An interview with Sir Steve Smith

James Beeson, Editor, meets University Vice-Chancellor Sir Steve Smith to discuss the impact of the General Election on higher education, the expansion of the university and his reaction to our expenses investigation.

It is with some trepidation that I approach Northcote House to interview a man earning far more a year than I could ever hope to in my (proposed) future career as a journalist. Announcing my arrival, I am greeted by Sir Steve’s PA, who leads me to ‘The Executive Suite’ where the powers that be at the University of Exeter take residence.

After a short wait, Steve welcomes me into his office. Charming and charismatic, it is hard to dislike the Vice-Chancellor at a first impression. Born in 1952 into a working class background, Steve was educated at the University of Southampton, where he studied for his bachelors, masters and PHD, before teaching at Huddersfield and UEA on topics he professes to have known “nothing about.” After 13 years at UEA, Steve left to become Senior Pro Vice-Chancellor at University of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1992, before succeeding Geoffrey Holland as Vice-Chancellor of Exeter in October 2002.

I ask Steve what his job involves on a day-to-day basis. “Basically, when you become Vice-Chancellor, you end up giving up the research side” he laments, “I publish a bit, but nothing like I used to.” His primary role is to be “responsible to the Governing body for the academic standards and the financial performance of the University.” At an institution where the average turnover is £330million, this typically means an 80-hour week for the Vice-Chancellor.

On a national scale, Steve is also responsible for Exeter to other universities, but also “significantly” to political parties and the media. In light of this, I ask if he was pleased with the result of the General Election, and what he thinks the consequences of a majority Conservative Government will be for higher education. “To be honest… whoever won there were threats” he says, citing Labour’s pledge to reduce tuition fees as an issue, due to his “concern” that this would lead to cuts elsewhere in the university budget, something the party had not made clear. “We simply couldn’t see where they were going to make up the money,” he says, “It was a bit like saying to someone ‘do you love me?’ and them replying ‘I’ll get back to you on that’… You kind of know the answer.”

In March, Exeter’s VC was one of several University chiefs who wrote to The Times expressing concerns about the reduction in fees. I ask why, given the fact that large amounts of student debt goes un-repaid, Steve was so against the cut. “What puts poorer kids off going to university isn’t so much the fees, its maintenance,” he replies, “and if the Government were to put £2.7billion into the hands of students, we’d rather it go into maintenance to support kids from poorer backgrounds.” I counter by citing Labour’s plans to increase student maintenance grants, but Steve dismisses this as “a very small amount” and suggests that the overall impact of a Labour government would have been to help students who were already more likely to pay back their fees.

Nonetheless, he also acknowledges that the Conservative victory also carries threats. “We are worried about three things” he says. Firstly, the EU, “The University has taken the view that we will strongly advocate membership; it’s the right thing for the country,” he affirms. Secondly, he states his concerns about immigration, “The rhetoric from the Home Office and from Teresa May is damaging” he sighs. Finally, Steve also admitted his “massive” worry about the 8 July budget, “The only money left they can take is the research funding for universities… that would damage us significantly,” he sighs.

I ask if the lack of attention received by education in the Conservative manifesto concerns the Vice-Chancellor. His response is rather surprising. “In an odd way, no it doesn’t,” he says, “I think they carefully avoided saying anything because they don’t want to end up like the Lib Dems.” Rather optimistically, Steve believes the lack of information is a signal the party does not intend to make any major changes in the sector, something many pessimists will probably find hard to believe.

Increasing University tuition fees has also not been ruled out by The Conservatives. On the subject of whether Steve would be in favour of further rises, the Vice-Chancellor is coy. “Yes I would like to see fees rise, but only in line with inflation,” he says. With 50% of university staff receiving incremental pay rises, Steve believes universities have to raise funding somehow. “You can’t have all your costs rising, and all your income stationary.” It’s a fair point, but only if one believes, as the Vice-Chancellor clearly does, that higher education should be run as a private, profit making venture, and not state funded due to the benefits it brings to society as a whole.

