Speaking With the Vice-Chancellor: “I Will Make Southampton a Top 10 University, and it Will Be University Of the Year”

As part of my role as Wessex Scene editor, I interviewed the new University of Southampton Vice-Chancellor, Sir Christopher Snowden, alongside my deputy-editor Michael Oliver. It was originally published in Wessex Scene here. 

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Sir Christopher Snowden came to Southampton last year with an impressive CV. In his 10 years at Surrey, he took it from a relatively unknown small University to one that ranks with the likes of Oxbridge and the Universities in London. A year into his tenure at Southampton, what has he done?

The quiet man, once described by Union President Ben Franklin as ‘a total babe’, sat down with Wessex Scene and discussed league tables, money matters and that Israel conference.

Here, in our three part series, we introduce you to the Vice-Chancellor, one year into his time here.

Professor Christopher Snowden (Image: University of Southampton)
Professor Christopher Snowden (Image: University of Southampton)

 PART ONE: SOUTHAMPTON AND THE FUTURE

Ever since it was announced that Southampton was getting a new VC, Wessex Scene has been trying to nab an interview with him. It took us nearly a year to get it, which isn’t surprising considering he manages 4,500 staff and over 23,500 students. We finally got a 30-minute slot with him for one day in the Easter break, and we sat down in Sir Chris’ office in Building 37 – a modest room for a man of his grandeur. Immediately, it struck us that he was a thoroughly lovely man, which made it very hard to criticise him personally.

But nonetheless, we sat down with Snowden and we started with an obvious question: You were great at Surrey, why leave, and why Southampton? Firstly I really enjoyed my time at Surrey, it was a great group of people to work with and I enjoyed taking them on a 10-year journey,” he tells us sincerely.

Like most people, I love new challenges, he continues. I knew a lot about Southampton, as its quite close geographically yet has a totally different composition, different activities and wanted to come and do new things! I really loved my time at Surrey, and the pinnacle for me was of course winning University of the Year, and thats something I want to replicate here.”

That all sounds great, I’m sure that most of us wouldn’t mind saying we went to “the University of the year” but actions speak louder than words; so how is he going to achieve that?

“Ive already implemented a new strategy for the University, and thats being rolled out at the moment. The strategy that the University was following, called Vision 2020, was principally focused around growth, globalization and distinctiveness.” It genuinely doesn’t feel like meaningless rhetoric and buzzwords when he’s speaking – improving Southampton is a genuine passion of Sir Christopher. But what is the real reason for this desire, and is it only for the sake of pride – growing for growths’s sake?

 “Theres nothing wrong with that, but it doesnt necessarily set out a path to achieve these things, and growth on its own isnt necessarily a goal that you necessarily have to have. My approach therefore is going to be based around quality of literally everything you do, from the reception you get when visiting the University, so obviously the teaching, the delivery, the research, as well as the quality of the services we provide and the student experience.

“Its also going to be based on collegiality, which is our ability as a University to work together as a great community, as the truth is if you have happy staff and happy students, then youll achieve a lot more. Also sustainability – today the world of universities has changed, and the government funds universities much less than they used to, which means that we have to stand on our own two feet, and the evidence for that is if you look at all UK universities, their cash reserves are being challenged because the government no longer pays for the maintenance of the University so we have to become financially more sustainable, as we want to invest in new projects and the things we currently do, but also we need to be more environmentally sustainable because obviously universities need to be in the vanguard in that respect. In addition we need to be more socially sustainable as relationships between people and organisations can be improved all the time.

He also highlights the element of internationalisation, and at this point Sir Christopher emphasised that he said ‘internationalisation’ and not ‘globalisation’ because ‘globalisation has too much of an imperial flavour to it’.

Internationalisation really reflects the fact that we are an international university so that we should be engaging in all the things we do but possible slightly more strategically. We’ll do anything internationally but the problem is how you’re going to resource it and can you do it well enough, so the idea will be to probably be slightly more strategic, but actually put more effort into it rather than less, and that is very important to us. What does this mean, and where are we going with it? Well because I think it matters to the University to achieve this, not because of their own particular goals. I would aim to get us to be a sustainable top-10 University and we’re currently in the 14th-16th range so it doesn’t seem like a huge gap, but you do have to bear in mind that we’re a big university so things move at a steady pace. Also we aim to sustainably become a top 100 University worldwide. We’re already 81st in the recent QA rankings so we have good momentum there and we need to keep that up and the reason it matters is mostly because league tables themselves aren’t necessarily a great thing, it’s what lies behind them, so if things like the national league tables reflect our rising that means things like the student experience are improved.

