Vice-Chancellor interview

2017 marks three years since Professor David Richardson took over from Edward Acton as Vice-Chancellor. In those three years, UEA has shot up the league tables and secured consideration as one of the country’s elite non-Russell Group universities. It has also had its share of scandal. Prof Richardson begun at the university lecturing in biology in 1991, and rose the ranks until he recieved his current position in 2014.

When Concrete editor-in-chief Geri Scott interviewed Prof Richardson at the start of his tenure, he described his job as like running a £250m a year business. We asked him whether, three years on, he would still describe it this way.

“Yes. The university’s size is increasing, so very soon we’ll be turning around £300m a year. It is a charitable business, we are a charity, but it is a large organisation. We did an analysis of its economic impact on the region recently and it is some £800m per annum in the region, supporting nigh on 8,000 jobs.”

Prof Richardson told Concrete three years ago he had no immediate plans to expand the universityís population, and would focus on expanding the structure of the university first. Students have clearly become concerned with demand for facilities on campus in the last twelve months, with pressures on study spaces and reports last year, by this newspaper, of an accommodation crisis. We asked the VC what had changed.

“That actually was my view at the time, I felt that we needed the confidence that we could grow with quality before we started to grow and I think that’s what I made clear, it was not a ‘never say never’ it was a ‘no, not at the moment’. Shortly after becoming VC, I became aware of a need to invest in the fabric of the estate earlier than perhaps I had previously thought.

“The Lasdun Wall, for example, is not in the sortof condition that is acceptable for our students going forward and the time to begin to redevelop the campus has come sooner than I expected. I recognised the need to modify my original plan and bring that growth forward, perhaps two or three years earlier than I had originally anticipated. I didnít do that lightly and we looked carefully at it.”

Prof Richardson said expansion plans were devised as part of the UEA Vision 2030 and the plan for the university between 2016-20. The first phase of growth to see 1,500 more students and the second another 1,500.

ìMy judgement was that we could protect quality during that growth, we did have new learning and teaching buildings, The Enterprise Centre, Julian Study Centre, Earlham Hall, had been brought back into service, and we had in the process of building round about 800 new rooms on campus in two phases with two new accommodation blocks.

“So I made a judgment that we could grow and protect the quality. Of course, there’s always challenges, the library and study space was a challenge. We’ve looked at investing, we reconfigured the library and put in more study spaces and actually that ratio of students to study spaces will remain at approx 9 or 9.5 which is what it was three years ago so we are maintaining ratio as we grow, likewise with the new rooms on campus.”

Is UEA going to continue to expand?

“Yes. We will take a pause around about that first phase of 1,500 – at the moment we’re expanding quite fast – then weíll be getting the second phase.

“We’re hoping a new building, largely to accommodate activities around arts and social sciences, will be finished by about 2021 so then after that infrastructure phase we can begin the second phase of growth.”

Concrete asked how much the university is spending on campus infrastructure.

“The total expenditure across the next 15 years or so will be about 200m. Each building has its own particular cost associated with it but that’s the approximate price. To refurbish the Lasdun Wall, to replace the windows and gut the building and rebuild inside so itís a great academic space, you need to move everybody out. You need to build new buildings to give space to do that – that’s part of the plan. It’s a carefully structured plan, which is why it takes 15 years. You can’t do it all at once, you have to run that through. That’s where the continuity and vision is important, because you need to actually believe in a plan and be willing to see it through.”

Mental health is another issue students have been critical of the university on. Concrete reported last year on confusion and delays surrounding an action plan for student welfare.

Professor Richardson described the counselling service as having been “completely revamped” in recent months, referring to a move away from person-centred counselling.

He described the new model as “a blend now of peer support, cognitive behavioural therapy and person centred therapy”.

“We looked at the HEPI [Higher Education Policy Institute guidelines for how a counseling service should be resourced and the sortof things we should be offering, and our counselling service has the HEPI recommended ratio of counsellors to students and staff. The recommended is 13 counsellors for our 18,000 or so student and staff, 13.5 in actual fact. It’s about 1 for every 1,400 student and staff, is the HEPI recommendation. That’s what we will be operating at.”

In the last week of the 2016-7 academic year, the sensitive personal data of a number of American Studies students was mistakenly leaked via a school-wide email. The incident made national news. Concrete asked Prof Richardson how the university was reassessing their handling of student data moving forward.

