Concrete interviewed the University of East Anglia’s vice-chancellor, Professor Edward Acton, on Tuesday 5 March. The vice-chancellor is the chief executive of the university, responsible for overseeing the management of the university. He was questioned about university policy, student experience, and forthcoming projects.

Interview: vice-chancellor Edward ActonPhoto: Chris Teale

We asked Professor Acton how UEA applications and admissions were affected by the increase in tuition fees. He revealed that last year’s intake was “almost exactly on target, and was just 30 below overall.” He said: “The applications really peaked in September 2011, just before fees increased, and they have come down somewhat since then.” Acton explained that the fall was in line with similar universities.

When asked what UEA was doing to improve student experience and demonstrate that higher education is worthwhile, Professor Acton said that the university was “ensuring a very good ratio between academic staff and students so that the attention students get and the group sizes and the feedback and so forth are what a larger academic workforce can deliver.”

He emphasised that UEA had increased employability resources, developing an “academic career pathway,” whilst he indicated that the university would invest more into teaching facilities.

The vice-chancellor described the suggestion that arts and humanities course provision had been detrimentally affected by funding cuts as a “misconception,” saying “the new fee regime more easily covers the expense of delivering arts and humanities than it does the expense of delivering especially laboratory science.” He instead queried whether the government would continue to provide the top-up grant necessary for science, saying that despite fees going up, “universities are finding it hard to make ends meet and continue to invest.”

Acton suggested the Arts and Humanities programmes will quickly respond to changing student demand. He proposed the introduction of a liberal arts degree in response to changing student demand, giving it “very high status” by providing a “deliberately broader education than many people get, but in rigorous disciplines.”

Concrete asked how the university was ensuring it could accommodate any future expansion in student intake, citing the shortage of first year accommodation on campus. Professor Acton announced that UEA would be building an additional residence block, to meet the demand for bedrooms on campus.

Regarding the accommodation shortfall earlier in the academic year, he said “it was very regrettable in general for all students who were disrupted, but I’m conscious some international students were particularly jilted.”

The vice-chancellor’s outspoken comments on international student admissions have attracted widespread coverage in the national media, and he has often emphasised the importance of the cultural and financial benefits that international students bring.

When asked how UEA would maintain the integrity of its admissions process and continue to encourage international admissions in the light of government visa concerns and ever-increasing fees, Professor Acton said “extreme care” would be taken in complying with “UKBA regulations, vetting applications, attendance monitoring and ensuring the paperwork is all genuine.” He emphasised that a recent UK Border Agency audit had given UEA a “complete and clean bill of health.”

In terms of broadening UEA’s international presence, Acton said the university was developing “a very strong research relationship with Fudang University in Shanghai”, and is in the process of founding a regional office in Southeast Asia, envisaging an additional drive in the United States.

The Union of UEA Students is lobbying the university to provide financial support for Syrian students whose funding has been affected by the Syrian civil conflict. Responding to these concerns, the vice-chancellor provided assurances that “each case is being watched very closely by the Dean of Students.”

He explained: “I think they do need individual handling and certainly what you can do is defer fees,” but he was cautious to commit to the measure, saying that he’s “very sensitive to the fact the institution hasn’t before simply waived fees.”

Nonetheless, he expressed sympathy for students whose education is disrupted by funding problems resulting from a civil war.
Last year, the UEA Greens criticised the vice-chancellor’s high salary in concurrence with People and Planet’s “10:1” campaign, confronting wage disparity between the highest and lowest paid employees in UK institutions. Professor Acton responded to their claims, stating that universities “actually have an extraordinarily narrow spread compared to society, I think in the region of 6:1.” He explained why a vice-chancellor’s salary is justified, saying that the role provides leadership, strategy and responsibility under often very stressful conditions.

Finally, Concrete asked whether a new chancellor would be appointed soon. Professor Acton replied by saying: “I very much hope there will. Because of the tragic early death of Sir Brandon Gough, we’ve not rushed to do that out of respect. But yes, especially in your 50th year, you want that figurehead here for official and hosting purposes, so I very much hope there will. There’s a process, Council Membership Committee is handling the identification of a shortlist and taking a very delicate approach for someone we think might be suitable.”