as I like to be able to give precise and accurate answers. But it’s difficult to answer your upside question because it’s undoubtedly something we’ll be resourcing. It’s very difficult to quantify what the resources are because most of the activities that REF capture are about research, which is what we would be doing anyway as a university. And research and education are the two main pillars of the University. I think what your question is asking is what is the additional resource we’re putting in actually to capture it.
Now, of course, there are a few people who are doing the paperwork. But the resources that are poured in are relatively modest. What REF has done for a long time now, (going back 30 years) has captured and measured the activities that the University was doing anyway.
The bulk of resources that are going in are resources that would be otherwise be going in, whether there was a REF or not. That’s the first point.
The additional amount is relatively modest, but I can’t give you a number, because it’s a bit diffuse. People are spending some time in their jobs collecting the data, and it’s difficult to say how much time. I’m not avoiding the question; it’s just very difficult to answer.
However, the upside is very significant, and the reasons universities like Lancaster want to do well is their research reputation is crucial to them. Their prestige as a university reflects the quality of the degree and the REF plays a role in that. High-quality staff want to come here because Lancaster performs well. There are a lot of positive consequences as well as the reputational side of REF. The second side I can be precise about. For example, the direct result of the REF, what the rewards side is of the REF, this year is £20 million, which is not a small amount of money. So, performing well in the REF is very very important reputationally, which I think universities would say is one of the key reasons they do it. But there is a significant pay offside called QR in the jargon, which is quality related. It’s a bit of an old fashioned term now, but its the block grant we get from Research England to help us with our research, which this year is £20 million.
We wanted to reflect back on the last interview you had with SCAN and LA1TV. In that last interview, you said that for students’ this is by far the most difficult period since I’ve been here’. With this in mind, the BRC-Nielsen Shop Price Index stated that by March this year, food inflation was up by 2.5%, which is the highest rate of inflation since November 2013. In light of this kind of statistics, do you think student life is still financially viable? Is it getting easier or harder?
Well, from my perspective, it isn’t getting any easier. As you’ve said, if a student is relying on maintenance, it hasn’t of that has kept up with inflation. I think one thing we need to do as a University is to understand the impact this is having on how student’s are structuring their lives. Going back to one of your previous questions, I think that’s one of the things that’s impacting on this mental health position. They’re not only worrying about debt. They’re worried about the effect that debt is having on their ability to study and other things they want to do. I think that’s a very important factor that’s impacting students.
To answer your question, it isn’t getting any easier; the question is what can we do about it as a University. Well, we have to keep an eye on the costs we have on campus. I know accommodation is always a big issue. I’m always keeping an eye on that to make sure there is a proper ladder of rents, so that if people want cheaper rents, then they are available. The ironic thing is that we do have a reasonable ladder from the top to the bottom rent, but if we look at the demand, it’s at the higher end. So if you look at the oversubscription to the type of room a student wants, it is at the more expensive end.
Nevertheless, we understand that some students do want cheaper options. Therefore when we come to build further accommodation which we will do in the next few years, we will make sure that those possibilities exist. In University controlled outlets, e.g. food vendors, we try to make sure they offer good value for money while trying to keep costs low. It is undoubtedly increasing pressure.
It was interesting that when you mentioned student housing, that demand is higher. Is that a reflection on the available finance students have to spend on accommodation or the quality of accommodation?
I think if you look at the quality of the lower end, it’s still pretty good. So I don’t think that’s the factor that’s driving it, I think some students do want to pay a bit more. You’ve asked a question that I don’t know the precise answer to, and it’s a very interesting question.
My understanding is that it’s not the factor of the quality of the accommodation; it’s what they want. But now that you’ve asked that question, I think the answer to it needs to be clarified. I think it’s an interesting question.
If more students are asking for the higher-priced accommodation but are still having pressures with money, then it’s less about the quality of accommodation and price. Maybe it more what those top-end accommodations offer.
Yes, I think it needs to be looked at. When a student makes their choice, what factors are they taking into account? If you look at what the lower end offer is, then what is it that they want in that lower end offer? I think it’s a good question.
Following the last interview in the strike period, you mentioned you weren’t ruling out compensation. How’s that looking now?
What I said was if, in the end, there was a significant impact on outcomes for students, then we couldn’t rule it out. We said we would deliver something if this were the case. We have had two graduations since this happened, nobody hasn’t graduated. It was regrettable at the time that lectures were postponed; there was nothing we could do. But as a university, we largely mitigated which has been shown through these two graduations. There is another strike ballot going on at the moment which has two components, one around pay and another, pensions. In November, whoever may be sitting in this chair may be having similar conversations with you! We learned a lot about how to deal with these situations last time. There are lots of ways it can be mitigated; the University was very proactive, which in itself cost a lot of money. Overall, I never rule anything out, and we continue to monitor the situation.
In one of my modules, I didn’t get the teaching hours back. What do you mean by postponed?
Let me ask you a question back then. In that particular module that you missed, there must have been an associated exam. Are you telling me that the exam didn’t take place?