While that all sounds great, and being a top-15 University is of course something to be proud of, we’re quick to point out to Sir Christopher that Southampton is currently 44th in the NSS rankings and 84th in the teaching excellence rankings. “Theyre key to improving our overall ranking” he states, “and I’m glad you’ve picked up on these because they are actually the stats that I’ve given to the staff because there is always a temptation in the Russell Group to overlook these.

“Look, 44th in the NSS isn’t good enough, but you have to remember that we’re working on a compressed scale. I took Surrey from 96th to 4th in the NSS table, so I’ve done it, and I know the journey we need to go on, but the distance between 44th and, say, 4th, isn’t very much – 10% would take us there but I certainly do not underestimate the effort that we need to make to get there.”

The Vice-Chancellor is clearly a man with a plan. But if he’s so keen for quality and not quantity, why are we taking so many more students, and therefore building so many more halls?

The University had planned for student accommodation long before I came, and it wasn’t my strategy to recruit more students. It’s been a long effort to improve the quality of student housing, and to recognise that the city feels the burden of students, so the university have the strategy of providing more student accommodation.

“I think is a good thing as you can provide quality accommodation, and there’s been over 1000 new rooms over the last 18 months, with a few more coming along in September. We’re also looking at how we can refresh existing student accommodation to make it newer and better, obviously.

“I think the expectations of students have, quite understandably, become more demanding over the last 15 years or so, so we have to refresh it. So there’s an element which is independent of student numbers which is to do with the quality of student accommodation and whether its value for money. Then on top of that as you said the University had grown – it’s interesting really, as if you look at the stats the numbers have gone up and down, so there actually isn’t many more students than there were in 2011. They fell away in Southampton over the next couple of years, and although the city thinks we’ve gone mad with student numbers we haven’t actually! My focus isn’t necessarily on the size. If we continue to be a high-quality institution we’ll continue to get high numbers of applications and by definition we’ll become bigger.”

“Increase the quality of the University” is an in interesting phrase. Is that just a euphemism for high-grade boundaries and entry tariffs? ‘Not necessarily’, according to Sir Christopher. its more complicated than that

“Its more to do with the range we take. We have some students here who are A*A*A*, but we also have a wide range who achieve BBB, or sometimes less than that, and I think there are several issues here. I don’t want to give the impression that we’re just chasing number targets, it’s nothing to do with that. 

“I think you have to look at the experience as a student you have within the group you’re working in because if you imagine a scenario with AAA students down to those with BBB, then that’s quite a big dynamic range in terms of at least achievement to secondary level, and you need to provide an environment that’s stimulating for the brightest students in the group and is achievable for the students who come in with lower grades.

“I strongly believe that University should be about maximizing the potential of its students, and if you accept somebody then in my view you have an obligation to do your best to help them succeed and graduate. My approach, even though it may look like it’s driven by the metric, isn’t actually – it’s driven by the people involved.”

PART TWO: Money Matters

Money, or rather the lack of it, is one of the biggest concerns listed by students. The current student loans system puts a lot of students in a position where their maintenance loan doesn’t cover their rent. In particular, this often occurs when students are in halls – where the fees are sky-high and there’s currently a push towards more premium accommodation. We asked Christopher why he’s doing this. “The University’s very sensitive to what the level of hall fee funding is because we’re not trying to make a profit, we’re trying to provide a service,” he tells us, and you can really see the businessman in him here.

“But equally we’ve got to make sure there’s enough money coming in for the maintenance otherwise we’ll end up in a situation where things are just getting worse – for example every so often the kitchens need to be renewed and every now and then the showers need to be redone. Also, we’re talking about embarking on major maintenance of Wessex Lane over the next few years.” 

This maintenance will involve the demolition of the South Stoneham Tower and and expansion of the complex. In addition, the University has bought up land close to Southampton Airport. As well as this, a proposed expansion of the University Campus has been given planning permission and is scheduled to be completed by 2020.

