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Paygate: The Problem with Surrey's Vice-Chancellor by Michael Slavin

At the end of last year, Sam Gyimah resigned from the role of Universities Minister due to differences with Theresa May over Brexit. This coincidentally came just a week after he spoke at the University of Surrey and was, embarrassingly, tricked into posing with a flier mocking the Conservative party. His resignation has led to a great deal of discussion across the nation over his proposal of a second referendum, but also across Guildford, because of his incompetence in, not only posing with the satirical flier, but posting it on his official Twitter account without noticing the mockery. Subsequently Chris Skidmore has filled his vacated role, a man so non-committal that in a recent interview on Politics Live it caused the interviewer, Martin Lewis, to throw his papers into the air in dismay. With seemingly one incompetent politician after the next being put in charge of our degrees, the importance of Higher Education as a political matter is being slowly drowned out by the cries of Brexit. During such a crucial and unprecedented time in the history of Britain, where does this leave the University sector?

Now more than ever the UK needs a Universities Minister who will recognise the problem that our universities face, as well as the steps that need to be taken to reign in the ever-growing marketization and commercialising of Higher Education. Unfortunately, however, given the current state of the Government this is simply not realistic. We live in a society where it is entirely normalised that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2017, students in England are going to graduate with average debts of £50,800. Students are getting shafted, and the universities are profiting from this extreme and life-altering debt that they are placing upon them. In 2016, the first full year after the raise to £9,000 tuitions fees, the Higher Education Statistics Agency reported that universities in England recorded surpluses worth nearly £1.8 billion pounds.

Surrey itself is a university plagued by these issues I have mentioned and is fast becoming privatised to its core in unalterable fashion.

Max Lu, Surrey University’s Vice-Chancellor was in October 2017 awarded a bonus of £22,000 “on account of his performance”. If we were rapidly rising in the rankings, with the quality of our education and experience improving as the University management progressively receive bonus after bonus, then this would be understandable; yet, the opposite is true. Since 2016, Surrey has fallen 11 places in the Complete University Guide (from 8th to 19th) and 17 places in The Guardian’s University Rankings (4th to 21st). Further, the Whatuni Student Choice Awards – ranked on the student satisfaction of both current and past students - has seen a dramatic plummet in recent years, where Surrey has dropped from 6th to 72nd overall since 2015. To me, and many others at the University, this is believed to have been a direct result of the increasing marketisation of Surrey, the University, and also Guildford as a town’s incapability to deal with the number of students that are now being accepted.

Every Surrey student knows the most common issues we face: lack of accommodation, soaring housing prices, huge courses that lead to many students having little relationship with their lecturers. This is if they are even allowed to go to their lectures on campus as opposed to the town’s Odeon, something that was revealed to be occurring the same month that Max Lu was given his performance based bonus, October 2017. Further, I bow down to any Surrey student able to consistently find a seat in the library during exam times, even after the massive additions made to the library at the start of this year. All of these problems circle back round to one common theme: we have too many students because the University is too focused on making money.

In 2017, TimesHigherEducation.com posted the salaries of every Vice Chancellor in the UK to shocking effect. Bath Spa were revealed to pay Christina Slade £808,000 that academic year in base salary, and Vice Chancellors of very low ranking universities, such as Hull and Worcester, were being paid eye-watering salaries. This resulted in a national average base salary of £268,103 for university Vice Chancellors. Max Lu, the very top of an organisation plummeting in the rankings, both generally and in student satisfaction, was paid £310,000 in base salary in 2016/17 – the first academic year following his appointment. When you place this in the context of his peers, this figure becomes more and more horrifying. Of the 18 universities who ranked above us in the Complete University Guide, Max Lu was paid more than 9 of their universities’ Vice Chancellors. These included the likes of Bristol, Manchester, Durham, St. Andrews, and the 3rd ranked university in the country: The London School of Economics.

I do not claim to know the inner workings of every aspect of a Vice Chancellor’s pay, or the more intricate details of their job description. What I do know, however, is that there is a problem when we, as Surrey students, are having our degree devalued due to the greed of Surrey’s management and the man in charge of it. He is being paid far more than his equivalents, who are providing their students with better degrees and better experiences. By rewarding academic mediocrity in favour of financial excellence, Surrey Management has made clear that they don’t care about Surrey students getting a good degree – all they care about is making a quick buck.

The core of this issue for me is that, like many others, when I joined the University of Surrey – it was not my only option. I had similar offers from universities at similar levels in the rankings, and easily could have joined these universities as opposed to Surrey. When I say that the slowly declining standard of teaching and slip in the rankings is devaluing our degrees, this is not a false equivalence or over-exaggeration. For those of us who have joined in the last few years, Surrey’s drop in the rankings is simply a reminder of the other universities we could be going to right now. Our degrees are being put at risk because we joined the university assuming we’d receive a standard of degree that simply is not being met. Our degrees are not going to be from a top 10 university that is rapidly rising in stature like we were promised upon arriving here; instead, it will be from a university that is struggling to hold its position within the top 20, and will inevitably continue to plummet in stature. Whilst this happens, the University is happily making a handy profit, and Max Lu is being paid more than his peers in universities rewarding their students with more valuable degrees and better teaching.

When you boil it down, it’s simple. As students, we have to realise that the University is clearly showing us they only care about making money, and this is a problem developing from the top down. If something doesn’t change soon, our degree will be a shadow of what it was once worth.

University management was contacted for a response and had the following comment:

Michael Queen, chair of the University Council, said “The University of Surrey is a world class institution, and to stay at that level we need world class academic and institutional leadership. Professor Max Lu was selected after a rigorous recruitment process that looked at University leaders from around the world. He is one of only 150 double highly cited academics in the world, we are very fortunate that he is the VC at Surrey and he is already making a big impact on our University and building our reputation.

“Surrey is rising in the International league tables, which are based on academic achievement and quality of research, while UK league tables are more susceptible to fluctuations year on year. We would always seek continual improvement in any league tables, but our main focus will always remain on making the student experience outstanding.

“It is important to recognise that the University of Surrey is not a business – it is a charity with the objectives of teaching, generation of knowledge through research and contributing to the wider community in which we live, and any surpluses we make as a University are reinvested in the University.

“The Council and Leadership are committed to Surrey being an outstanding institution that all our students, staff and alumni feel proud to be associated with. We acknowledge that we don’t always get everything right first time and I am very happy for feedback on where we can do things better. The Students’ Union representatives do an excellent job and are very challenging on behalf of students, but we also value the comments from individual students directly.”

The Stag greatly appreciates the University responding to our article, and providing a comment on the issue. We recognise however a difference in perspective on this issue between ourselves and the University. We encourage our readers to do their own research regarding the issue, and come to their own conclusion.

Sources:

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/times-higher-education-v-c-pay-survey-2018

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40493658

https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/

https://www.whatuni.com/student-awards-winners/university-of-the-year/

https://www.theguardian.com/education/ng-interactive/2018/may/29/university-league-tables-2019

https://www.surrey.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-12/Statement-on-Vice-Chancellor-and-Senior-Staff-Remuneration-2018.pdf

https://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/surrey-news/university-surrey-students-forced-attend-13717237

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