By Tim Sigsworth and Toby Donegan-Cross
Durham University’s outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Warden, Professor Stuart Corbridge, has claimed that inclusion and accessibility has “fundamentally improved” at the University during his six-year tenure.
In an exclusive interview with Palatinate ahead of his retirement this summer, Professor Corbridge reflected on his time as Vice-Chancellor, a position he took up in September 2015.
Professor Corbridge discussed a variety of topics, from the Covid-19 pandemic and strike action, to inclusion and accessibility and the future of the University.
Professor Corbridge’s tenure as Vice Chancellor has seen the University face criticism for racial and social inclusion. In October 2020, Durham was ranked the second worst university in the UK for social inclusion by The Sunday Times, based on the proportion of students who went to state schools or come from deprived areas.
In addition, Palatinate revealed in July last year that Black applicants to Durham were half as likely to accept an offer to study at the University, while its own Respect Commission
Corbridge is resolute, however, that the University is making progress.
“So state schools are one way of looking at it. But what we particularly work with… is the ratio of Polar Four Quintile Five to Quintile One, students in Quintile Five being the most affluent neighbourhoods and Quintile One the least.”
“In 2016”, he continues, the ratio “was just over 12:1 [Quintile Five: Quintile One]. Last year, the intake of students was 6.3:1. So, I’d say there’s a lot of progress. Now we’ve got to get to 3:1 by 2023. So I’d say that’s a lot of change, but I think we can do a lot more.
“I think we can do a lot more specifically around black students. If we look at BAME students, we’ve gone from 25.2% to 32.1%. If we look at faculty, BAME faculty from 12.8% to 19.7%, and women faculty from 37.7% to 40.6. So I think we are starting to change the distribution of people, of University personnel.
“It takes time, there’s more that we can do like I said, but I think we have made change. I don’t take credit for that. I think it’s been, this is something that the community is really lending, and is wanting to do. So I think I think we’re making progress.”
Accomplishments and Regrets
The interview came just after the University was announced as 82nd in the QS Top 100 World University Rankings, an improvement of four places on 2020.
“We are a top 100 global university. If you think that they’ve ranked 1,300 – and you’ve seen a tremendous rise of universities, particularly in East Asia – it’s a great performance and it reflects incredibly well on the University.”
When asked what his proudest accomplishment during his tenure has been, Professor Corbridge, however, was keen to disassociate himself from personal pride.
“It is going to sound cliché, but it is about the achievements of others. So you know, it’s the achievements in research.
“Or some of the educational innovations I particularly love,” he continued. “The wider student experience: I go to Wildcat games, and I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve got a women’s football team that is city, region and University. And it is the participation in that which has given me the most pleasure.
“It is the sense that, you know, you’ve got a moment of stewardship, where you’re working with lots of colleagues, staff and students, this fabulous institution, trying to make sure that it broadly moves forward in the right direction.”
Leading a University with over 20,000 students also presents difficulties, the most significant of which Prof. Corbridge was unequivocal about.
“The worst part clearly is the human tragedies. Each year, sadly, there’ll be something, there’ll be a suicide, for example, or there’ll be an accident. Those are really difficult things to work through.”
The Vice-Chancellor’s tenure has seen an exceptional amount of strike action by UCU-affiliated academics in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Whilst the dispute originally centred largely around slashes to staff pensions, in the strikes of 2019, other subjects also came to the fore, such as the ‘casualisation’ of work, the marketisation of the university sector, and BAME and gender inequality.
“It’s very difficult to see colleagues on strike” Corbridge reflected, “mainly because we know that that’s a very difficult place for colleagues to be.
“I mean, I’ve been down obviously to talk to colleagues on strike and know that it means that it’s an issue of enormous resonance, particularly around pensions.
“At the same time, of course, you understand that it has enormous implications for students, particularly where they’re affected by strike action. I mean, that’s why of course, we desperately hope that we can reach a resolution of this over the summer.
“Any responsible employer – and Durham is one – absolutely is going to want to provide very high standards of remuneration for all of its staff: that’s going to be pay, it’s going to be pensions, it’s going to be other benefits.”
Following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the University’s draft strategy “Unbound Education”, which proposed the introduction of online-only degrees, was withdrawn following intense criticism from staff and students alike.