University of Southampton
University of Southampton

When you build a new residence, it actually doesn’t make much difference within reason the type of room you have; we’ve had some discussions as to whether we build en suites or rooms with communal bathrooms. There actually isn’t a huge difference because by the time you’ve built the communal bathrooms it works out nearly as much as putting the bathrooms into the rooms themselves, but there’s a big difference over whether you can use them in the summer for conferences. These conferences can help offset the cost of the fees, and you actually want to use the room as much as possible as it helps you keep the cost down.

The problem is you can’t build what I’ve described as new cheap accommodation, as even if you take all the frills out you’re still left with a room that probably cost you £40,000 to build, whereas if you build with an en suite it’ll probably cost you £50,000 and, if you look over the life of the room, the cost difference won’t be that much.

That seems like a very reasonable logic, but still doesn’t help students who are struggling financially. Does that mean the government needs to review maintenance funding? “Yes,” Snowden says.

They need to look at maintenance funding for both students and the universities themselves. Governments throughout time have been awful at this – if you go back to the 80’s, Universities used to have windows falling out it was so bad, in the 90’s they put a lot of money in to us and over the ten years from then things improved. But now funding’s stopped again totally, so it’s now been put on the University to generate a big enough surplus – not a profit as all money generated goes back into the University – so we can pay for the maintenance, but you’re right, the government looking at the whole system would help a lot, so we don’t have to pass too much cost onto students.

Whilst Snowden is talking passionately, we gently remind him that as head of Universities UK, he pledged to increase tuition fees.

“The challenge we have is that the fee was fixed in 2010, and there has been no change since then, but all of the costs to Universities have continued to go up, such as salary costs, (we spend 55% of all our income on this) which have of course continued to go up by 2-3% per year, which, after a few years, is quite a big shift, but the income have remained constant. So with increasing expenditure, something has to give. So surpluses have gone down which, although on the face of it might seem like a bad thing, you have to remember that that same pot now has to pay for the maintenance of the University, which in turn puts pressure on any potential new investments, even for things like new computers. And so what I’d campaigned for would be to have the cap lifted which would essentially allow fees to rise in line with inflation.”

Again, when phrases it like that it makes sense. But we all know that upping the costs from the student end would have the potential be off-putting to potential students from poorer backgrounds – would it not be better to campaign the government to provide more funding?

We did, and we do!” he declared.

“You’re quite right though, and can go one of two ways, and you have to remember that I’m not campaigning for fees, I’m campaigning to fund the University. You’ve got to look at it from this way: if we don’t do this, something has to give, and I’m not willing to let things get worse, so we’ve got to think about how we address that, so the truth is that if fees were to go up by just a few percent it wouldn’t make a tangible difference – let’s be wild, and imagine a 10% increase: £9000 to £9900 isn’t a massive difference overall, but it might make a difference, for example, to how many tutors you’ve got, or what state the library is, and other things like that because if we multiply these relatively small increases by everyone in the University then that is a lot of money, and if we don’t raise this money, I’ve got to look bluntly to see where we can cut costs which isn’t ideal. 

“We campaign all the time to get funding from the government and we compete to get competitive funding, but we go beyond that. We also raise money through philanthropy, so we have a student hardship fund which is supported by that, we’ve raised money to build our new cancer immunology centre at the General Hospital and we go to companies to help support students through, for example, bursaries or scholarships.

“We try and take a broad-based approach, and we’re very sensitive actually to the cost to students are high so Southampton has a colossal amount of funding available in bursaries and scholarships, but I think we could do a better job publicising it! 

“We literally spend many millions on bursaries and scholarships, which is a good thing, as how do we help people not be put off doing their degree? Is paying fees worth it? Absolutely – it’s life chances really, and it’s a special sort of debt in that if you don’t earn enough, you don’t pay it off, and the £21,000 is a living threshold which makes the system nicer than it first seems.”

University of Southampton

It is all well and good to campaign for extra funding, but in many Universities there is a colossal amount of waste and inefficiencies. We challenge Sir Christopher on the point that maybe the University could look at its own infrastructure to reduce inefficiencies and save money.

“If you look at environmental waste, we recycle a colossal amount which we sell to get money back in so for example there is very little that is thrown away on campus that isn’t recycled, but also we’re interested in and very conscious about wasting time and resources doing things that may not need doing and/or aren’t productive. 

“We’re always challenging ourselves about whether we should be doing something, or whether it makes sense. Have we bought the right soft of software when looking at business systems that run the University – can we we have fewer of these that perform better? So we’re always challenging ourselves. The last thing you need to do is waste money on things that are not needed. 

