Last week, Professor Stuart Corbridge, Durham University’s new Vice-Chancellor, gave his first exclusive interview to Palatinate.
Invited to the open-plan office on the top floor of the Palatine Centre, where Professor Corbridge is based, he told Palatinate that he is the only Vice-Chancellor of 24 Russell Group Universities to not have his own office.
In a glass meeting room overlooking the Cathedral, Professor Corbridge said: “I didn’t have an overarching desire to be a Vice-Chancellor. But I have known Durham for a long time and it was the collegiate system that I liked. It offered something different.”
Previously Provost and Deputy Director at the London School of Economics (LSE), Corbridge said he was adjusting well to life in the North East and that Durham “brought out the geographer” in him.
“I particularly enjoy the views from Prebends Bridge” he said.
There’s a lot to get through and we’re taking a consultative approach including talking with students.
Having been in the role since September, Corbridge described the role of Vice-Chancellor as radically different to that of Provost:
“Vice-Chancellor is much more about students, alumni, etc. There’s a greater range of work and much longer hours, but it’s exciting coming to Durham now as it’s a very interesting time.
Corbridge was eager to share the University’s new academic strategy, which encompasses sport, finance, education, research and internationalisation:
“There’s a lot to get through and we’re taking a consultative approach including talking with students.
“If the wider community accepts this new academic strategy we could be seeing some significant changes.”
Emphasising the significance of student input into the University’s development plan, Corbridge said: “I see us as stewards for the University. It’s not just about the next year, five years or even ten. I want to see that the University will be as strong in twenty years as it is now.”
The week preceding the interview, Palatinate called for students to submit their own questions to Professor Corbridge through social media, some of which were put to the Vice-Chancellor.
One student asked, “What influence do you have over university policy?”
Corbridge responded: “Policy is usually drafted by several people, not just one. The principle job of the VCis to ask what we should be doing strategically; you can’t run a university by telling people what to do.”
Palatinate was told that it was rare for policy to be proposed outside of the University Executive Committee (UEC). UEC’s role is to manage the University’s strategy and to consider and make recommendations to Senate and Council on policy initiatives and other matters.
“Universities are disputatious, so you have to work on the basis of consent…Even if a policy is not agreed to by everyone, it can still be passed by a majority.”
Anticipating the questions Palatinate had prepared, Corbridge used this as an opportunity to make a case for the University’s co-operation with students on the subjects of accommodation fees and divestment.
The Vice-Chancellor said that it was a matter of gauging valid student opinion: “We have to make a judgement about whether the people calling for change are representatives of the students more generally, and it is for this reason that we work with the Students’ Union (SU) and Millie (President of Durham SU).
“We have to respond to concerns regarding accommodation and be more transparent, but there are also difficult conversations that need to be had; do we offer more choice?; should we be looking at the option of differentiated fees?
“I want to remain an open university, but the quid pro quo is going to be that everyone has to engage in these difficult conversations.”
When pressed further on whether the University was willing to be more transparent on the breakdown of college fees, amidst concerns that revenue generated from rent is being spent on maintenance works across the University, rather than college services and infrastructure, Corbridge insisted: “I’m a firm believer in opening up debates, rather than telling people what to do.”
However, rather than discussing the calls of various JCRs, MCRs, SCRs and college staff for more transparency, the Vice-Chancellor diverted criticism by demonstrating the University’s transparency in dealing with Stockton Campus.
In an email to students in November 2015, Professor Corbridge announced the formation of a “working group” to “refine and explore possible futures” for Queen’s Campus.
In the same email he made clear that the review of Queen’s Campus would take place in an open manner through face-to-face meetings and workshops. Corbridge revered the fact that all the documents and notes from the relevant meetings have been posted online.
In his interview with Palatinate, Corbridge did not give much more information away about the future of Queen’s campus, other than to ensure this continued transparency. He did, however, say that he felt it was important to consider other options, considering the costs and benefits of having two campuses 25 miles apart.
Another student wished to ask the Vice-Chancellor whether high spending on capital and investment within the University was morally justifiable, when it was announced last November that accommodation and catering fees will rise by 3.5% in the academic year 2016/17.
There are moral issues about trying to finance a university generally on student fees.
“There are moral issues about trying to finance a university generally on student fees.
“There are some hard questions about how much we should be charging students for the running of the University. In terms of investing in other areas, living in college is one part of the experience, but students are also involved in academic buildings throughout the experience.
“Some buildings have been there for 50 years and are not in as good condition as they should be for a top university, like New Elvet. There isn’t a clear trade off between where the money should be being spent.”
It was clear that Corbridge was keen to divert the question of whether the increases in accommodation fees over the past two years, which have been well above inflation, are justifiable.
Rather than tackling the issue of increasing fees head on, he appears to favour the idea of providing more options for students, particularly those coming from low income homes.
Although the Durham Grant was cut by £500 this year for incoming students he said that Graham Towl (Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Warden) is currently looking at the best was to provide bursarial support to students as a way to compensate for the increasing fees. The money for this is to come through “more philanthropy”.
The main thing to consider with student pressure groups is whether or not we are hearing the authentic student voice.
Palatinate asked what students could do to take part in the conversations about accommodation fees and what he thought about pressure groups such as Trevs Left. His response directed us back to the question of University divestment.
Divestment is getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are ethically ambiguous. The University has close links with a number of fossil fuel companies, and the organisation People & Planet has been running a campaign to pressure the University into cutting these ties.
To give credit to Professor Corbridge, his involvement in the campaign to divest has demonstrated a keen capacity to listen to students’ concerns.
“The main thing to consider with student pressure groups is whether or not we are hearing the authentic student voice. For example, the head of People & Planet came to me and we talked about their concerns. I asked them to prove that it was an issue to other students and they did this by passing motions in favour of divestment through JCRs.
“It went above a tipping point and as promised we have agreed to put it on the agenda this term. The way to deal with student issues is through Millie at the SU and elected student leaders.”
The issue is now in the hands of the UEC and there are no guarantees as to where it will progress from here.
The Vice-Chancellor is undecided about his personal stance on divestment but said he is “looking forward to being challenged intellectually”.
Success would be getting consent and broad collective agreement to move the University forward.
Stuart Corbridge talked to Palatinate for almost an hour before his Senior Executive Officer interjected, reminding him that he had another meeting scheduled that afternoon.
Palatinate asked what would constitute success for Professor Corbridge when people look back on his Vice-Chancellorship.
“Success would be getting consent and broad collective agreement to move the University forward.”
He wants to be able to have worked “through different challenges, but for there to be a general sense of wellbeing.”
The Vice-Chancellor concluded the interview by emphasising the “fantastic sense of community” he has found in Durham and the importance he accords to maintaining a place where “staff, students and alumni feel invested and comfortable.”
Ultimately, he wants to see that the university “is just as strong in 20 years”.
Photograph: Grace Tseng