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Michael Farthing Interview

It’s a chilly winter morning and I’m escorted to meet the Sussex Vice-Chancellor in his office, armed with questions. Like my predecessor who interviewed the VC in 2013, it took me about five minutes to discover that I’m no Paxman. Ever-present is Farthing’s stern press secretary, there to make sure that I didn’t stray too far from the pre-agreed interview topics.

With the grubby negotiations handled by his assistant, Farthing was free to come across as relaxed and friendly, and seemed genuinely pleased that students like myself take an interest in his work.

Since joining Sussex in 2007 he’s achieved a lot, but has had a mixed reception from students and faculty. Coming from a medical background, he has clearly settled well into the role of quasi-corporate administrator; he spared no opportunity in marketing Sussex as a ‘sector leader’ or a ‘trailblazer’ – ‘My personal view is that Sussex is a top 20 University’, he insisted.

More than just an administrator however, he has big plans for Sussex, and was consistently eager to share them with us. ‘I’m a planner – I already like to think about five years’ time’. When I asked what he likes most about the job, he placed a lot of emphasis on being thankful for an opportunity to plan, and ‘think about the future of a very vibrant and important organisation’, ‘and the opportunity to appoint really good faculty, and get us into a position where we can attract really good students, who can come to Sussex irrespective of their own personal economic and financial circumstances.’ Farthing spared no opportunity in this regard.

Ensuring that students from all backgrounds are able to come to Sussex is without a doubt a high priority for him, it was something that he frequently brought up – indeed, under his direction Sussex has made numerous laudable improvements in providing for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the First-Generation Scholars Scheme.

International students & immigration

Michael Farthing has a firm view on international students: ‘The current government regards international students as immigrants. I say you are not immigrants, but valued guests.’ ‘Sometimes I even say paying guests, and that is the way I think about the whole sector.’

In his view the current government’s promise to slash immigration in general is a ‘big mistake, just to take that rather sort of blunt instrument, to something that has been very very positive for our nation overall.’[pullquote type=”right”]‘The current government regards international students as immigrants.
I say you are not immigrants, but valued guests.’[/pullquote]Coming back to Sussex, I asked if he planned to increase the number of international students further, to which he said that while total numbers of students might grow, he didn’t plan on the ratio of international to home students going beyond one to four as an absolute maximum.

Farthing has said previously that he doesn’t think Sussex is ready for an international campus – his view on this hasn’t changed – he stressed that although he thinks about it often, ‘we have a responsibility to use our resources that we have here to the full’, and that other universities have found it ‘very difficult to work the business model’. ‘Some have even had to pull out’.

The Sussex Five

There were certain topics he was happy to chat about at length, others less so. This was particularly evident when I asked about whether the suspension of the Sussex five had a negative impact on the University, to which he initially replied:

‘I think all news about the university that gets into the press has the potential to do both good and harm.’

Indeed a number of answers Farthing gave really meandered around the point, sometimes producing a response that was so tortuously laboured that I almost forgot what the question was.

When I asked him to clarify his thoughts on this particular case, he said ‘I’m not going to rerun all of that now’, but he would rather ‘draw a line in the sand.’ He stressed that he likes [pullquote type=”left”]‘It’s called Vice-Chancellor but you could also use the word chief executive’[/pullquote]Sussex to be reflective organisation that prides itself on being ‘honest with ourselves’. However he stopped short of explicitly apologising or expressing any regret over this incident; I got the distinct impression it was something that made him uncomfortable.

I wondered if he feels he is sometimes unfairly singled out as problematic figure by those who criticise his decision to outsource services at Sussex. To this question his answer was more candid: ‘I think it’s completely understandable.’ ‘It’s called Vice-Chancellor but you could also use the word chief executive, you know: I take responsibility for what happens at the university ultimately.’

He then proceeded to explain his decision making process – in which he virtually never takes a decision by himself. ‘We’re not allowed to make those sorts of decisions on that sort of scale without oversight from our governing board. But I accept the fact that at the end of the day, people have got to direct their concerns and complaints to somebody and I accept that.’

Vice-Chancellor Pay

On that golden question of salaries, he was predictably muted. When I asked whether he thought it was right for Vice-Chancellors to receive such large remuneration packages considering less senior staff at universities are receiving pay cuts, he initially said ‘I don’t think I’m going to comment on what my colleagues get paid’.

I can see how it might not be appropriate to comment on the salary of others, but he was similarly meek on the question of his own salary: ‘For me, what I get paid is probably for others to comment on rather than myself. But I think that the discussion on how we value people and recompense people for their job is a tricky one. I’m not sure I’ve got a clear answer for you.’

Farthing’s pay packet including pension and bonus stands at £280,000; it’s about average for Vice-Chancellors in the UK.Michael Farthing

Free speech & The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill

We found a lot of common ground on the topic of free speech. His view is that so long as there isn’t a risk of inciting racial hatred, he would ‘fight for universities to keep freedom of speech.’

