Vice-Chancellor: “We do the wider student experience better” than Oxbridge

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Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge has said that Durham “aspire[s] to have the same standards around education and the wider student experience” as Oxbridge but admitted, “we do the wider student experience better” in an exclusive interview with Palatinate,

Palatinate sat down with Mr Corbridge to discuss topics ranging from the Faculty and Department Review and the University’s Ten Year Expansion plan to mental health and what it means to be a Durham graduate.

The Vice-Chancellor reiterated that the process of student and staff consultation over the Faculty and Department Review has been successful, and revealed that “the [financial] saving that we might end up with… will be lower.”

Mr Corbridge also stood by his previous comments that a Durham degree offers value for money and paid tribute to the “incredibly special students here at Durham.”

Questions were raised about the current implementation of the Operations Review, as well as the Faculty and Departments Review, that will see both changes to Durham’s academic departments and colleges.

I’m firmly behind this view of what we call the wider student experience at Durham

Issues surrounding mental health, the University’s impact on the local community, environmental targets and elitist reputations were all addressed following the questions sent in by Palatinate readers.

The Vice-Chancellor also revealed that he preferred the term “DurCamOx” instead of “Doxbridge”, whilst emphasising that the University aims to provide the same standard of education as Oxbridge whilst hosting, what he argues, is a better wider student experience, thanks to our college system.

“We know from employers that Durham graduates are much sought after. I would also hope that a Durham education has made people suitably critical. One thing I always try to cover at congregation is that idea of University being an intellectual transformative experience that stays with you for the rest of your life.”

The first question of “What is the purpose of a University?” was met with the response: “I love that question, can I give you a fairly long answer?”

The Vice-Chancellor considers his view of a University to be traditional: “We have to achieve two things: teaching you to think well and better, whilst building up your knowledge base, and taking the best staff that can flourish with academic research.

“If you do those two things well, that is how you contribute to the public and I am strongly committed to that idea.

“I don’t think any longer than that is enough. I’m firmly behind this view of what we call the wider student experience at Durham and proud of what we do around drama, sport, music, volunteering, and leadership.”

It is clear that the Vice- Chancellor cares about the wider experience of students, telling us before the interview that the same day he his attending an event to celebrate the sporting achievements of Durham students.

Many readers sent questions which concerned some students’ ability to gain this wider experience due to their disadvantaged backgrounds, and the disproportionate number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Durham. A Palatinate report earlier this year reported that the University is the fourth worst in the country for social inclusion.

The Vice-Chancellor addressed this concern by expressing a hope that the University will see progress in this area “in the next 5 years” and are “en route to change.”

“One measure that the government doesn’t use but that the media do is the percentage of state school students admitted. In the 2018/2019 this intake was around 65%, and it used to be around 59/60%.”

The University currently offers contextual offers, with the Vice- Chancellor stating that the recent plans of Oxford to offer lower entry requirements to disadvantaged students as “a variant” of what the University already does.

The Vice-Chancellor revealed that, with council approval, the University planned to open a Sixth Form centre in Durham City that would offer Maths and Further Maths courses, something that is difficult to provide in some areas of the state school system.

As well as this, the University has plans to introduce guaranteed contextual offers to students in County Durham, and possibly the North East, at the very top of schools “based on potential perhaps as much as exam results that they might have.”

A larger number of questions were submitted around the University’s current expansion plans, part of the 10 year Estate Masterplan, which would see an increase of around 4000 students by 2027 and the updating and construction of University buildings.

Questions were asked of the Vice-Chancellor as to the need for this expansion. He replied by explaining that “when you want to conduct research, you have to have critical mass, by that I mean you need a certain number of academics in each department, in order to be competitive.

It’s not that we are chasing students but in order for us to be competitive in research terms, we need to be a bigger university

“If we were just concentrating on education and the wider student experience, we could probably remain smaller.”

The Vice-Chancellor went on further to explain that Durham is ranked 23rd of the 24 Russell Group institutions for the equivalent number of academics within each department. If the university is to hire more for every department, extra students will be needed for that increase. If these increases are introduced around multiple departments, the predicted number of 4000 students is reached.

“It’s not that we are chasing students but in order for us to be competitive in research terms, we need to be a bigger university.”

It is commonly expressed that a large proportion of Durham students also applied to Oxford and Cambridge. Palatinate asked the Vice-Chancellor if he considered Durham’s main competition as being Oxbridge.

“Our strategy builds upon where we are, so the truth is that we don’t have a medical school, so we are never going to be like Oxford and Cambridge in that sense, or UCL. The medical school went in 1963 and that has tilted us in another direction.

“We tend to be very strong on the arts and the sciences are very strong. Where we do think in terms of Cambridge and Oxford is that we are a collegiate university. We know that a lot of students who applied to Durham have historically also applied to Oxbridge, the same way to Bristol, Exeter, Nottingham and St. Andrews. We aspire to have the same standards around education and the wider student experience. In fact I think we do the wider student experience better.”

Over the past two terms, Palatinate has reported on the University’s planned changes to colleges and academic departments. These changes, under the Operations Review and Faculty and Department Review respectively, will see adjustments made to staff roles which will lead to amended roles and possible negotiated redundancies.

