Given that she works a 70-hour week, regularly advises the great and the good of British politics, and has previously been named as the 15th most powerful woman in the country, it is a rare moment as an undergraduate to find yourself sitting in the grand office of Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell.
The obvious topic to begin an interview with the Vice-Chancellor and President of the largest university in the country is fees. Two weeks ago Ed Miliband announced that if Labour win the next election they will cut fees from £9000 to £6000 and described the coalition’s introduction of £9k fees as “one of the most expensive broken promises in the history of British politics”. I ask Rothwell whether she supports the proposal.
“I certainly would not oppose the £6000 fee,” she declares. “What [UK Vice-Chancellors] have said is that they are very concerned about the ability to make up the gap, because without being able to make up that gap universities will have a huge deficit.”
Following Miliband’s announcement, Vince Cable described the proposals as “financially illiterate”. Reflecting on Cable’s comments, Rothwell says she doesn’t know anybody “who has looked at the economics and seen how it can work. Even if it could be made to work, there will be a time gap. If a Labour government was to commit to filling that gap, which is nearly £3 billion a year probably, great, fantastic. But it has got to come from somewhere. That’s the big worry. But a £6000 fee I’d be very happy with.”
“Would £6000 fees even solve the problem?”, I ask. “Even if Labour get elected and reduce fees, there will still be a cohort of students, myself included, who will have been paying 9k fees for three years.”
She responds: “Well we don’t know what will happen actually, because they haven’t come out and said what will happen to students who fell into that period that did pay £9000, or the students that will be in the system during the change.
“The other thing we don’t know what will happen is to the offer agreements for widening participation. Any university that charges over £6000 has to pledge a significant part of that extra towards helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We’ve put a lot of money into that, about £20 million a year. So if it was dropped to £6000 would we still have that requirement? We don’t know yet.”
Moving on from fees, I remind the Vice-Chancellor of a lecturer’s question time that took place in Fallowfield last week, which featured a panel of five senior lecturers from the School of Social Sciences, including the Head of Politics Professor Andrew Russell. They were asked whether the university should divest from the fossil fuel industry, in which it has invested almost £40 million, and concluded unanimously that it should. Given the support that clearly exists amongst staff and students for divestment, I ask if it’s time for the university to think seriously about divesting from fossil fuels.
“I think possibly we should. It’s not my decision. It’s the decision of the finance committee of the board. They wrestle with this frequently, because we don’t choose who we invest in. We give [the responsibility] at arm’s length to another body, but we give them parameters, and those parameters don’t include ‘not fossil fuels’. But they might do in future.
She appears to be referring to the university’s ethical investment policy, which includes the clause that the university “will use its influence in an effort to reduce and, ideally, eliminate, irresponsible corporate behaviour leading to environmental degradation” – a condition which the Fossil Free Campaign have argued is breached by the university’s financial involvement in companies such as BP and Shell.
Rothwell continues: “What we’re going to do is raise it again at the next finance committee meeting, saying this has been brought up, and that there’s a lot of feeling. Then they may choose to change the parameters that are given to the investment company. I can’t comment on whether they will or not.”
The conversation turns to Vice-Chancellor’s pay. Last year, despite taking a pay cut of 0.3 per cent, Rothwell earned £291000—an eye-watering sum of money to a student in their overdraft. I ask whether or not it is right that Vice-Chancellors earn on average £260000, at a time when increasing numbers of students in Manchester are resorting to food banks in order to get by, disabled students’ allowances and bursaries are being cut, and £9k fees are in force.
“I guess the answer depends on what you want from Vice-Chancellors of universities. The UK is one of the lowest paid countries for Vice-Chancellors. Is it fair in any society that people should earn twenty or a hundred or a thousand times more than other people? In my opinion, possibly not. But on the other hand, you wouldn’t get reasonable Vice-Chancellors unless you pay a reasonable rate. I’m paid less than the average, for the largest university in the country. You quote my salary as £291000, but that includes pension. And I’ve never had a pay rise.”