“One of the things we need to do is renewing old buildings because they are huge users of energy and the older ones are not very efficient. We do upgrade older buildings to reduce wastage and money lost in the long run – going back to the residences, we’ve been re-insulating the walls and installing double glazing, which also makes them frankly more pleasant to live in!”

So that concludes part two of our interview with the Vice-Chancellor. Come back tomorrow for the third and final part, where, amongst other things, we examine the University’s relationship with its students.

 

PART THREE – The University’s Relationship with its Students

Students are of course the most important part of any University – it’s how most of the staff wages get paid! Speaking to Sir Christopher, we got the impression that students are at the forefront of his vision, as without satisfied students you cannot have a top-quality University. We posed the obvious question to him: What is the University’s relationship with the Student Union like?

“I think we have a very good one, and it’s one of the things that is very important to me. I was very fortunate at Surrey to have a very good relationship where we worked quite well together on projects, and I met last year’s Sabbatical team before I started, and obviously I’ve worked with this year’s team, and I think we have a good relationship. They can bring issues and concerns to me to, so for example Shruti (2015/16 VP education) is really keen on looking at lecture issues, so looking at recording them and other aspects related to this. 

“We’re trying to work and listen to them as it provides another relationship to students, so we can hear what matters most to people. Equally we’re keen to try ideas out, and play it back to see what the reaction is to them. So it’s very much a healthy partnership because we don’t want to stop the independence of the students’ union in any way but at the same time we want to work with them.”

The environment is of course a big concern to many, and many students submitted their questions to us concerning the University’s relationship with companies that are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Recent developments in this area have included the University divesting away from companies in the fossil fuel sector. We asked the Vice-Chancellor about the University’s attitude to sustainability, and whether it is viable to continue to move away from investing in fossil fuel companies.

“We don’t invest a huge amount in fossil fuels anyway, but some of our investments are in fund packages, so we would need to change the whole fund structure, and you always need to find something to invest it which is both ethical and sustainable – for example we don’t invest in British American Tobacco. A lot of ethical investments don’t generate huge sums, but having said that we actually have recently moved funds into an ethical investment fund so we are responsive to the concerns of students and the general environmental picture.

You have to bear in mind though that some of the fossil fuel companies are also the ones doing the most in reusable energy. For example I worked with BP some years ago and at the time they were the world leaders in solar cells. If you take the investment away, then they don’t have the funds to research. So these are the things we’re going to have to look at carefully in order to figure out how to get to the right place because I understand completely why people feel very strongly about this issue – I do. I think about my son’s future, and I don’t want the world to suffer an environmental catastrophe for obvious reasons!

The conversation now turns to a more controversial topic, and one that often provokes a reaction from many – freedom of speech. Earlier this year, controversy of a proposed conference over the legitimacy of the state of Israel made national news and resulted in a court challenge, despite the University’s positive reputation from embracing freedom of speech. We asked Sir Christopher whether not allowing a conference to be held on the state of Israel goes against Southampton’s positive reputation for freedom of speech.

“Firstly, I think the students’ union has done a really good job in working with the University to promote freedom of speech, and this is reflected in our number 1 ranking. But regarding the Israel conference, it’s quite complicated and there’s a limit to what I can say because there’s legal issues associated with the fallout from it. Firstly I can tell you that we utterly support freedom of speech and if you need any particular illustration in this area it was just before Christmas when the students’ union had a debate on Israel and it was very successful and we were very happy with it; the University was involved with it. 

“It’s not to do with subjects or topics at all, but rather how things are organised and whether the appropriate Health and Safety measures were taken, whether security was done correctly, and in this case also whether it was financially viable. So it’s a complex series of reasons, but I can assure you that it’s not in any sense to do with the suppression of freedom of speech because that’s part of the reason Universities are here!”

We also asked him whether he thinks it still could happen.

Well it could do, we have no pre-position on it. I know it may not look it, but it’s absolutely the case, and it has been all along. There are only two elements of it – we are now governed by the law on this, through what’s called the prevent strategy, but that doesn’t stop it. The Israel debate at the Students’ Union was organised through this framework, and the other part of it is that we do have a policy on organizing events and conferences at the University which simply sets out that you have to be cognizant to the health & safety aspects of it, cognizant to the security (obviously a big issue today) and also it has to be financially viable; there’s no golden fund that’s going to come along and pick up the bill. It’s a mixture of those, and you have to show that you’ve organised it properly and you’ve taken care of all parts of it, which for example the Students’ Union did at their Israel debate.