“First of all, I made a full apology for the data leak. It was unacceptable”, he said.

“I moved very quickly to ask for an independent audit, which is being carried out by PWC. We also referred ourselves to the Information Commissioner. This was not how I want UEA to work. PWC are just completing their report. I want to ensure it is fully implemented. I’ve got a working group, led by one of the Pro-Vice-Chancellors who is going to ensure it is.

“It’s going to require all of our staff who handle sensitive data, and that is a lot of them, actually change some of their operational practices, because we can’t let this happen again.”

Changes to be made include adjustments to the university emails and rigorous data protection training amongst staff.

“100 percent compliance with data protection training, that is what will happen. That has been happening across the summer, the deadline for that to all be completed by is 24 September, the start of the new academic year. I don’t want this to happen again – there’s never any certainty in life but we are doing everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The end of the last academic year also saw a historic general election, in which young people had a record turnout and the Conservatives lost their majority in the House of Commons. We asked Prof Richardson his initial reaction on seeing the unexpected results and his thoughts on the political landscape for higher education moving forward.

“The first thing I did was acknowledge the student voice had been loud and had been heard and change had brought about an unexpected outcome.”

Andrew Adonis, the architect of New Labour’s tuition fees, said over the summer fees were not sustainable. Labour also pledged to cut fees.

“There’s no doubt that Labour’s policy to abolish tuition fees has created debate and I think thatís very healthy”, the chancellor said about this news.

“It will be interesting to see what’s happened at the party conferences. I’m very happy to get involved and contribute to that debate. From my point of view, it comes down to, as a Vice-Chancellor who wants to run a university that provides teaching and research excellence and a great experience for student and staff, I need a unit of resource to run this university. I need assurances that whatever the funding system whether it’s with the state or with the student or split differently between the two, there’s recognition that we need this unit of resource.

“There is a myth, it is a myth, that universities are rolling with cash. Let’s go back in history – the late 70s to the mid 90s, the unit of resource fell in real terms 40 percent. Now, I was a student in 1982. I remember my first year, universities were slashed, there were huge huge issues.

“We got into the late 90s and they introduced the topping-up fee, it was called that because it was topping up what the state were giving. They didnít cut the state contribution, but they topped it up. The unit of resource increased and unis could invest again in their facilities which had been underinvested in for many years. I think we started to see the benefit of that to the student experience. We move on again, the coalition came in and introduced £9,000 fees. The universities didnít get any more money, we just lost most of the state grant. Then that was fixed for the last five years because it wasnít inflation linked, so we start to lose money in real-terms.

“We need to invest in our university, your university. We need to invest for future students and for today’s students. For that, I need a particular unit of resource and if that was cut, I wouldn’t be able to invest in the refurbishment of the existing buildings that I want to invest in and the new buildings I want. It would be a struggle.”

Prof Richardson said if Labour were to come into government he would want recognition universities need a “particular unit of resource”.

“Some of that is used for widening participation. That has helped bring more people into higher education”, he said. Prof Richardson added that having no cap on student numbers was also positive for widening participation. “We’ve certainly been able to increase our reach into a wider student community in the last few years.”

Concrete asked the Vice-Chancellor if he thought, given the expensive price tag of higher education, a degree was still value for money. He said it was.

“The academic education itself is important. But also, for me, the degree and your campus-based university where you get the opportunity to have access to so many other facilities, and to work in a social environment and experience an educational community and develop together as part of that community. I think that’s still a powerful offer and good value for the fees that are being paid for it.

“I come back to the fact that we’re not a private university, we donít have shareholders. We aren’t paying dividends out to people. The money that’s coming in is going into that student experience in its entirety ultimately. I think that that is still good value for money. I know it feels painful when it’s coming out of your own pocket, but bear in mind that it was coming from the state before it has just shifted to the students. The actual cost itself, in real terms, is not changing. It’s just been shifted to something that is value for money.

So would he pay that much for a degree?

“Yes. I do have children and they’ve got to participate in the system and pay the full fee.

“One of the lines of views is that through graduating higher numbers of graduates the actual countryís productivity will be increased. So, the overall standard of living will be increased. So, as we increase fees over about a twenty-year line if you like, with the same government with the same policy, the actual relative burden compared to the graduate earnings as we progress should not change because the country’s productivity is increasing so wages go up as a consequence. That’s the ideal for how we will work. But none of us can see into the crystal ball of the future so the reality of whether thatís the case, governments will have to continually watch.”