“There is an issue, and I’m not sure that it’s right, but it happens in the private sector quite a lot, that there’s a sense [that] if a Vice-Chancellor or CEO is paid less than the rest of the sector, they must be not very good. I don’t quite buy into that because you should judge someone on their merits rather than what they are paid. But that is certainly something that prevails. I mean US salaries, [they’re] probably four times higher.”
With regard to American salaries, she perhaps has something of a point. In 2013 for example, it was reported that the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, a public institution with exchange links with the University of Manchester, earned a salary of $784468. In the same year, the University of Chicago’s President Robert Zimmer was paid a staggering $3358723, although 40 per cent of this income was a result of deferred compensation.
In a time of food banks and cuts, the 2010 parliament has been one of the most elitist in recent memory. A report by the Sutton Trust in 2010 found that over one third of sitting MPs attended public schools. The house is also only 20 per cent female. In a similar vein, until quite recently, Rothwell was the only female Vice-Chancellor of a Russell Group university and for this reason is seen as a role model to many. Given this context, I ask what advice she would give to female students who aspire to the higher professions such as politics and academia.
“I think it’s easier than it has been in the past because there is a genuine predominance of the view that we need more diversity, whether that’s gender or ethnicity. It’s much, much stronger than it’s ever been before. I would encourage female students to absolutely go for that profession if they want.
“One of the sad things I find is that in academia, some outstanding women get to a point in their career and say, ‘I just don’t want to go onto that next step because it’s so hard and it’s such long hours.’ We have to change that view and make them think: ‘You can do it!’ There is a significant confidence issue amongst women.”
It isn’t exactly a controversial thing to say that the Russell Group is still a very elitist group of universities. The University of Manchester has a better record than many of the other universities in the group. But it still suffers from of a distinct lack of black professors and students from state schools and ethnic minority backgrounds are still under-represented.
Rothwell appears to share this concern: “It’s a big worry for us; we’re doing a lot of work on race equality. One of the issues we do find is that [of the] Manchester Access Programme students who come through from very disadvantaged backgrounds, quite a few choose not to apply to certain universities because they feel that they won’t be at home there. So they might be more likely to apply to Manchester and Liverpool, than they might be to some others because they feel that there will be more people like them there. It becomes a bit self-perpetuating. My father pushed me to go to Oxbridge, but I said I just don’t want to. I was from a state school.”
At this point Rothwell laughs and asks me why I haven’t yet grilled her for claiming £22000 on flights, seeing as the story was on the front page of The Mancunion this week. I put it to her that I personally would expect someone who has worked their way up to being Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Manchester to be flying business class.
“I don’t think it’s an expectation,” she responds. “I didn’t comment on the M.E.N article because I didn’t think there was much point. It was interesting actually. In the vote at the end of the article, 40 per cent thought it was reasonable. But it’s not reasonable for the luxury. I flew to France and back for a conference and I went economy obviously. You only fly business class if it’s more than six hours. I went to Singapore. I arrived at 5pm; my first meeting was at 7 that night. I did a dinner, I started the next morning at 8, worked all day, had dinner, took the 1am flight and was back in the office at 9am the next morning. There is no way I could do that on economy.”
Before becoming Vice-Chancellor and President in 2010, Rothwell had a long and successful career as a scientist, conducting vital research into the causes of stroke and the role of inflammation in brain disease . She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2004. Given her scientific background, I wonder what she would say to humanities students like me, who often feel marginalised in a society that appears to favour science students.
“I don’t think they should feel that at all. Most employers, unless it’s for a specialised career, want a student from a good university with a good degree. Humanities degrees are highly valued by society. I think humanities almost has a chip on its shoulder at the moment and I don’t think that it should. Get a good degree, never mind the subject.”
To conclude, in a moment of idealism I ask the Vice-Chancellor whether she thinks that we will ever reach a point of deficit reduction where fees can be abolished altogether again. “I think we might,” she reflects. “It depends on whether society accepts that university education is beneficial to society as well as to the individual.”