“We screwed up”: Sussex QT prompts University U-Turn
Deputy Vice Chancellor Clare Mackie admitted at the first ever Sussex Question Time debate that the University had “screwed up” over its handling of international student fee increases. Students in England remain with worries about their financial situation and the prospect of leaving university saddled with debts of up to £40,000.
It emerged this week that some international students would face a bill of £15,400 per year, which would see them having to pay over £55,000 for a three-year course, despite assurances that they would be charged at the original rate of £11,400.
In light of the discussion, and the flood of complaints from disgruntled students, the University has now announced a policy change, and has promised to repay money to students affected by the unexpected fee rises. In a statement they said, “The University is to make a repayment to international students who have continued their studies at Sussex in 2012-13 and has apologised for not giving consistent information about future fee increases when they originally applied.”
These issues, as well as many others being faced by Sussex students, were the subject of the Sussex Question Time debate that played host to almost 200 attendees in Chichester lecture theatre on Friday 3 November.
The debate, brain-child of Students’ Union Communications Officer Kit Bradshaw, brought together four panellists with the president of the Debating Society, Abraham Baldry, standing in for David Dimbleby and facing a packed out lecture theatre.
Sitting on the panel were: Deputy Vice Chancellor Clare Mackie; Sussex student and author of ‘Beyond capitalism? The future of radical politics’, Luke Cooper, and Caroline Lucas, Brighton Pavilion MP and former leader of the Green Party. It also included Mark Campbell, Senior Lecturer at London Metropolitan University & UCU National Executive Committee and Economics Professor and former Sussex Vice Chancellor Alasdair Smith.
The night began with a story told by Mark Campbell. A Nigerian student’s father had discovered that his son, who attended London Metropolitan University, faced deportation after the government cut international student visas. The Masters student, who had also studied in London for his undergraduate degree, had amassed £40,000 in debt from his studies in England and had dedicated four years of his life to his university education. Upon hearing the news that his son may have had to abandon his degree, the man’s father suffered from a heart-attack. It left the son asking “If I leave to go and see my dying father will I be allowed back into the country?”
Caroline Lucas proceeded to state that international students are treated like “cash cows” for the university. With non-EU students making up 25% of all students in the University, they bring in a substantial amount of income.
When questioned on the cuts to humanities and arts subjects, Luke Cooper responded by explaining that “knowledge of our society isn’t valued anymore. “Elites don’t want us to ask questions about the direction our governments are heading in because maybe one day we’ll decide we don’t like it”.
But as the Chair wound down the evening and all panellists gave their closing remarks, the most interesting events of the evening took place in the lobby outside. One attendee commented that “it was good of Clare Mackie to apologise”, but concern was voiced by a third-year Anthropology student who said “the University sent someone who was out of the loop. “I’m glad that they had some representation on the panel but she wasn’t involved in some of the decision making processes so why did they not send someone else who had been?”
Kit Bradshaw that said he was pleased that “senior management had put someone on the panel”. He went on to commend Clare Mackie saying “It was great she was honest – but we want her to go further”.
Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing was invited to sit on the panel by the Students’ Union but the University explained that they felt Clare Mackie was the best choice.
Maria Da Silva, the Education Officer, also voiced concern that both Farthing and Duffy had previously worked closely together in St. George’s Hospital, a medical college within the University of London which outsourced its cleaning staff. The hospital was then found to be paying the cleaners below the London Living Wage.
Sussex Against Privatisation has voiced further concern that that particular issue was criticised in Parliament and that it is a “curious coincidence” that parallels between the two stories can be drawn.
After Clare Mackie had finished being interviewed by URF, she was confronted by a group of international students who had some questions to ask of her. They claimed that the University had broken its contract by charging students at a higher rate than had been contractually agreed.
There are two tariffs available to international students – the fixed rate of £11,400 per year or the variable rate that stood at £10,900 for 2012 entry. They explained that they had contractual evidence that they had agreed to the higher fixed rate but were being charged the variable rate which was due to rise by 12.7%.
Clare Mackie said that there was “clearly an issue” and suggested that they see her the following morning to discuss the matter further. She offered them each her business card and the originally disgruntled students voiced their support for Ms Mackie’s handling of the situation.
One Canadian law student claimed it was “a big victory for international students” and that he hoped the issue would be resolved. This resolution came in the form of a welcome response on fees on 8 November, when the University issued the statement mentioned above. The University apologised to those affected, saying “Not providing clear and consistent information was a mistake. We are sorry for the confusion and for any current financial problems caused as a result.”
There was still dissatisfaction, however, with the man who one student described as “the person who always fails to show up”, explaining that they felt a conversation with Michael Farthing would have set their mind at rest.
Despite their resignation that “he’ll never come himself” they felt that student representatives should be included on the board of governors. This, they argued, would be in order to maximise student representation in the decision-making process.