Vice-Chancellors’ pay has also been in the spotlight as of late. Jo Johnson said university leaders should not be paid more than the Prime Minister. Concrete asked Prof Richardson, paid around £270,000 per annum, his thoughts.

“I don’t think itís productive to compare a Vice-Chancellorís salary to the Prime Ministerís. From my own perspective, it’s an absolute privilege to do this job. My salary is determined by a committee, which includes the Chair of Council and the university Treasurer. I’m not on it. I’m not in the room when I’m being discussed. I make a written submission every year of my own commentary of my own performance against the key objectives of the university. They review that performance and make a judgement of what my salary should be.”

“I like to think they take into account my three years here have overseen a period of growth which has enabled us to generate the cash we need to invest in student facilities. I’ve led the university as we’ve achieved our best-ever position in the league tables.”

“My salary is below the median salary for all vice-chancellors. It’s down to the UEA community whether they think they’re getting value for money.”

“I do get a sense the wider UEA community appreciates my passion for the university and what I do for it. I hope they think that I’m worth what I’m being paid to do.”

Another big higher education story of the summer was the Teaching Excellence Framework. UEA was the only university to have their Silver ranking upgraded to a Gold this summer – the ranking hasnít been without controversy but Prof Richardson said he was ìdelightedî with the August announcement.

“Make no mistake about it, the new statement was recognising we had been given the wrong award the first time and that same submission was completely reassessed and successfully appealed.”

“The result really does give great recognition to everything that the staff and the students have been doing together – that was recognised in the statement as well, how weíve been working closely with student communities.”

The government has said it will reassess how the TEF rankings are calculated, with a proposal to decrease the importance of student satisfaction data and increase that of graduate employment. UEAís performance in this year’s NSS played a crucial role in the Gold rating.

Prof Richardson said he was not shocked by Jo Johnsonís speech announcing the change.

“Clearly the government is very interested in seeing people graduate through the university to graduate jobs and an indicator of that is graduate salaries but they can always distort because different kinds of universities will have different kinds of  student bodies that will graduate to different kinds of careers and then different salaries. If they start to increase the weighting around graduate salaries theyÌre going to have to be very careful about how they benchmark that.”

Concrete asked the Chancellor for a high and a low from the last three years.

“The high was working as a UEA community to develop the UEA vision 2030. I had, entering the job, wanted to  be more consultative than perhaps had historically been the case so I set out to be more visible, to do more in conversation events with students, with staff of all kinds around the uni but also with external supporters and stakeholders and through that came the vision.

“Getting that vision together and launching it, getting a sense there was genuine excitement behind it, was definitely a high. There are many other highs, you do get springs in your step when you get really great news and things that suggest things are going actually rather well three years into the job, like UEA’s recent performance in the Complete Uni Guide, highest ever, 12th. I have to say, if you take out specialist institutions like LSE and Imperial, which is just science and technology, we’re the tenth mainstream university in the UK.

“That’s a fantastic journey and that delights me, but within that there are many things that really are positive for the student experience – good honours, good qualities of degrees that our students graduate within the top ten in the country from 60th in the country a few years ago.

“Employability is still a big issue but we are going in the right direction, and thatís very good as well. 77 percent  of students in graduate jobs compared to fewer than 70 percent three years ago.”

Prof Richardson said he couldn’t point to a low.

“There’s so much positive about the job but there are lots of challenges and of course one gets a sense of there will always be people, and rightly so, who don’t agree with what I’m doing. It’s nothing unexpected but it can be challenging and sometimes you feel a sense of that challenge – of course, you then question, rightly so, whether you’re doing the right thing or the right strategy and that can be quite an emotional process at times. But as a leader you are faced with ultimately being the person who makes a decision and then you have to justify the decision to those that don’t agree with it. That can be challenging but is a very necessary part of leadership and I accept that.”

What would his advice be to recent graduates, who have just left campus for world of political turmoil?

“I think that the world needs them more than ever. My advice would be stay positive and aspire to make a difference, because you can. You’ve got your whole kind of career ahead of you and we need you to make a difference. Times are challenging, and people can make a difference in challenging times. I hope that at UEA we have prepared you with all the skills you will need to make that difference. So go out there and be positive about it, get a hold of it.”

Images: (L-R) Will Cockram, Daniel Salliss, Yutian Lei.


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December 2021
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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