We move one from one contentious issue to another which causes considerable debate: the pay gap between men and women. We challenged him on the point that women employed here earn 7% less on average than men.

“I’m aware of the difference but it varies, and let me say that since I’ve taken on being the Equality & Diversity champion I’ve been very aware of the issues we face, and we are tackling that. It’s complex, because you have to look at different groups of employees, and it certainly isn’t as simple as headlines will portray it. It depends on the group you’re looking at and why – if you want to fix something you have to disassemble it and have a look why.

“I genuinely think we’re getting thorough the bad old days of discrimination in terms of, for example, academics, where before if someone had a career break to say have a child, and then when they come back they would be removed from consideration for promotion because of a lack of publications. That’s gone, so now you will be evaluated on merit for any potential promotion. I can assure you that I am absolutely opposed to discrimination on any grounds, and we’re dealing with a situation where it’s a mixture of legacy and the fact that in some of the lower paid areas we predominately have women working. So there would be natural lower pay for women there, which would bring the average down.

“That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s acceptable, because we have to look at what we need to do to provide career progression opportunities, so that is one of the key things we are looking at. This issue of lower average pay for women is something that we’re aware of, and I can assure you that this is something that I don’t find acceptable.”

During Sir Christopher’s tenure at the University of Surrey, the politics department there came close to ceasing to exist, and during his All-Staff address earlier this academic Christopher noted that some departments would need to considerably improve. We asked him whether abolishing these under-achieving departments would be an option, especially as Southampton has a history of this, having abolished its sports science course back in 2010.

“Not as a starting point! Having been round the University, and I’ve now visited most departments, I can see that this is a phenomenal University, and I think that we have a really good array of subject areas which in my view is very important for a University and I haven’t changed my view at all. The challenge we have is that we have to recognise two things really: are we achieving our goals in terms of quality, and are we achieving it sustainably?

“You can only subsidise so many subject areas. Some you have to subsidise due to the very nature of them, and that the government funding of some subjects is very poor. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that typically arts and humanities won’t receive as much funding as STEM subjects do. This means that we have to look at the quality issues that we’ve touched upon earlier, and whether we can afford the structure we’ve got. I don’t have any specific reasons about this other to say that we aren’t operating to a poor level, but we’ve demonstrated in some subjects here in Southampton that we can achieve significant improvements over very short time periods anyway, and Archaeology and Film are great examples.

“Looking at Surrey, the issue was based around quality. I’m an evidence-driven person and if you look at the stats there, it wasn’t in a great place. I was the one actually saying we shouldn’t close it, but I was saying that they had to do something to improve it because the subject was losing a lot of money, they have done, and they’re doing fine now. The thing is, you have to face up to facts – the quality of the student experience really matters to me and in particular the education that the students get, and it’s not good enough to be second-rate, we should offer the very best we can, and that drives me very strongly too, so that’s one of the big factors there.

We concluded our 30-minute meeting with Sir Christopher with a nice, open-ended question: If you have one thing you want to achieve in however long you plan to stay here, what would that be?

“Having one thing is very difficult! It’s worth saying that I’m very focussed around people, and that’s very important to me. If there’s one thing I want to do for Southampton I would like to firmly place it amongst the very best UK Universities, and I’ve put it that was because to get there means that we would have created a fantastic thing here at the University, and for everybody in the University community, as we couldn’t possibly be in the top 10 otherwise. Because I can only have one thing I’d pick that because it’d mean tat we’d be achieving all our other goals, such as having a great student experience, a great environment for staff to work in that’s very collegiate and at the same time we’d continue the great research that’s taken place. This is a fantastic University, and I want to see us only getting better!”

Our initial impressions of Sir Christopher were of how nice he was, as well as his ability to answer all our questions thoroughly whilst acknowledging problems that still need to be faced. It was a real privilege to have the opportunity to interview such an approachable and knowledgeable person.Now that Sir Christopher’s first year as Vice-Chancellor is over, it will be intriguing to see how he fares in the coming years, and whether he can replicate the success he had at Surrey here in Southampton.

 

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