No, the exam took place, but we hadn’t had the teaching.
The University has shown that you’ve demonstrated competency in the area that goes toward your degree. Specific classes weren’t all replicated, but their corresponding exams were taken. That work had effectively concluded. Therefore, if you had told me that you were unable to take an exam in an area that is an integral component of your degree, then that’s a real issue. If the exam has been taken and successfully negotiated, then effectively that area has been completed.
When you say successfully negotiated, would that extra bit of teaching have made students do better? People could have gone from a 2:1 to a First, which is affecting their degree.
That’s a question we’ll never know the answer to, how do we prove it either way? I’m an experimental scientist as you probably know. In this situation, an experiment would be undertaken. There is only one experiment, which was the strike weeks. The question posed can’t be answered in the condition you’re describing as there is only one set of data.
In the last interview, we also talked a lot about university fees rising. Prospective students are currently waiting for 2020/21 fee levels to be announced after guidance has been received from the government. Do you think it’s likely fees will increase again, and how will this affect the future of universities?
I’m going to say something slightly dangerous now. You can write to me in a few years in my new role to tell me I’m wrong! I think there’s no chance of them going up. It’s slightly risky to say this, so I’ll explain why. In February 2018, the then Prime Minister announced the review of the funding system, the Augar Review. The Augur Review took a long time. It was supposed to be reported in November of 2018, but Brexit discussions were taking place, and so it was postponed for around six months. It discussed £7,500 as a fee and talked about putting in a block grant.
What I also said very clearly was that fees in the immediate future should not rise from what they currently are. The government, in its recent spending review, said very little about higher education. But, one thing they said in the preceding period was that fees not rising in the immediate future was probably right, which is why I’ve made this prediction. I think what will happen is that it’ll get caught up as a policy element of the next General Election. The different parties will have different policies on that, but neither will go for a significant rise.
Might it be a significant decrease?
It could be, the current Labour Party policy is to abolish fees altogether. It’s whether they go into the next General Election with that; obviously, it was in the last one. It is a possibility.
The recent news about the potential sale of Sugarhouse has caused a huge reaction from the student body. Do you think selling Sugarhouse is a good idea?
We’ve been monitoring it closely as there’s been a big reaction to the news. So, I’ll be careful as the SU is a separate legal entity to the University. We fund them through the annual grant. I can’t be seen to be too explicitly influencing the trustees as it is their decision. I want to make that clear that it’s their decision. I think that the issue is what the long term viability of Sugar is as a nightclub. They’re grappling with a complicated issue. As I understand it, currently, its financial viability is marginal. Trade that up against the value that it brings, a number of the population of the student body value it. There are lots of residential developments, making the medium viability of it as a venue less and less likely.
The Student’s Union is also grappling with the difficulties of Sugar’s running and investment costs. They’re in a tough position as Sugar is iconic to Lancaster and important to the student body. They’re asking whether it has a medium-term future and what the right decision is at this moment in time. It’s a very tricky decision as there are very many strong views on it. It’s a situation where there is no right or wrong answer; it’s a matter of opinion. We need to consider what facilities are available both in town and on campus to make the student experience in Lancaster the best it possibly can be. The University has to think about what can be done with the Student’s Union regarding alternative activities if and when the Sugarhouse closes. We will certainly do what we can to support them, and we realise it’s a tough decision for all.
Is that you implying that if the Sugarhouse does close, there will need to be, if not a replacement then an alternative venue for students?
It’s me implying that there certainly needs to be an examination of what it is that students want and what it is that can be provided in the local vicinity. What people have to get out of their mindset is that there will be a like for like replacement. That is probably is unlikely. There needs to be a range of alternatives presented to the student body, which of these most closely matches what you want and is financially viable? What I think is needed is a debate with the student body.
So you think it should be discussed with the student body at some point?
What I think should be discussed is understanding what students want. This should be different from the decision of the Sugarhouse as the trustees have the responsibility of understanding what is viable and what isn’t. If you ask someone if they want something they’ll say yes, particularly regarding something iconic that goes back for many years. The trustee has to consider many things. It’s tough to discuss these issues with the broader student body. However, the crucial question for the student body asks what is it you want and what suits the social things you want to do?
Do you feel there is enough support for international students at this University and are we doing enough to strengthen our global connections?
I think we continually ask what we need to do. We have looked at welcome week to understand how you climatise a range of students from across the world. It is essential to help them to understand what it means to be a student at Lancaster University here in the North West of England. The welcome week looks different as we’re ensuring that events are not just aimed at British students. I know we continually ask what kind of language provisions need to be provided to ensure that students from across the world can engage at the highest possible level with the courses. It’s the same type of answer to the question you asked about mental health, more can always be done, but it always needs to be looked at. What is essential is that we do need to put on what is necessary so international students can get the most out of the course they are studying.