The increasing marketization of the sector has led to the University growing substantially in recent years. Among the consequences of this is the extension of the university teaching day from this September. However, Steve is keen to emphasize the changes won’t have an adverse effect on student and staff wellbeing. “Staff will be working the same hours, just at a marginally different time frame,” he comments, “half of the Russell Group already operate much wider hours than we do.” This, combined with special arrangements for anyone with caring responsibilities, means that the view amongst university executives is that the extension is more a “transition” than a radical change.

It has been well publicized that Sir Steve has ambitions for Exeter to become a ‘Global 100’ University. I ask the Vice-Chancellor whether he thinks that the accompanying growth in student numbers is placing unacceptable strain on the university’s resources. “You’re absolutely right,” Steve says, “If we continue to grow the university it will place unacceptable growth pressure on facilities.” Setting a maximum of 22,000 students is one of a number of measures the university has in place. “We would like to reduce undergraduate numbers a little,” Steve affirms, a statement that sounds totally at odds with the growth the university has seen in recent years. The Vice-Chancellor attributes this growth primarily due to the rising popularity of Exeter as an institution – 17,200 students with predicted grades of three A’s or better, applied to the University in 2014.

Despite this growth, the University has been criticized for the ongoing ‘Professional Services Transformation’ that will lead to over 200 members of staff losing their jobs. I ask Steve whether he thinks it is right that he is paid such a high salary when lower paid staff continue to suffer. Steve describes the voluntary severance schemes on offer at the University as “very generous” and argues that the losses will be balanced out with investment in capital and new jobs in other areas such as more academic staff. On the subject of his own personal salary, Steve is defensive, “I’ve had one salary increase in six years… I’ve had a couple of offers recently to work abroad, both of which offered me two and a half times my salary. I’m very happy here; it’s not about the money.” Despite this, he does admit he is very well paid, “I’d be lying if I said it’s easy to justify the salary… but it’s pretty much where the market is in the UK.”

We touch on the topic of the expenses of university staff, a controversial issue that resulted in the University threatening to sue Exeposé back in February. Does Steve think that these expenses were justified? “Basically yes” he replies, “The expenses of the senior staff are all scrutinized externally… I don’t get paid one penny in expenses without a signature from the Chair of Governors. The core issue here is: are the expenses appropriate for the task in hand? For my job I have to be in London a lot… I only ever stay overnight if I have an evening engagement. Staying overnight is absolutely not something I try and do.”

It terms of the purpose of the expenses incurred by staff, Steve is insistent that any claims have to be for the benefit of the university, “one dinner brought in more money than I and the senior team would claim in the next decade,’ he claims. On the subject of whether the amount claimed is excessive, Steve admits that the figures do sound large from the outside, but cites university guidelines: “It’s very straightforward; no receipt, no expenses. There is a maximum that anyone can charge, and the expenses apply to you whatever your job at the university.” he says, “If I fly more than seven hours, I can fly business class, but so could a 23-year-old events person… We don’t have ‘the bosses’ bit and ‘the plebs’ bit; everyone has the same expenses.”

I ask Steve for his thoughts on the investigation carried out by Exeposé into university expenses. “my main issue was the notion that there was a scandal and that in some way my expenses were not dealt with in the normal way,” he says, “I live by the same rules as everybody else.” Somewhat controversially, Steve also claims that he believes the university would be better if more than the reported £2million had been spent on expenses, a statement I find hard to swallow given the cuts being made elsewhere.

To finish the interview, I ask the Steve where he sees the University in ten years time. “I think we’ll see a university still in the top ten, and comfortably in the top 100 in the world,” he says, “I hope that in ten years time you can say you went to Exeter, and people will say ‘that’s a great place.’ I want people graduating to be proud of their institution, to be proud of being an Exeter graduate.” It’s an admirable sentiment, but one that relies on the students themselves enjoying their time at the University, and hence it is their wellbeing that must come first; something the Vice-Chancellor ought to well not to forget.

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