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Interview: Dame Nancy Rothwell

Head Features Editor Jacob Nicholas sat down with the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, to talk about everything from Brexit to building a hotel on campus

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As part of our welcome to new students, I sat down with the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, to talk about everything from Brexit to building a hotel on campus.

We began by talking about the role of universities in influencing public society. Professor Rothwell has been outspoken recently, both about the lack of impact universities had in the EU referendum debate, and their failure to engage with the public in general. However, she insisted that universities should not directly influence the public, saying “Persuade? No. Inform? Yes.” Instead, she claimed their role is to “give independent, and hopefully unbiased information,” to help the public decide on their own how to vote.

I then asked whether universities should be more transparent. The Vice-Chancellor tried to emphasise the progress the university has made over recent years, citing the large number of public venues, the fact that “we get more than a million visitors a year,” and that a decade ago the university was “like the Vatican… it was impenetrable,” according to one local councillor.

In spite of this, though, she admitted that there is far more the university could be doing—“we need to be more transparent in explaining what we do, why we do it.” She used the increase in tuition fees as an example, claiming that people assume “universities must be rolling in money, and of course what happened was that almost exactly the same amount of money was taken out by the government, and we haven’t explained that as well as we should.”

Next, we spoke about the several major events of the summer, starting with Brexit. When asked if there was anything she could say to reassure incoming students, she admitted “it’s very difficult to say anything concrete, because nobody knows, and with the best will in the world nobody can say anything… but what I can say is that this university is hugely committed to being international, and to welcoming students from all over the world.”

She said that the number of EU students coming this year is the same as normal, and from 2017, “as long as we’re able to, we’re going to charge the same fee, but that depends on what happens.” Despite this level of doubt, however, Professor Rothwell claims that at ESOF, a recent European science convention held at the University of Manchester, there was “a huge spirit of partnership and camaraderie,” amongst UK and European scientists.

“The biggest issue around Brexit is that uncertainty; and not knowing what’s going to happen exactly, me not being able to answer questions,” she concluded, “but in spite of the press asking and some reports, we’ve not known of any European grants that we’ve been cut out of, and I’ve not known of any European staff that have left, and it just doesn’t seem to yet have caused a huge change.”

When asked if there has been an impact on the university yet, the Vice-Chancellor replied, “we have not seen significant adverse effects.” However, she went on to voice concern about the nationwide increase in hate crime, “there’s a worry about a potential increase in harassment, and so on.” Fortunately the university is already taking steps to address this possibility, as Professor Rothwell explained, “the Students’ Union has got a big push on our campaign, We Get It, and that’s been very much about sexual harassment, [but] it’s now broadening out to any form of harassment on the basis of background or race or nationality, and that’s going to be a big push for us.”

The discussion then moved to the causes of Brexit—I asked whether the disconnect between more affluent, university-educated people and poorer, less well-educated ones was partially responsible for the vote. “Well I can only say what the analysis shows,” she answered, “which is that younger people favoured Remain, older people favoured Leave. Those with more extensive education tended to favour Remain, and those with less education tended to favour Leave.

“Certainly from what I’m aware the communications are that people who find themselves in difficult circumstances, whether that’s struggling to get a job, or to pay the bills or to access things partly because of difficult financial times, see the EU as one of those causes.”

The Vice-Chancellor challenged the pledges and conduct of the Leave campaign: “There were very, very clear statements, like the National Health Service will benefit by hundreds of millions of pounds a week, subsequently denied by the people who said them, so I can only say that I think some of the campaigning was not the finest hour for British politics.”

Next I asked if the university should maintain a closer relationship with EU universities over those from further afield. Professor Rothwell agreed to an extent. “They’re our closest neighbours, you know, of course, so it’s so much easier to have a strong relationship… and we do already have strong partnerships because of European funding, so that makes it much easier.”

However, she was unsure about focusing on EU neighbours over other universities, saying, “I don’t know that I would do that at the cost of an international university,” instead preferring to partner with others according to what their common interests are. Language was also emphasised as important, but this can be anywhere in the world—the Vice-Chancellor used a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur as an example, where many universities teach in English.

For the last question on Brexit, we spoke about exchange programmes. When asked if the University of Manchester will try and stay in programmes such as the Erasmus programme, the Vice-Chancellor replied: “Yes, we will definitely try to stay in the student exchange programmes, and obviously they’re not just with Europe, we have exchange programmes with many countries around the world, China in particular, just because I think it’s a great experience for students. Whether they choose to go to Malaysia or to China or to France or Germany or wherever else, it’s a fantastic experience for students to go and spend a semester or a year studying at a university abroad.

“Of course, if for some reason Erasmus isn’t operating for the UK we’ll have to try and find other ways of doing it. Hopefully we can persuade the government to help us to do that, because I think it’s just such a fantastic experience at university to spend that time abroad in another country and another culture.”

