& opinion


Alasdair Smith is Sussex Universityís numero uno. As Vice-Chancellor, his vision informs the way Sussex is run and determines how the future for Sussex will pan out. The badger met up with him this week to discuss his views on fees, the new schools of study due to be introduced this Autumn, security on campus and the Universityís relationship with the Union. Thereíve been lots of changes on campus recently, is there a vision for Sussex in a few yearsí time?

Sussex is a broad-based university, covering a wide range of subjects and doing well across a wide range of subjects. Broad-based universities like us compete essentially on quality. We want to be seen to be a very high-quality institution in teaching and research, and thatís the fundamental objective my mind - that over the next five years we will improve the quality of our teaching and research and be recognized as such.

Do you see research as vital to bringing in money for the university? What is the place of business at the University?

All universities are building up their links with business. We are encouraged by the government to do that. As that brings in money, it enables us to do a better job in teaching and research. If you look at the universities that have done best in earning extra income, theyíre the ones with the more favourable student-staff ratios. Iíve seen a few comments in the badger about me wanting to turn the university into a cash cow, as if somehow we were going to charge higher fees order to generate income from teaching to put it into business. Thatís exactly the wrong way around, such involvement in business and income-generation as we have is in order to generate income to put into teaching.

You Ďbroadly welcomedí the government announcement on fees, do you see Sussex as being one of the first to welcome higher fees?

Itís not a question of anybody being first. All universities in October 2006 will have to decide what their fee is. isnít even a question of who has topup- fees and who doesnít. We can set fee of anywhere between 0 and 3000 pounds, and weíd all have to make that decision. Would I expect Sussex to be one of the small number of universities setting a £3000 fee? No. But donít know how thatís going to turn out. I donít know that itís only going to be a small number of universities setting a £3000 fee. It might well be that quite a large number of universities will set a £3000 fee, and if they do then there would be a very strong incentive for us to be among them.

Do you think the system will be tiered?

It wonít necessarily be a very tiered system, but universities will look at what other universities are doing. One of the things about having the freedom to set our undergraduate fees that people often donít realize is that itís not new. Every university looks at what other universities are doing. In setting undergraduate fees we will have to do the same. We donít end up with a twotiered system for overseas student fees, or for postgraduate fees. You end up with a bit of a spread on fees and where Sussex places itself in that spread depends on what other universities like us are doing.

What about those from poorer backgrounds?

Letís suppose the University fee is £2,500. The government will then pay us £2500 for every home student. A student from a well-off background will then have £2500 added in to the debt that they have to pay after graduation. A student from a poorer background - and I think it is a student whose family income is below £10,000 - will have a £1000 maintance grant but will also have £1,100 subtracted from their fee debt. Theyíll only carry £1400 as debt but the university will receive the same money.
The provision that is made in this new system for students from poorer backgrounds is not at all generous, but it is welcome that there is some.

Do you think that following the American system is a good thing? Should we do this in other matters, such as foreign policy?

I think it is a mistake to think that youíve got to take one politicianís views as a package. Blair is going in the right direction on university fees and funding, and going in absolutely the wrong direction on Iraq. I think that an American and British attack on Iraq would be a disaster.
The American education system is much, much more successful than any of the continental European higher education systems, which are mostly under-funded, low-quality mass production higher education systems. Blairís government is making a strategic decision for higher education to go more in a North American direction than in a continental European direction and I think that is absolutely the right decision.

Do you think that senior management is communicating well with students?

Iím sure [senior management] could do better [at communicating]. The main tools that we try to use for internal communications are the university Bulletin and the web, and it may be that not enough of our students donít commonly read university news on the web or the university Bulletin. I actually donít know what the student readership is of the Bulletin as compared with the badger. I certainly read the badger regularly, but Iíd be open to the idea of us using the badger more to communicate with students.

How do you see student publications like the badger?

A student publication should serve the students, not the studentsí union. has to be independent and will probably quite often say things that will annoy university managers. As long as the badger is happy to print replies, thatís fine by me.

Many students have been concerned about the lack of contact hours for arts students at Sussex. Are there any plans to change the current system?

There has been a major revision of the arts curriculum. I think it probably has been quite widely discussed with students. One of the major incentives of changing the arts curriculum is to tackle the contact hours issue. [Low contact hours} is probably the most common source of letters of complaint get from studentsí parents. More courses, more lectures as well as seminars will give a better balance and give more contact time. Many university degrees work because of having students doing work on their own, and we shouldnít be looking for students spending half their working week actually in class, [but] you cannot stick twice the number of students into the same kind of teaching occasion and expect that itís going to be satisfactory.

Thereís a lot of misinformation about at the moment over new schools, can you briefly explain why?

Switching from the old schools to the new schools is a huge project. Iím well aware of the need to keep students informed, especially about arrangements for teaching students in the old curriculum.We are now in a position where weíll be able to go out and tell students in much more detail about how things will work under the new arrangements. In broad terms, students who are already here will continue with their existing courses and may see some changes in detail about the way that school offices are managed and so on, but shouldnít see any major changes taking place as far as their teaching is concerned.

How safe is campus?

I think [campus] is reasonably safe. It is an open campus and an open campus can never be made completely secure against all eventualities. I think we have a reasonable balance between openess and security. In the light of the incident we are seeing where we do further things to improve security. The top priority for security is the security of campus residences.

Should a major security-related incident occur, does the buck stop with you?

The buck stops here.

How has security been stepped up since the rape?

It hasnít been a matter of hiring extra members of staff, itís a matter of changing the pattern of staffing to see that the biggest risks are getting the most attention.

Does the Union do a good job?

The Union does a good job, though its circumstances are not always easy.

Is there a culture of confrontation between the University and Union?

It varies . . . I donít find it excessively confrontational. It wouldnít be a healthy situation if the Studentsí Union and the management of the university were always all cuddled up to each other.

Is the Union adequately funded?

A working group is looking at Union funding. We havenít gone in to the conversations seeking to lay down the law. We are aiming to achieve agreement on what are the full range of services the Studentsí Union should be providing and what level of funding we need to do a good job.

Will decisions take effect this year?

Changes that this group agree wonít take effect till next year, but will be helpful in deciding whatís the best way to resolve this yearís problems. The only point at issue is the extent at which any shorfall in Studentsí Union funding should be met out of the Studentsí Union reserves. My view is that the Studentsí Union has quite substantial reserves. Reserves exist to be used in a diffcult year. The university has put in a lot of additional funding to help with this yearís problems, and it is reasonable to expect there should be a contribution from Studentsí Union reserves.
One of the issues we are reviewing is exactly how much the Union should rely on commercial services. The main reason the Studentsí Union budget is in difficulty at the moment is because some of the commercial ventures have turned out to be more difficult to manage than had been anticipated. Iíve got an open mind about whether we should be looking at having the Studentsí Union take on quite a wide range of commercial services, bars and shop, and that would be able to fund some of the activites on the profits of these activities or whether we should be aiming to have the Studentsí Union running relatively few commercial services, in which case Iíd recognise the university would then have to pay a larger grant.

Finally, how do you feel about the proposed no-confidence motion?

Iím completely relaxed about it.