When I told him about how the Students’ Union can be precariously trigger-happy when it comes to imposing censorship of various guises upon The Badger, he was sympathetic:

‘Sometimes I get a bit distressed when we do invite somebody into campus, the views that are going to be expressed are not going to incite racial hatred, but aren’t going to please a certain group of students. And that group of students will sometimes express quite serious opinions about whether that person should be allowed to come onto campus – that I would fight against. Provided people are operating within the law, we have to be able to have a debate, and we have to be able to hear views that we don’t necessarily agree with. A lot of politicians I don’t agree with, but you know I think they have a right to say their piece.’

I was very interested to hear what Michael Farthing thought about use of Universities as a supposed means to tackle extremism, most recently exemplified by the controversial counter-terrorism and security bill. We didn’t have time to delve into this complex issue for any great length, but told me he thought it was something universities are right to be concerned about.

Female Vice-Chancellors

We talked for a while about gender equality within higher education – an area he has evidently put a lot of thought into – instantly able to discuss the gender dynamics of each and every part of the University system I could care to name.

[pullquote cite=”Michael Farthing on the gender balance” type=”left”]’I’m quite proud of the fact that senate now is almost 50/50, it fluctuates a little bit, I took an initiative about three years ago to make sure that happened, and it did.'[/pullquote]

Interestingly he pointed out that while equality among students and early career academics is good, as soon as you look upwards the number of women drops off. When I asked what he thought could be done about this he had a plenty of ideas, but noted that there is no ‘quick fix’, which is probably right. In his view, a good way to increase the number of female vice-chancellors is to encourage more women into the subjects and roles that act as the future ‘supply line’ of senior administrators – namely STEM subjects. The university has made significant efforts in this regard he pointed out, particularly through the Athena SWAN initiative.

Technology, distance learning and the value of face-to-face education.

Farthing’s plan for Sussex bets heavily on the continued growth of campus universities in the UK. But this growth might be halted, by a [pullquote type=”right”]‘We’ll make sure that perhaps not all, but a lot of our programmes are accessible through the internet, or a closed intranet’[/pullquote]number of factors, technology being one. So I was keen to hear how he thought technology might change education: ‘it’s something I think about often – it is the big well what if?’

He has some interesting thoughts on how specifically new kinds of technology might alter the way universities like Sussex teach: He was reasonably confident in saying that in the next 10-15 years, ‘there will still be a demand for a campus university experience.’ ‘I know when I went to university aged 18 I was a pretty imperfectly formed being. I benefited hugely from working closely with colleagues, being able to work in groups with people, one of things that medical students do is we dissect the human body, but we do that six or eight of us together. That was a big team effort, and, we support each other, and learn together, and test one another and all that sort of stuff.’

[pullquote cite=”Michael Farthing” type=”left”]‘I know when I went to university aged 18 I was a pretty imperfectly formed being.’[/pullquote]

‘So I don’t see campus universities disappearing. What I think however we’re going to be challenged on is how efficiently we’re going to work on the campus – do we really need three years to do an undergraduate degree?’

‘A lot will depend on us as individuals – and I’d to offer people in the future, the choice – do you want to come and do your first year here, or would you like to have a year back in China, in India or wherever you’re from, do the basics, then come, we’ll transition you in, to our more campus, face to face sort of learning, and the maybe you’ll go back and do some more back in your own place?’ ‘You might choose to do six months here, then go back for a year – you know I can see blended learning on variable flexible timescales.’

‘We’ll make sure that perhaps not all, but a lot of our programmes are accessible through the internet, or a closed intranet’

‘providing it’s high quality’, he added. 

Michael Farthing in 2015


In all we chatted for about an hour on a wide range of topics, much of which I’ve had to exclude here. Among tales of meeting with friends at the Palace of Westminster Micheal Farthing told me he hadn’t yet decided who to vote for, though we know that he opted for Labour in the last election, and has personal connections to various Labour figures; he was, for instance, a friend, doctor and neighbour of New Labour PR man, Alastair Campbell. [pullquote type=”right”]’Interdisciplinarity is the future, there’s no question about it.'[/pullquote]

On the question of disabled access, highlighted by Miriam Steiner’s ‘Access Sussex campaign, the solution again primarily comes from ‘running the master plan through’ – that is, growing the campus with yet more modern structures that would improve access. However, he admitted there is only so much the university can do given the age of many buildings on campus. ‘Old buildings were not designed by and large, 50 years ago, for wheelchair users, for example,’ he reflects. ‘We can modify buildings, but actually if you’ve got a narrow corridor, and it’s structural, there’s not much you can do about it.’ Some might have been put off by his almost George Osborne like references to the long term ‘master plan’ – but for me this was basically an indicator of his strategic acumen in planning for the future of the university, rather than necessarily a want of inspired answers.

We also asked, somewhat rhetorically, what advice the Vice-Chancellor has for graduates heading out into the world to seek their fortune – I found his initial response admittedly very amusing:
‘Erm, I would think about the chancellors words at graduation, you can probably get those off, you know, off the internet.’

His main advice though was not to follow others too much: ‘ask people, take advice, or at least listen to advice, but don’t do anything just because somebody else has told you’.

‘At the end of the day you’re in charge, it’s your future, and I hope we’ve given our students enough confidence to be able to grasp that future.’ It seems one question even the Vice-Chancellor can’t answer is what you’re supposed to do with your life after university.

Steve Barker

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