The 2017/18 academic year has not been an easy one for Vice-Chancellors at British universities.
University bosses’ high salaries have come under fire from students and the national media alike since last summer, and the unprecedented industrial action sweeping across 64 UK institutions in recent weeks has seen higher education executives come under further scrutiny.
In an exclusive interview with Palatinate, Durham University’s Vice-Chancellor and Warden, Professor Stuart Corbridge spoke candidly about the challenges facing the University.
Corbridge previously sought an end to the ongoing academic staff pensions dispute by offering to increase contributions from 18 to 20%, but this was not matched by others around the country.
“No individual university can sort this [the strikes] out on its own, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that, understandably.”
“I’ve supported calls for further talks between the two sides and they’re now going to go ahead next week I understand, at Acast, so I’m pleased about that.
“I’ve also said publicly … I think a further evaluation of schemes of assets would be something I would like to see, because there’s concern about that amongst some of our faculty members.
“So those are two starting points, but in terms of what we can do about it, I think people need to recognise that it can only be solved between the UUK and UCU. That’s going to happen down in London.
“No individual university can sort this out on its own, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that, understandably.”
In response to how he felt Durham University had succeeded in fulfilling its promise to “minimise disruption to students” caused by the strikes, Professor Corbridge said: “I believe the University has communicated on this. I think Alan [Houston, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education] has led it very well there.
“I get a sense, because quite a lot of people write to me, there’s a lot of traffic last week as we approach the strike, and I’ve had some traffic since it’s started, but with the the exception of one or two subjects – [there’s been] not too much, which makes me think that we’re doing a good job of communicating with our students.”
Pressing him further on the “one or two subjects” he cited, we asked him to clarify the confusion about what constitutes taught material for exams, after the Maths department was singled out for ambiguity in this regard: “Alan has been talking to the Head of Maths and I think we are now on the same page, so I think we can give that assurance [that students won’t be disadvantaged ahead of assessment].”
Corbridge told Palatinate in a December 2016 profile that Durham “offers very good value for money”. But college fees have since been raised by 3.5%, and with costs topping £8,000 in some colleges for the first time, many students have called this into question.
A recent survey conducted by Palatinate found just 12.4% of 553 respondents agreed the University offers good value for money.
Asked to justify his previous comments in light of these findings, Corbridge, who has been in his post since 2015, said: “I stand by the remarks. So I’d start by saying that the national debate about fees has become quite confused.”
He continued: “I think we should be talking about a university fee first of all rather than just a tuition fee. And then I would say that universities like Durham, or Oxford and Cambridge, I talk more about a college fee and a residential fee.
“So if you take the two components, the university fee is not just that you’re getting individual lectures or seminars or lab classes or whatever, it’s access to the library, it’s the wider educational experience that you get in a world-class research-intensive university, so I think that’s generally what you’re getting on the educational side.
“I do strongly believe that at a collegiate university like Durham, the wider student experience I think is unsurpassed, I genuinely think that’s right and it’s for you guys to say whether you think it is.
“I do strongly believe that at a collegiate university like Durham, the wider student experience I think is unsurpassed.”
“Now, does it surprise me that some students disagree with that? No, and of course we should be working on providing value for money as best we can.”
In the same survey, just one in 10 Durham students agreed college accommodation was good value for money and 79.5% of respondents called for a fee decrease. There were also a number of student-led protests last term against the rise in accommodation fees, which saw the price of a standard single room rise from £7,171 to £7,422.
Asked how he responds to the claim the University is not listening to its students on this issue, the Vice-Chancellor said: “Accommodation costs are clearly going to be a concern for students, legitimately so.
“It’s a very expensive enterprise, university. It’s different to whether it’s good value, it is an expensive enterprise. Obviously, it’s very different to when I went to university.”
He added: “Since I’ve been here we’ve actually capped the annual rise to a level significantly lower than the rent rises in the three or four years before 2015, when there was obviously a period of catch up for the University.”
Corbridge also discussed the University’s consideration of more differential pricing for college accommodation, to account for varying standards across the University.
“It is something that’s being looked at. I think there’s a working group that [Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Colleges and Student Experience] Owen Adams leads, with strong student representation on it. But I don’t know where we are with that and whether we’re going to press it too far.”
