The Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing has had a busy year. In the last 12 months he has forced through considerable structural reforms, begun to plan Sussex’s path out of the recession and completed the search for a new Chancellor. In an exclusive interview with The Badger he speaks about his vision for the University, meeting with students and the dangers of bankruptcy.
Firstly, you’ve just appointed a new Chancellor. In many ways Mr [Sanjeev] Bhaskar doesn’t have an obvious link to Sussex in the way that Richard Attenborough had Brighton Rock. Could you explain why you thought he was the best candidate?
Having a link to Sussex is potentially good but we didn’t ever see it as a make or break criteria. I think in Sanjeev Bhaskar we have got someone who will bring a number of things. He will bring good fun and warmth and is someone who has himself to some extent struggled with his early educational experiences. I also think he brings an international dimension, his work in schools in India will be very, very important to the University. And he really did express a wish and a willingness to engage with students on campus bringing his expertise as an entertainer and as a filmmaker. When I met him he was the only person who said he was honoured to be considered and for me that was very important.
Talking of being willing to engage, a criticism that has been made of you is that you have not been willing to hold open meetings with the students, even though your predecessor used to regularly. Is this something you are willing to do?
“Yes, it’s always been something I was willing to do. For me if the atmosphere is right and its being done in the right spirit I am very happy to do it. But what is important is to be absolutely clear what we are trying to achieve by it. What I am less interested in is having a slagging match which may be entertaining at one level but actually doesn’t achieve very much from my perspective and can get embarrassing for other students who don’t want to get into an unproductive debate where comments are slung around the room. I don’t want to enter a bull ring for sport.”
Moving on to Sussex’s finances. The University is going to lose 1.15 million pounds in research funding. Why has Sussex failed to attract this funding?
“The simple answer is that we just didn’t do well enough in the last Research Assessment Exercise to maintain our current funding level. That can be then split into two components. One is a quality component and the other is the number of staff that we entered. Sussex suffered in this exercise because it submitted around the same number of staff as it did [the previous time] in 2001 whereas on average the sector had increased the number of staff submitted by around 12-13%. In terms of quality there are some areas where we have done poorly and where we have lost very substantially. I don’t want to talk about specifics but in two or three important areas we have done badly. “
In those areas that have been shown to be particularly weak would you consider closure of that department?
“There is no simple solution but we would be derelict in our duty if we didn’t do a deeper analysis of those situations and work out the future strategy. There are some research groups that are just not very productive. There is no single surgical strike that will put everything right but a careful analysis that will progress over the next few weeks.”
How will the funding gap affect budget as a university?
“We anticipated this loss pretty much on the nail. We are at the moment looking at what should be a tight but hopefully balanced budget but we will not be meeting the required surplus that the funding council expects of us. So we are going to be sailing very, very close to the line. We are in a pretty tricky situation financially. If we don’t look very carefully at our research and how we manage it we would be stacking up trouble for the future.”
Does this mean the potential for staff cuts?
“Well, you only have two options if you are not making a surplus. Either you increase your income – and we plan to do this by increasing the number of students and by improving our ability to generate intellectual property. The only other option is to reduce costs and I think we will have to look at both sides of the coin.”
So you can’t rule out potential staff cuts?
“No we can’t, we couldn’t rule that out at all. At the moment there is no plan to reduce our staff but you couldn’t rule it out.”
There has been a lot of talk of expansion but HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) has capped the number of students going to new courses. How does this affect our expansion as a university?
“It is a very significant issue. We had plans to apply for Additional Student Numbers (ASNs) as part of our growth strategy and of course that has been pretty much wiped off the slate. Now it is not an option except in a couple of areas.”
Does the university have a policy on if the fees cap is dropped? Can you rule out putting fees higher than £3,000 as they are at the moment?
“Firstly there is little indication that any of the political parties have shown any willingness to engage in this prior to an election, so while there is no policy we have no official position. But I think in the current climate if the present government said they were going to life the fee cap we would obviously have to think very seriously about that. We know that the vast majority of research intensive universities would lift the cap immediately.”
So hypothetically if the cap was lifted tomorrow Sussex would probably increase fees?
“We would have to look at our financial position and do a proper business analysis of it. But it is very clear that funding for higher education is flat lining which in real terms means if we are going to maintain quality we would be forced to look at it.”
The expansion of the University seems to be very heavily reliant on increasing numbers of international students. If the expansion of international students were to slow or tail off would it cause potential problems for the university?
“I am very optimistic about our ability to encourage overseas students. We really are pretty low down in our peer group in these terms. Partly I think it has been our teaching portfolio, I just don’t think we were offering the sorts of courses that international students wanted to do and I think we have partly addressed that. I think that because we are so far behind our ability to catch up where perhaps other universities have already reached a plateau.”
A lot of students have complained that once East Slope goes housing on campus will be increasingly expensive. How can you make sure it is affordable for all students?
“What is truly affordable in this day and age? I think that is a difficult one. We do have to think forward twenty or thirty years, we are building for the future. I think expectations have risen pretty dramatically so to build bottom of the market now, you might find in five years time that a lot of people would find that inappropriate.”
The logic of your argument seems to be market forces but market forces don’t seem to be working on campus as campus is often more expensive than in Brighton. Is that fair?
“In one way you are comparing apples with pears. For some students there are clearly advantages to being on campus. There aren’t the travel costs; there is the proximity to the places of study. I would think that the places in Brighton are not as attractive always as the newer accommodation that is available on campus. Students will always want the right to choose and some students will always have different capacities to pay.”
But doesn’t that logic mean that if you are a first year and you can’t afford £90 a week then you have to live off campus and your student experience is restricted by financial constraints?
“I am very encouraging of all students being able to live on campus in their first year. Our difficulty is that we want to provide what can only be called reasonable accommodation for 2009. We can’t use public money to run our services at a loss and we don’t run it at a profit. By borrowing up front we have to have a financial model that allows us to pay back the loans, but we don’t make a profit on it. So there are some very straight forward sums that have to be done in terms of accommodation.”
There has been quite a lot of protest from staff and students about the restructuring. Are you still absolutely convinced the restructuring was the right thing to do?
“Yes, absolutely. To be honest I think a large number of staff now feel it is the right thing to do and can see the benefits of what we have suggested. We now have total clarity – we have got rid of a layer of authority. There are now only two layers, one is the school and the other is my executive and the heads of schools. I think things work best if people feel they have control over their own destiny. Contrary to what some people have said that this is all about further centralisation in the new schools we are actually devolving budgets down, pushing responsibility down and pushing decision-making down.”
And finally, has the restructuring been properly budgeted?
“I gave an undertaking to senate that this will be a cost-neutral exercise. Obviously there will be a transitional period but by the time we have hit steady state I would have thought we will be able to make a clear statement that we have been able to do this without incurring additional costs.”