With Covid-19 having led to the implementation of online teaching methods, the Vice-Chancellors anticipates “some sort of middle ground” between online and in-person teaching continuing into the next academic year in spite of the likelihood of reduced restrictions.
“My feeling is that staff have worked incredibly hard with students to deliver really good outcomes”
“The default will be that we’ll work off zero social distance, but it probably will be the case that not every student can get to Durham.So we are committed to making sure that those students that want to have an education at Durham will be able to access it online.
“However, our working assumption is that the vast majority of students should be able to get to Durham.”
“I think the student voice is going to be quite critical here”, Professor Corbridge added. However “it’s now for the community, I won’t be here.”
As well as negotiating the University’s day to day running during the pandemic, Corbridge also suggested the University’s has proved durable in the face of financial challenge, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimating that the pandemic could cost the University sector £11 billion.
“Just to be clear, the University‘s finances are solid. I would say there’s a lot of volatility going forward… about pensions [and] future funding. But clearly, we’re in a better financial position now than we thought we might have been a year ago.”
The position of Vice Chancellor is well remunerated. For Durham’s vice chancellor, the pay is currently set at £273,000 per year.
Asked whether Vice Chancellor’s were paid fairly, Professor Corbridge’s response was well rehearsed: “The pay is set by the Remuneration Committee, my details are publicly available, as they are for all Vice Chancellors so you can see what we get paid and in what form.
“I think it’s for the University to decide where the pay levels are set, and for others to commentate on whether we’re paid at an appropriate level.”
The Vice-Chancellor was also instrumental in driving forward the University’s ambitious ‘2017-2027 masterplan’, which, among other targets, plans to see student numbers increase from 17,500 to 21,500 (35% of whom would be international, up from 22%), build six new colleges, as well as update and rebuild several existing buildings, such as Maiden Castle and Elvet Riverside.
The unprecedented scale of the expansion has led to apprehension among students and locals alike about the sustainability of further growth in student numbers.
Much of this growth, Corbridge sought to stress, has already taken place: “If you look at the student numbers this year, we were over 20,200 so most of the expansion of numbers has already happened.
“A lot of that’s been accommodated, of course, with the development of the new colleges, John Snow and South Colleges to the south of the city.”
“Plus a lot of the work around the IT infrastructure, which people don’t see closely.” All in, buildings, IT investment and staff expansion, “That’s worth about 330 million pounds.”
Corbridge also stressed the dynamic and changeable nature of the strategy: “when we get to the end of 2021, that’s five years of the strategy, so it needs to be looked at [again] anyway.
“You’ve got an incoming Vice-Chancellor, and we’re going to have to work through the consequences of the pandemic.
“People are not going to work in the same way, clearly, as they’ve worked in the past, and we’re trying to offer maximum flexibility for colleagues and professional services. So this will be the time under Karen [O’Brien, the incoming Vice Chancellor].”
Earlier this year, a Palatinate investigation revealed that the expansion at Mount Oswald was financed by a consortium in which the University held only a 15% stake, with the rest being owned by private firms.
When asked whether this model was likely to be used again in the future, Prof. Corbridge strove to defend it: “We can either choose to use our own money, or we can borrow money, or we can work in combination with a private provider.
“The Mount Oswald model was the latter. And that’s an option for the University going forward. It’s a standard option in the sector… [but] it will be decided on a case by case basis.”
With just two months left in the role, Corbridge looks tentatively into the future: “strange word retirement, isn’t it?”
Yet it is clear he’s given it at least some thought: “Joan and I are setting up in Hexham. One thing that we discovered is how much we love the North East. We’re both huge outdoor lovers.
“So a lot of time walking, trekking, we’re both gonna have a bash at golf – probably will be just a bash – cycling, stuff like that: anything that keeps us outdoors.”
“I’m a lapsed academic. I’ll probably go back to research and writing and then the other thing will be volunteering… my big interest is animal welfare.
“I’m currently attached to Stray Aid down at Coxhoe which is just an amazing charity that takes dogs that have been abandoned, some cats as well, and stops them being euthanized. I don’t know. Hopefully those things together will keep me reasonably busy.”
Image by Durham University