Lancaster is internationally engaged, which I think is one thing we can look at as a University and say we are ahead of the curve. There are other universities which have significant international operations, but I think Lancaster from the mid-2000s is ahead of its time. Obviously, with campuses in Malaysia, Ghana and China now which are all successful, our diversification is well ahead of most universities. We, of course, announced Leipzig, I remember talking to Andrew Atherton, the then VC in early 2017 saying Brexit is coming up very soon. If Europe became like the rest of the world, what would we do? We have a relatively wealthy population that values higher education; we could look to put a campus there. With Leipzig, we’ve got that in. Whether Brexit does or doesn’t happen (we’re still uncertain!) we would have acted on mainland Europe. We would be one of the few universities to have substantive teaching activity there. I think Lancaster has been very forward-thinking. I remember when we announced Leipzig at least 2 Vice Chancellors rang me and said ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’ We are very internationally diverse compared to many UK Universities. I don’t want to be complacent about it, but we have done all we can to prepare ourselves for Brexit.
For students and their societies, their primary source of support comes from the students union, which in recent years has seen budget cuts. Do you the University is providing enough support for students and their extra-circular activities?
Again, I have to be slightly careful in what I say because we give the Union a block fund, how the University chooses to spend that is up to them.
Can I ask, how much is that block?
I did my homework; I have the figures from the last four years. It was £1.2 million four years ago, the year after, every department across the University saw a 2% cut which took it down to about £1.15-1.16 million. However, in the next two years, it has gone up to £31.4 million. I wanted to check that we hadn’t been cutting year on year because I feel a bit defensive about that. There have been two significant uplifts. We’ve put around £100,000 in for sports-related activities; it’s one of the significant sets of student activities. Also, the Roses budget for the Union fluctuates depending on whether it’s Home or Away, we have a discussion with the SU every year about how much the budget should be. It’s interesting how you mentioned the license for the radio station. There was a survey about how the radio was consumed. The number of people listening through wireless and the internet was revealed, and they made a decision when they looked at that. What I’m trying to say is things change, but that doesn’t mean that people are completely stopping the nature of the activity.
To go back to the question, do you think the University is putting enough into extra-curricular, aside from the Union?
I think we have to look at it all the time; there are many things we can always spend more money on. I want to be clear about that. When you have a budget, there are tensions between all of the things you could spend it on. One of the things we have recognised from conducting student surveys is that there is a demand for the amount of floor space available to students for societies and clubs. This is something we’ve factored into our capital plan for the next two or three years, particularly with the new space. I don’t know if you’ve been following the developments of the library extension? We could’ve made a different choice but decided to kit the whole of the extension out to create more room for clubs and societies. We’re aware of some of the pressures on that, and we will keep looking at what investment is needed. As I said, there’s a tension between all of the things we need to spend it on, but we will keep reviewing it.
Have you fulfilled all of your goals as VC?
This is one of the trickier questions you’ve asked. When you go into a new organisation as you should have ambitions but not too many specific goals. You find that plans often need modification and contact with reality. One of the reasons I came to Lancaster was that it was doing interesting things. Just before I arrived, Lancaster was the first University to get a building that was classified. The LICA building, classified as BREEAM outstanding, has the highest environmental rating for a building on any University campus in the UK. I thought it was doing exciting things, so my goals were straightforward. There were three: The first, don’t do too much harm. The second, to continue it on the trajectory that it was already doing well, so didn’t need too much fundamental change. Lastly, to try and encourage entrepreneurial forward-thinking while not destroying its values. That’s a harder balancing act than you might think which I think we’ve achieved, considering Ghana and UA92. We’ve done it without destroying the central qualities of the University. I think that being able to strike that balance is what I was aiming to achieve and I hope I have.
Do you think other people think you have achieved these?
It’s for them to say. I was very touched with the number of people who wrote and said it was a shame when I announced that I was leaving. I take that as a measure that people have valued my contribution. Whether I have achieved them is for other people to comment on really.
What do you think you have improved within Lancaster University as VC?
One of the things that I’ve been careful about is that I think institutions should be about the institutions and not about any specific individual. What I’ve done is I’ve set up an environment where people can debate things and say their points of view. I hope this is the case and that we have attracted high-quality people at all levels of the institution who wanted to come here. When you recruit people, you should never compromise on quality. If you can’t fill a post, don’t fill it, go round again and again until you get people of the quality that you want. I’ve enjoyed working with a senior team. We have some very high-quality people across the whole University, which is not something we’re willing to compromise.
Is there a final message would you give to current and prospective students at Lancaster University?
First of all, I think that when you’re in the Lancaster bubble, it’s very easy to lose perspective. In the morning, I walk to a University that ranks in the UK’s Top 10. This is an institution that delivers an education that will set you up for life. When you look back as a student in 10-20 years, I hope students will think they made the right choice. When I talk to alumni, they look back very warmly at their time at Lancaster and credit it as playing a key role in their lives. I hope the students here today have the same view. It’s very interesting how proud alumni that left 20-30 years ago are of what the University is achieving now and that it is regarded so well in the sector. The message I give is that we do believe in delivering high-quality education aimed to set students up for life. I hope you look back and think it was time well spent and that Lancaster did a good job for you.
We wish Mark all the best in his new position and look forward to meeting our new VC when they arrive.