We then moved to the other big event of the summer—Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister. May has planned a crackdown on student visas, and to introduce further scrutiny to reduce immigration numbers. Rothwell picked her words carefully, but seemed relatively unconcerned by this. “What she’s actually said is she wants to crack down on students who she feels should not have gained a visa or have stayed beyond the visa. Now if that is the case, then I don’t believe that that would apply to us, as we get a very, very low visa rejection and we know our students go on to either get jobs or study or return home.

“So, if it is simply recruiting less international students in order to reduce the immigration number then I would be most concerned, because obviously international students bring huge value in many ways, not just to universities but as future ambassadors… my understanding is that it is more about ensuring that there is not abuse of our system for students coming, and I don’t think that would have a significant impact on us.”

Despite this, she was concerned by the social impact of a crackdown. “I worry about the message that I want to tell students all over the world that ‘We welcome you, [it’s] fantastic to have you at the University of Manchester, you bring great diversity and breadth’ and so on, so I don’t want negative messages, and the worry is that whenever anything changes that can bring a negative message.”

Furthermore, Professor Rothwell hoped for a change in the quotas and caps for certain courses, saying that, “I don’t know what the position is going to be on whether we will have more or less international students, but to give an example, we have a cap on how many international medical students we’re allowed to train, as does every existing university—the private ones don’t—and yet we’re desperately short of doctors and we’re recruiting them from overseas.

“It would seem to me to be logical to train them here through our system, and then recruit them. There are hundreds of vacancies.” She also sought to emphasise the difference between recruiting domestic and international students—“they’re different quotas for us, I mean some have expressed concern that international students take home students places—they don’t, they’re completely different quotas, that never happens.” Finally she celebrated Manchester’s diversity—“we have more international students than any other UK university, and Manchester has claim to be the most diverse city, and I find that to be great.”

When asked specifically about a ruling against May from March, when she was found by the Upper Tribunal for Asylum and Immigration to have wrongly deported 48,000 students in one go, and if this might cause concern for the future, the Vice-Chancellor was again cautious. “If the report is true, I do not know the basis of that report, I read it in the press as well, and I don’t know the basis of it, so I’m reluctant to comment unless I know it’s true. Not that the press doesn’t get things right, but sometimes they pick up on something that might be misinterpreted, so I can’t, you know, I can’t be sure that’s true. But yes of course, if we’re deporting students that should not be deported then I would be very worried.”

Next we discussed another big issue for students—rising tuition fees. The Vice-Chancellor suggested that the government “can’t provide any less funding for humanities, because it doesn’t give us anything. There’s nothing left to cut. At the moment, for universities like this one… we’re just about breaking even at £9,000, so to increase with inflation would only let us keep up, and there is a risk that if we’re not allowed to increase, at least with costs, then we’d have to start cutting back on student provision or shifting the sort of degree courses that they take.

“I mean obviously, any increase in tuition fees is going to cause concern among students, but they are only with inflation, so at least it’s only a relatively modest increase.”

She did also make it clear that existing students will not have to pay increased fees during their time here. I asked her if she felt it was the role of the student or the state to pay more for their education, and she replied, “my personal view has always been… I think a university education benefits the individual and benefits the state, and therefore my personal view is that a shared contribution, I think, is reasonable.”

However, when asked if she thought the increase in tuition fees would limit student diversity, Professor Rothwell was unsure. “There’s a concern it might do. Before the £9,000 fee came in I expressed huge concern that students from less well-off backgrounds would not come to university and that’s very important to this university because we have an awful lot of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, more than any other Russell Group University. I was completely wrong. The numbers of students classed as widening participation increased, and has done year on year, I don’t know why. It seems curious to me… So I don’t know… I can’t say whether it will in the future or not, because I was wrong then.”

Having already said that internationalism was important for universities, I asked Professor Rothwell if it was important for wider society. “Yes, I do, because we’ve got a much more interconnected world, people travel very much more than they used to, many companies are global companies, many people spend time working abroad. You look back to even 50 years ago, it was really unusual for people to go on holiday, and now everybody does,” she replied.

In particular, she said, the UK has had a strongly international perspective, “it’s quite notable when you watch the BBC News, you get a lot of international news. You go to certain other countries and you’d think there wasn’t an outside of the country… Manchester in particular has been very international, it was called the city of migrants, it’s had international migrants for many years.”

However, Professor Rothwell did also think that this international perspective is in danger at the moment. “Yes, I think there is a risk, and I think there’s a global challenge around migration. I think it’s a real, real worry, of course driven by human conflict, driven by climate change actually, that people are going to want to move to countries where they can have a better life.