I think it’s for others to judge whether I am overpaid
Professor Corbridge, who earns an annual £231,000, was one executive caught up in last summer’s media storm over Vice-Chancellor salaries exceeding that of the Prime Minister at a time when students are accumulating increasing levels of debt.
In an interview with Palatinate last September, NUS President Shakira Martin confirmed she thought Corbridge was “definitely” overpaid.
“Well, I’m not going to respond directly to that criticism,” Corbridge said. “I think it’s for others to judge whether I’m overpaid or anybody else is overpaid.
“I’m never involved in the determination of my own pay – there is a confusion about this. I’m no longer on Remuneration Committee, but even when I was, of course, you leave the room when you’re being discussed.
“The public debate on that has moved in a good direction, it’s given greater clarity to all of us. In terms of what I’m worth, that’s entirely a matter for Remuneration Committee.”
In January, the University announced its commitment to increasing the number of students to a maximum of 21,500. Concerns have been raised by members of the student body, and of the local community, that the influx of students from Stockton to Durham city campus may place an even greater strain on resources within the city.
Asked how the University could ensure stability amid the upcoming changes, the Vice-Chancellor replied: “You have to understand that the city itself is ambitious.
“There’s the new developments of Aykley Heads and Salvus House. I think the city sees that we might have more of a high tech future. There are some concerns about student growth, we know that… so we need to be seen to be not just an ambitious university but a listening university.
“I think it’s very important for me as Vice-Chancellor to point out all [that] the staff and students do for the city with local people, so whether it’s volunteering, making Maiden Castle available, all those sorts of things.”
Last month the Durham University community was left bereft when one of its valued members, Olivia Burt, tragically died in a crushing incident outside Missoula nightclub. The matter is currently under police investigation, but the Vice-Chancellor spoke of the University’s responsibility in ensuring safety in the city.
“The University is always concerned about student safety matters. Just before I arrived there was a bad year in terms of river deaths. There are student-led campaigns to make sure people are always getting home safely. So that’s always going to be a fundamental responsibility for the University.”
Durham regularly stands accused of elitism and remains ranked amongst the lowest universities for state school intake, which comprised 62.9% of 2016/17 admissions. The most recent UCAS data reveals just 5.8% of Durham’s intake come from the fifth most disadvantaged regions in the UK.
In light of these statistics, Corbridge stressed: “We are trying to address this issue as a priority.
“If you look at people from different minority backgrounds, or Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, for example, you will probably see fewer people at Durham University than at some universities in big cities or the south. You might argue in the North-East white working-class males is a particular issue in terms of access to higher education more generally.
“I think actually in terms of this year’s intake we did exceed our targets, which are given to us still by OFFA (Office for Fair Access), although that will change when we get the Office for Students (OfS), for people from Acorn 4/5 backgrounds and Low Participation neighbourhood backgrounds, so I think we’re making progress.”
Though discussions are only at a preliminary stage and no location has been decided, the Vice-Chancellor spoke of the possibility of Durham opening a sixth-form centre in Maths and Further Maths as one way to improve accessibility. There’s already one at King’s College London and one at Exeter, so a number of Russell Group Universities have been approached about this. We would very much want to connect that to Widening Participation (WP).”
Prior to conducting the interview, Palatinate asked its readers to provide questions they would like to ask the Vice-Chancellor. One reader, Valentin John, President of the Young European Movement Durham, sought assurances from Corbridge that Durham would continue to fund the Erasmus programme, should the government not replace the funds after Brexit.
Corbridge said: “I think we can offer an assurance that we want to be very active in that space of getting more students to have experiences overseas. My default at the moment is we will stay in the version of Erasmus plus. If that was to go, we would certainly be active as Durham University in making sure there’s something at least as good for our students. That would be our commitment.”
Following this, Corbridge was asked to assess the wider significance of Brexit for the University. Although expressing some reservations, he responded positively: “I think on international students, we do feel that we’ve made some progress over the last 18 months.
“The danger of Brexit, and the discourse around immigration more generally, is that it can both appear and be more difficult for more international students and international staff to come to UK universities.
“That would not have been a good result for British universities because, first of all, we’re an outstanding system, but secondly I don’t believe that knowledge has boundaries.
“I think you want the meeting of minds that you get with really exciting individuals, both staff and students, coming to a University like Durham…through the Erasmus scheme.”
Photograph: Durham University