When I met the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex earlier this week I expected to be highly intimidated and stumbling over my words. After all, he is the most senior member of staff.
However, the interaction I had with the Vice-Chancellor was anything but intimidating or nerve-wracking. In fact, it was far from what I had expected.
As he sat in front of me and asked me about my studies, I realise that I had gotten Tickell all wrong.
He is gentle mannered and quiet, a somewhat nervous man who could barely look me in the eyes for more than a couple of seconds. He carries a nervous energy and repeatdely twiddles his fingers throughout the interview.
In true Sussex style, the Vice Chancellor has been faced with a year of on campus protests, housing shortages, rent controls and new building developments.
We begin by asking him about how he has found his first year at Sussex.
In a few sentences can you describe your first year in office at Sussex?
That’s a difficult question – it was a very busy year – but one that I enjoyed immensely. I knew that Sussex was different, but have been taken aback by how much people who work and study here love the University.
We, obviously, have a beautiful campus, but the spirit of the University is that students and staff who challenge convention from all different perspectives. There have, of course, been quite a few challenges along the way which I also didn’t anticipate.
Last year students were housed in hotels in town due to a shortage of on-campus accommodation. What will the University do to ensure the same problem is not repeated this year?
This year some first year students are living off campus again. The key thing for us is that we do everything we can, in partnership with the Students Union, to ensure that these students have as rich an experience as those living on campus.
The fundamental problem is that the University doesn’t currently have enough bedrooms for our intake, which is why the East Slope redevelopment is building more than 2,000 new rooms on campus.
In regards to the new developments on campus which will replace East Slope, can the university commit to matching the same rental prices as East Slope provided students with the option to opt for a cheaper rent plan?
The new East Slope will be more expensive than the very basic facilities that are being replaced. However, in order to ensure that we can accommodate a range of different needs, we have decided to cut rents on some of our older residences.
We worked this through in consultation with the Students’ Union last year and I know how important it is that we continue to talk about housing.
Last week the chancellor Phillip Hammond proposed a cut in tuition fees which could see university students saving £5000 on their annual fees, which would cap annual charges at £7,500 as a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that English students graduate with the highest student debts. What do you think about this?
I think the recent story in the Sunday Times was an example of kite flying from the Government when they put a story out there to see how the debate develops before they put something forward officially.
The economics are complex. First, because of the arrangements around repayment, a cut like this would make very little lifetime difference to the majority of students but it would make a huge difference to the University.
We’ve done some modelling and, in the first year, a cap like this would cut our income by over £12 million and the only way that we could cope with this would be to make cuts to the University.
This would probably be in all areas and harm students through increased student staff ratios, reduced spending on buildings and IT and another look at the support we can give through the First Generation Scholarship programme which benefits 40% of our students with money in their pocket to help with the day-to-day – as well as internship and career opportunities. My concern is that the complexities of the situation are not being heard – and we will need to be clear about the implications.
Ministers have also voiced their concerns that university vice-chancellors get paid too much and that students are not getting value for money from the eye-watering debts they come out with. What do you think about this statement.
I’m paid very much the average compared to other Vice-Chancellors in the UK. Although not compared to VC’s in Australia or the US, who are paid considerably more, but that’s not the point.
I know students are worried about debt and I will do everything I can to ensure Sussex students are getting the experience they deserve.
I fully support an open discussion on this but concentrating on pay, is I believe, taking us away from debating the real issues of intergenerational injustice, such as housing, pensions and employment opportunities – we need to get to the root of the issue if we are truly going to help our young people.
We spotted you at this weeks Labour Party conference, what do you think about the Labour Party’s proposal to completely cut tuition fees vs the tories £5000 reduction?
I know this isn’t going to make me popular with students, however I don’t think it’s the right path ahead – as it will ultimately create a system that is less fair.
I know I was lucky to go to University in 1984 and not pay – I even had a full grant. As I already said intergenerational inequality really does exist today – we have to face that fact and address it wherever we can.
However you have to consider that when I went to University, only one in ten did. Today it’s more like 50% and as a society we seem to be more concerned about protecting benefits for pensioners than thinking about the young.
I’m really concerned that if we return to a system where the state pays for higher education we could see the Government capping or reducing the number of spaces available and we’ll be reversing the positive movement’s we’ve been making in social mobility – and that worries me enormously.
If you look at Scotland, there aren’t currently fees and you’re seeing the reverse to what we’ve seen in England. Each year fewer Scottish students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to University, whereas in the UK it’s the opposite, especially for BAME students.
We have to keep looking at solutions. I believe that’s through more universities providing schemes such as our First Generation Scholarship programme.
You have been quite engaged with your position on Brexit on social media: Do you think the role of a VC is political?
That’s a good challenge. I am the Vice Chancellor for the whole University and am resolutely non-party political. However, as a social scientist I strongly believe that we have to follow the evidence.
Almost all independent economists believe that Brexit will be really damaging to the British economy; our University will have particular challenges as a result of it; and I think that your generation will suffer the most.
In these circumstances, I don’t think that I can be neutral about the form of Brexit – after all, the dominant discourse during the referendum was that we would stay in the Single Market afterwards.
The University of Sussex was awarded a silver TEF rating this year, are you happy with this rating?
No – it was very disappointing. We would have got a Gold if we had scored better on Assessment and Feedback over the years.
This is a long-standing problem and we just have to get it right. Our new Deputy Vice-Chancellor Saul Becker is leading some urgent work on this with all the Schools and we expect changes this year and fundamental changes to come. We plan to be radical: to ask students what they think rather than thinking that we have the answers. I’m determined to get this right.
Have you made regular office hours for staff and students as you pledged last year? If so, what did you learn from taking a more hands-on approach with students?
Yes, I’ll be running my regular open session for staff and students throughout the next year. I’ve really enjoyed hearing directly from people about their experiences at Sussex.
Often people come along simply to tell me how much they like being here.
At other times I hear about an issue or concern that we really could handle or approach differently. Students came to me with a proposal about our refugee scholarships and made a change to University policy. I hope I see many more students at the open sessions this year.
A number of students have recently reported that they are unable to track down their stolen laptops because security cameras on campus buildings have not been working. Will the university do more to increase security on campus and ensure that CCTV cameras are fully operational?
I’m not aware of this particular issue, but I’d like to hear more so we can look into it. I know we’re doing work to improve the lighting on campus. If there’s more we need to be doing, then I’d like to know. We’ll look into this.
The University of Sussex fell by 7 places in The Sunday Times league tables yesterday, how can you explain this drop?
As you can imagine we’re taking a really close look at the data as there will be several factors – however we do know from initial analysis that our performance on assessment and feedback would have had an impact here. So, we’re turning to how we can improve things, as I mentioned earlier.
We’ve just taken the decision to provide all students (UG and PG) the opportunity to take part in a survey in November this year to tell us about everything they’ve experienced since the start of term –and we will take action on that feedback. Keep an eye out for information on how to take part – we really want to hear from you.
In your interview last year, you said that you would like to rediscover what Sussex should be for in 2025, after a year in office, have you discovered what Sussex is for?
I’m discovering new things about Sussex every day – it’s a remarkable University with an exciting future.
Sussex is known for being a unique institution. It was built to be different and has always been different from other universities of similar calibre like Leeds or Surrey or Bath. We have always been known for challenging the norm and seeking new ways of doing things.
Sussex is a very special place and I want to keep going forward and doing things that stand out from other universities and in academia.