“It’s a challenge the world is facing, it’s a very big challenge, and it’s not going to go away. There are several different aspects to that—there’s illegal immigration that does not come through our borders, there’s legal immigration, and then there’s freedom of movement, and they’ve sort of got a little bit muddied. Britain does take a lot of refugees, and has just agreed to take a number more but that sort of gets mixed up with illegal immigration and with mobility within Europe. But issues around migration are not going to go away, whatever happens with the EU.”

I then asked the Vice-Chancellor about the £1 billion campus redevelopment programme. She said that its main aims were “twofold… the first important one is a future-proofing of the university. Old buildings cost us a fortune, [and] when we eventually move off North Campus we will save a huge amount of money.

“I should add another one—carbon footprint. We’ve got an ambitious target for our future carbon footprint, and the only way we can meet it is by spending a lot of money on modernising our current buildings or by building new buildings that have got much lower energy usage… the other one is having ourselves and the students in the same place… it is actually cheaper to build new buildings than to repair; the cost of bringing the North Campus buildings up to scratch, even if there weren’t the issues of being separate or carbon footprint, would cost more than building new. So it is about building a university for the future. The university’s been around for nearly 200 years, and hopefully it’s going to be around for the next 200.”

Professor Rothwell also refuted that this scheme was a shift towards science, highlighting the huge investments into the Whitworth Art Gallery, the Samuel Alexander building and the business school. Instead, she claimed, you spend more on science because it costs more, and that “to create a fantastic Learning Commons or humanities facility is a lot cheaper than creating a great engineering facility or National Graphene Institute… but it is absolutely not a shift towards science away from humanities, we have no intention of doing so.”

I then asked how the construction of a new, four-star hotel on campus fits into this “futureproofing” of the university, and received a somewhat surprising response. “Well we’re not building the hotel… that’s a private contractor. We actually got a really good deal with the private company, that we gave them a piece of land to build the hotel on, and in return they’re building part of the new business school for us… So they’ll own it, they’ll run it.

“We thought [it would be] great to have a hotel on campus, fantastic… but it’s not ours, that would be a commercial venture. It’s wholly commercially owned, but on our campus, and they’re helping us build the continuing education facility of the business school. And quite a lot of the new buildings have got a lot of external funding—the Whitworth was externally funded, all of the National Graphene Institute, we got a big donation for the business school, graphene engineering and innovation centre, that’s entirely externally funded… there’s quite a lot we’re not paying for.”

I also asked if the series of staff cuts over the last few years has been in any way to help fund the programme, and got, perhaps understandably, a somewhat frosty response. “Well, there’s been about, I don’t know the number, but it’s less than one per cent of the total, so it’s not a huge number. But no, it hasn’t, it has absolutely not been to make way for the capital programme, most of which is funded through a bond. It’s been a need to restructure, to treat facilities differently, or things have just been done differently. But no, it hasn’t been to fund the capital programme.”

We finished with a couple of questions on the recent freedom of speech debate in the Students’ Union, which has attracted a lot of press here at University of Manchester. “My position, as head of a university, is freedom of speech is one of our core values. Wherever possible, we try to encourage and support freedom of speech… Personally, I don’t think somebody’s views that I disagree with, or even don’t like, would bar them from having a speech on campus… Because that’s what being at university is about—being challenged with people who have different views.”

I asked if she would draw a clear distinction between university policy and Students’ Union policy. “I would,” she replied, “we would stick to our principle of unless there is a legal reason, or a real safety reason, or the police advise us that this would not be wise, we would go ahead, even if that might be difficult.”

Finally, I asked Professor Rothwell if she had anything she’d like to say to new students. “First of all welcome. Secondly… I hope they get a good degree and that leads them on to a good job, but if they leave with just that degree and nothing beyond that, they’ll have wasted the huge opportunity of university and the University of Manchester.

“I would urge them to take part in Students’ Union activities, in volunteering, in sport, in special societies—never again will they have the diverse range of opportunities available to them, to test all different things, to take them beyond their comfort zone, beyond their current interests.

“So yes, work hard, I can’t say otherwise of course. Yes, enjoy yourself, I wouldn’t dare to say anything different. But grab those opportunities. And have a good time.”

  • ABS

    Not sure why half the interview was spent asking her opinions on Brexit and May. Nor why 1/4 was spent talking about international students – it’s not relevant to the majority of people. You should have asked what she thinks about the THE education study of teaching excellence ranking no Russell Group in the top 20 and ranking Manchester below Man Met and Aberystwyth for teaching standards because, I quote, these Universities “rely on their ‘designer label’ rather than the quality of the educational experience to get students ‘through the door”. Designer labels, like, a four star hotel and massive campus redevelopment? What does she think about the effective privatization of Universities?

    • Jim

      Those THE teaching excellence rankings are daft – they favour smaller institutions, hence why places like Aston and Coventry are scores of places above world-renowned centres like Oxford and UCL (and Manchester). The Shanghai Rankings are a much better measure – on those, Manchester is 5th in the UK and 35th in the world.

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