The Vice-Chancellor stressed that: “These reviews we are conducting, whether it’s this one or the faculty and department one, is more about inconsistency that has built up over periods of time. Some inconsistency is fine but you want to ensure that students in department X or college Y are getting roughly a similar deal.”

Many members of different colleges have previously expressed fears that the Operations Review would lead to parts of colleges that make them unique, such as events and life long staff members, being eradicated.

These fears were understood by the Vice-Chancellor and he replied by stating: “Potentially those changes could affect a large number of people but when you work through the consultation period, the number of people actually affected nearly always ends up being a smaller subsection than originally planned.

“What we have tried to do during this review is work with trade unions of those ‘in-scope’, then work under the student consultation framework with the student body. The original proposal for the Operations Review, through consultation, has led to a new proposal emerging that took into account most of the concerns that people raised. That has been shared with JCR Presidents and others. I do think the strong process of consultation has worked.”

When Palatinate pushed the Vice-Chancellor for specifics on plans for change, he explained that many people had raised concerns about the employment grade of a staff member that would help organise student events (originally set at grade 4). After the consultation period, the Vice-Chancellor revealed that this was changed to grade 5.

The Vice-Chancellor recognised that these reviews would be cost saving but argued that after consultation, the total savings would be less than originally reported targets: “The initial saving that we would have predicted and the saving that we might end up with, the second number will be lower.”

When asked about the possibility of redundancies due to these reviews, the Vice-Chancellor stated that: “We are still waiting to see what the outcome will be. It might be that some people will leave the University through in house redundancy as a negotiated choice but we are not imagining compulsory redundancies.

“We always thank people for the work they have done for the University.”

Last November saw Durham react to the that Matthew Hedges, a PhD student from Hatfield College, had been imprisoned in the UAE and was being accused of spying. He was eventually pardoned and released later that month, returning to his wife Daniela, who had launched a petition that gathered over 250,000 signatures.

What happened to Matthew was absolutely appalling

The Vice-Chancellor said: “I’ve had a lot of meetings with Matthew and Daniela. What happened to Matthew was absolutely appalling and shows the risk that some staff and students take in parts of the world.

“Now the University is in the process of doing a review, through the Secretary’s Office, about whether our support systems are where they need to be and then the Foreign Office are also doing their own review, using the Russell Group as a bridge to all its member universities.”

“We’ve also got support, in my view, of the right for academics whether they are staff or students to go to difficult, some times dangerous places, and ask awkward questions.”

One Palatinate reader asked if the University had a plan to go carbon neutral within the next 20 years. The Vice-Chancellor responded by saying: “We won’t be able to do it within that time frame. What we’ve done is the divestment commission back in 2015/16 which led to us divesting our investments in fossil fuels.”

He also emphasised the University’s attempts to always source power from wind turbines and its current work, in partnership with the council, against single use plastics.

He also responded to the increased issue of a climate emergency: “We’ve set up a working group to advise the University on it and that will advise us on how far we can get with our ambitions to become carbon neutral over a time period. We’ll get that report, I expect, next term.”

Questions on mental health issues and what the University can do to support students were high in frequency. The Vice-Chancellor commented that: “We have to be doing more on mental health, there is no doubt about that. The statistics are worrying across the sector and its not just students, I think we are seeing more pressures with staff.”

“There are two things that are constantly looked at, one is the level of resources that we need to have at the University and we want to work to make sure our student body feels supported. The other issue is how we deliver them. I do firmly accept the argument that colleges are absolutely essential in helping students with mental health.

Over the coming years we are putting more resources into dealing with mental health

“We are trying to build a strong student support, counselling and wellbeing service and then ultimately there is the hand off to the NHS. This is under constant review, as with other Universities. Over the coming years we are putting more resources into dealing with mental health.”

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One thought on “Vice-Chancellor: “We do the wider student experience better” than Oxbridge

  • There are two elements VC’s answers that I find interesting.

    The first is his enthusiasm to jump into the question “What is the purpose of a University?, and then only give half an answer, and a bureaucratic one at that. Yes, from a “business” point to view (and even the use of the word in this context makes me uncomfortable), it is about teaching and research. But he misses an enormous amount out. Universities are repositories, archives of the culture. It’s one reason why marketising the sector is so very pernicious, because it eats away at the ethos of the academy from the inside. This is NOT a business, and we should never forget that. The current round of managers are just holding the organisation in trust for others to come, and we should be careful to remember that the rather instrumental mindset that things like the REF and TEF encourage can actually be unhealthy to the development of a strong and thriving University: they encourage managerial culture, pushing them towards thinking of those working here as mere units of production, and those studying here as room meat to push through the system before the next batch arrives. The fact that this is largely not the case now is partly because of pushback against such narrow thinking fro those very staff and students. And that pushback must continue.

    The second is discussion of the institution’s expansion plans, especially when St Andrews has recently performed so well in some measures and tables (believe as much, or as little, of that as you wish), and with far fewer students. St Andrews manages to maintain quality without the risk of destroying its unique attributes. One might ask if the rapid expansion being planned will achieve that here, and at what other costs.


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