The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

‘I wasn’t consulted on fees,’ says President of UK’s largest university

Richard Crook sits down with with Dame Nancy Rothwell to discuss fees, Student Satisfaction, and what the future holds.

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“There’s uncertainty all around, it’s really pretty big,” the Vice Chancellor tells me, citing fee rises alongside both the drop in A level results and the decision by the University of Manchester to reduce student numbers. But even though it’s her third interview of the day, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell welcomes me into her office in the John Owens building without dropping any hint we’re imposing on what is a 70-hour a week job.

I tell her this will be an edition read by more first year students than any other, so she’s not surprised when I start with fees.

Why did the University make the decision to charge students £9,000 a year? “It was made with great reluctance. We looked very carefully at the cuts in government funding, and calculated what it would take to match that on a fee.” When you took into account the bursaries they planned to offer, she says, it became “literally a break-even situation.”

So was Dame Nancy surprised – like the coalition – that so many other universities followed suit? “No, I think every university will be at £9,000 soon.”

I’d always assumed that the decision would have come following at least some discussion with the head of one of the largest and popular universities in the UK, so I ask if she was consulted during the Browne Review into student fees. Apparently not.

“We weren’t consulted during the Browne Review at all”, the Vice Chancellor tells me, but is keen to stress that she made her arguments known anyway. “I could accept that there had to be some change, but £9,000 was far too much and far too soon.”

So was the academic community ignored? “Yes, I think so. And compared to business, I don’t think the academic community have that strong a voice when everything’s being cut.”

But some student anger remains aimed squarely at universities, not the government, a fact Dame Nancy will be all too aware of. I wonder if some people don’t understand that universities are non-profit organisations. She nods.

“There’s a huge lack of understanding on loads of fronts. An awful lot of people still say, “Where am I going to find £9,000?” when of course they don’t have to, and I often get asked, “What are you going to do with this extra money?” Well, there isn’t any extra money.” The Vice Chancellor allows a hint of tedium to creep in here, and I suspect “often” is underselling it.

Of course, students are paying more so they will expect more. Should we start thinking of ourselves more as consumers? “I don’t think they should. The Students Union has always expressed to me that they don’t want to be seen as consumers. They want to be considered partners, and to feel a part of the University.”

We start discussing how courses vary in cost to provide, and the idea of charging different fees for different subjects, a route many universities outside the Russell Group took. Here she claims, “It was the Students Union who urged us to charge the same fee whatever the course.”

I move the conversation onto student satisfaction scores (NSS), which the University of Manchester performs notoriously poorly in. Last year we were the second lowest scoring university in the Russell Group for feedback, and by far the worst for teaching and overall scores. Where is the university is going wrong?

“It’s a combination of factors, all of which we’re trying to address. We increased student numbers in 2007, I think by too much, and we’re planning a 10% cut. There are areas where we’ve had a shortage of staff, and we’ve invested in 80 new academics. Some of our facilities weren’t good enough, and we’ve invested £10m this year and will be investing £10m next year. And I’ve said this before, there’s a small minority of staff who don’t believe they’re here for the benefit of students.”

And what about the Students’ Union’s role in these poor scores? I suggest that when many students arrive they are unaware of the clear divide between the Union and the University, and so if the Union fails to deliver, students may wonder whether they’re very connected to the university.

“That’s probably true, and it’s a feature of the size of the university. Last year’s Executive recognised there wasn’t very strong participation in the Union, and that most students see the Students’ Union as a place of political views and socialising, when actually they do a huge amount besides that.”

I wonder whether the nature of political campaigns means they can overshadow what the Union offers elsewhere, and make students think, ‘Actually, this Union isn’t for me.’

“Yeah, and a lot of them do think that. I’ve certainly been told by students in some schools, ‘The Union’s only interested in fighting fees and cuts’. They’ll ask me about being short of money or getting advice, and I say ‘well the Students’ Union has all of this’, but they don’t know.”

If you visit websites like TheStudentRoom.co.uk during exam selection, you will find hundreds of prospective students frantically comparing league tables, worrying about the reputation of their university. Are they placing too much emphasis on NSS scores?

“Probably. They should look more at their course. But we can’t ignore it, because it does drive student choice.”

Undoubtedly, Dame Nancy works in a man’s world. Only 18% of professors are women, and she is one of only 17 female Vice Chancellors (and the only one in the Russell Group). I ask why the numbers are so discouraging.

“That’s the $64 million question. Academia is an incredibly demanding career, and to be a successful researcher you have to be known internationally, you have to travel a lot.  That makes it very difficult for women caring for children or older relatives.”

Of course, that’s not a problem unique to academia. But I wonder any discrimination exists within the profession. “I’ve never encountered it, and I think it’s very rare,” she says frankly, but adds, “There is one thing that could be improved. You can never generalise, but when I was offered this job, I read a book by a female coach who said, ‘In general, if there’s a major promotion available, men will say, ‘I can do half of that, I’ll go for it’, whereas women tend to say, “I can’t do half of that, so I won’t go for it.”

So self-esteem’s a factor? “I think it is. Women tend to self-examine what they can’t do. We still get women in senior positions saying, ‘I want to go back to being an academic I don’t like doing it,’ but you don’t get many men saying that.”

Is that down in part to a certain kind of atmosphere? “I think it’s the pressure. In any senior position you have to deal with difficult issues like staff performance, complaints or concerns. And women probably take those sorts of things more to heart. “

Despite obvious gender imbalance, Dame Nancy remains adamantly against quotas. “I don’t like them. I would never have wanted to feel I’d achieved something because I was a woman. This really comes up at the Royal Society, and all the female fellows I’ve ever spoken to there have said the same thing. Amongst women [in academia] it’s very unpopular.”

She does encourage having targets, but again distances herself from top-down enforcement. “I’ve never been in favour of positive discrimination either. It’s not particularly fair on women, and it’s certainly not fair on men.”

Time is running out, and I finish with some questions about the past and future. This will be Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell’s third year as President, so what is she most proud of?

“As a university – though I couldn’t say I had a hand in it – I’d say the Nobel Prize, the new buildings, and of course the huge amount of student achievements. In terms of me personally, I’d like to think we’re getting better at communicating and interacting. I never wanted to be a President who sits in her office, so I get out to schools and meet with students. And we’re starting to have an impact with social responsibility.“

But what areas has she wished she’d made more progress in? “Oh just about everything,” she laughs. “I’m continually frustrated. I think, ‘Why is this taking so long? Why haven’t we improved on NSS scores? Why haven’t we received more grants?’ We’ve decided to focus more on heritage, and there are some fantastic quotes in the new Learning Commons and I think, ‘We need to do more on these things!’ I’m quite impatient.”

It can only be a good thing that she’s most energetic when talking about the things they need to improve on. But if she wished she’d made more progress in “everything”, then it might be time to leave her to it.