Sweeping into a (suspiciously) clean Impact office, Vice Chancellor Professor David Greenaway met me with a firm handshake before, I sat down to quiz him in the context of a higher education environment for which, as he said himself, “there’s a lot of change in the wind.”
What is your job description?
We have a heritage and a reputation that needs to be sustained. I am responsible for the quality of teaching, learning and student services, as well as a big research engine which needs to be fuelled, so we have to be competitive in winning contracts. We must sustain economic activity in the city and build social capital, and we have a unique international dimension with the campuses in China and Malaysia. It’s a pretty broad brief.
How will the rise in tuition fees affect Nottingham, and how are we planning to adapt?
Before graduate contributions rise in 2012, our government funding is being cut so the first job has been to build resilience in order to maintain the quality of teaching and learning, deliver a good student experience and continue to invest in infrastructure. I don’t know to what level we will increase our fees, but I hope we will make a decision by the end of this term.
What would you change about the government’s proposals on university funding?
They have moved in the right direction because if there are going to be deep cuts, graduates need to make a higher contribution, and I think everybody is agreed on that. If I were changing anything, I would have a longer transition period.
How far does Nottingham take into account the educational background of its intake?
We do look at context, but we have to be fair as we must be careful about positive discrimination and giving heavy discounts on tariff scores. On social mobility and widening participation, I think we need to do a lot more prior to 18. Scholarships are fine, but we need to change expectations much earlier by bringing younger children into the university environment, which we are doing more of.
You have been criticised for being aloof and inaccessible to students. Is that fair?
I’ve not heard that one before. Throughout my career I’ve never lost sight of the fact that universities are about teaching young people. I teach a first year economics class, take every opportunity to engage at hall dinners and other events, and I’ve even played football with some students, albeit Phds!
The university is planning to open a new campus in Shanghai. Why, when we already have six – including one in China already – do we need another one?
Firstly, there are limits to growth at the campus in Ningbo – once we get to 8,000 students, that’s it. Secondly, we’ve had an attractive proposition from the Shanghai government and from a private investor who want to build a university of 5-6,000 students with a focus on life sciences, fitting in perfectly with the Shanghai economy. It will provide opportunities for a different set of students and researchers to spend time in China, and to build research capacity there. I hope it comes off.
Afterwards, Professor Greenaway took part in the new Student’s Union Forum, hosted by SU Education Officer Will Bickford Smith, and spoke briefly before taking questions for nearly an hour from an audience of around 70, which appeared sparse for the size of C11 in Portland. An initially muted atmosphere changed however when the question of HE funding inevitably arose. To the Vice Chancellor’s statement that, “This is not a case of fee verses free,” an irate female undergraduate hit back by claiming this as an example of how, “the debate has been pre-defined and circumscribed.” A further clash over the morality of dealing with China, ended when Professor Greenaway asserted that, “400 million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty there. Do you think that’s a bad thing?” Questions about Nottingham’s new engagement with Birmingham University, plans to build a £20 million eco-hotel on campus, and a wind farm at Grove Farm followed. One audience member questioned why the company running the hopper buses allegedly shuttles people to illegal settlements in Jerusalem. Like everyone else who was there, she was well informed and engaged; it’s a shame there couldn’t have been a few more people there. An opportunity like this should be taken advantage of.