The Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing failed to appear at a BBC radio debate about the changing face of the University of Sussex last week.
Farthing had been invited by BBC Southern Counties radio to join an on-air discussion with a Students’ Union representative about the restructuring of the schools at Sussex and to respond to the ‘Sussex Not For Sale’ campaign.
The interview, broadcast during the Sussex Breakfast show, was however attended by USSU Education officer Adam Farrell who spoke about the tension between management and students.
The controversial plans have not met a welcome reaction among staff and students over recent months. Michael Farthing, who took over as Vice-Chancellor at the start of the last academic year, wants to reorganize the University to create 12 schools including one new department for business, management and economics. New heads of departments are currently being appointed amidst controversy over the brevity of the application process.
The news of the no-show does not help ease any friction between senior management and students. Since his appointment as Vice-Chancellor, Michael Farthing has not held a single open meeting with students. Even when the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group (VCEG) held an open meeting for students at the end of last term the VC himself wasn’t present and the meeting was poorly timed to coincide with the end of year rush of hand-ins and exams.
It is not only students who feel that they have been insufficiently consulted over the course of the changes. In a recent poll an alarming 69% of staff members believed they were not getting enough information about the creation of the new schools. The support staff strike, organised by trade union Unite last Friday, provides yet another example of a lack of communication and negotiation between management and staff leading to more drastic courses of action.
Michael Farthing has responded by explaining that the BBC only approached the University regarding the interview the Friday before it was due to take place. He states that “Unfortunately, by that time I was already committed to other appointments, while other members of my team were already busy with a heavy schedule of interviews for new staff. Therefore, I am afraid it simply was not possible to take part.”
During the interview Adam Farrell defended the Student Union’s stance on the proposed restructuring emphasising that they are not seeking to prevent development within the University but are interested in developments that will benefit both current and future students. “What we’re looking at is a university responding to the forces of marketization within higher education and that’s taking us down a worrying trend towards a more expensive education system for incoming students and also not that beneficial for the academics who are currently at the university.”
Farrell expressed his worries about the changes and highlighted that proposals by senior management represent “essentially re-categorising Sussex and establishing a new identity. The business school aspect is almost in direct contradiction to the established critical political perspective of the University.” Farrell adds that the strategy risks “streamlining the University to look like any other university in the country.”
Questions were also asked about the benefits new courses could bring to the university, namely increased revenue from International students interested in studying business. Farrell’s response was that attracting more international students is not going to solve the problem of over-expenditure in higher education alone. He added that “You’ve currently got universities up and down the country having ridiculous expenditures based on the fact that they are competing against one another for students and you’ve got a national policy that tolerates this.”
He described the current situation as a “runaway system,” stressing that universities won’t be able to continue with such extortionate expenditures and that other means must be sought to solve the funding issue.
The University has witnessed an increase in media attention over recent weeks. The Independent placed an article about the current conflict in front-page position for its weekly education supplement last week. Whilst Michael Farthing was happy to comment for The Independent it appears his busy schedule prevented him from attending the BBC interview.
In the ‘Sussex 2015 Agenda for Growth,’ which sets out Sussex’ strategic plan for the next seven years Simon Fanshawe, Chair of Council states that “The details of the plan have been thoroughly debated by the University community, its partners and supporters.” Despite this statement Farrell persists that “One of the main drives behind this campaign is that students and staff weren’t really consulted when this strategy was formulated. It’s a vision of Sussex that’s been imposed by effectively outsiders who’ve only come on board in the last couple of years.”
With regards to Michael Farthing’s no-show, Farrell represents “A reflection of the student engagement and the lack of engagement of senior management with the issue to the extent that they wouldn’t even travel to defend their side.”