The Referendum Question Time Roundup by Charlotte West

On Tuesday 14th May Surrey Decides made a return to campus with Question Time for the referendum on senior management. The referendum question will be: “Is the performance and leadership of the governing bodies of the University of Surrey satisfactory?” The Yes campaign spokesperson was Marco Conticini and the No campaign spokesperson was Monique Botha. The debate was chaired by Joel Russel.

The night showed lots of engagement from the students that attended, who asked a range of questions from students’ healthcare, sustainability, pensions and university expansion, most of which returned the debate to the key problem of funding. The statistics offered by both spokespersons were often contradictory, arising from different sources and creating a general feeling of misinformation from both sides.

Here are the highlights from the night:

Russel kicked off the questions with a direct one to Conticini; he identified that some compulsory modules can have 500-700 students, especially on courses in the business school, with the feedback being to limit course sizes to improve teaching, he asked, “what benefit would there be if you limited the course size when there is already poor teaching?” Conticini responded that the university needs more income in order to get more staff in to the business department. He suggested that the university is trying to grow the number of students on other courses to make up the difference through their tuition fees. Botha countered that the staff to student ratio means that we require more staff, “except we’re not hiring more staff, we’re cutting staff but increasing student numbers”, she explained. Conticini clarified that there is a difference in the university’s attitude toward the business school and the university at large. He explained that the business school is trying to increase their staff numbers and decrease student numbers, whereas other courses are doing the opposite in order to balance it out. Botha ended the discussion, disagreeing with Conticini's statement and identifying that the university is freezing the appointment of any new staff, and that includes staff in the business school.

Russel moved on to state that while we have fallen in the university league tables overall, we are the leading university for some courses, including first for criminology, second for music and third for food science. He asked whether this high performance justifies the senior management’s pay. Botha argued that if that were the logic then Oxford and Cambridge’s senior team would be earning more than the management at Surrey. Many contradicting statistics were thrown about, with Conticini arguing that the senior management’s raise was below what the staff was raised. He stated that it was a 1.47% increase, as sourced directly from the university, rather than the 7% statistic that has been suggested by the No campaign, which Botha stated was from the remuneration document 2017/18.

The debate on payments continued with a follow-up question from Russel who asked whether the university should be offering competitive salaries in order to encourage people to work here, as it is a job market. Botha again referred to Oxford and Cambridge whose senior management salaries have stayed the same along with their top position in the league tables, yet we’ve dropped from 4th place and Surrey management salaries have increased. Conticini countered that Oxford and Cambridge have a level of prestige that Surrey lacks, and thus draws in top academics, and also means they receive income from endowments. He suggested that Surrey needs the best academics in order to compete with these universities and thus entices them in with an appealing salary. Russel also asked about cost of living being a factor for staff, as Guildford is an expensive place to live. Botha stated that the Vice Chancellor does not have to pay rent on his house. Conticini countered that the Vice Chancellor has raised £6 million for the university in six months through hosting events and encouraging investments into the university, suggesting that this makes up for the lack of rent. There were concerns about the validity of these statements as there are no official documents tracking this, although Conticini pressed that he has official emails from the university with the information.

Later in the debate a question from the floor asked whether the issues we’re discussing would be any different under a new team of senior management. Botha argued it would make a difference as she insinuated that Surrey have not prioritised or made appropriate sacrifices. She drew upon Southampton University as an example of a Vice Chancellor that took a 27.5% pay cut rather than cut the jobs of staff. Conticini, on the other hand, drew examples from Kent and Sheffield as universities that are also having to fire staff, as well as the increase in pensions being a national change.

The issue of healthcare then arose from a student who explained that he was denied access to his medication from the NHS Guildowns practice because they were unable to register any more students, and yet the university is still continuing to expand. Another student added on to this, stating that issues of healthcare and accessibility are a Surrey specific issue, and that the university is misinformed about these issues and not prioritising them. Botha pushed for full transparency from the university; she wants the meetings with the executive board to be open for students to attend, as that would be a basic first step to improvement. Conticini disagreed, arguing that this would give competing universities access to their plans.

Another question from the floor asked whether Conticini and Botha believed whether these voluntary cuts had been handled in a professional manner. He drew upon rumours about methods of intimidation being used and staff mental health declining. Botha revealed that PhD students are being forced to pick up the slack resulting from these staff cuts, and this pressure affecting their mental wellbeing too. She went on to identify how academics have been required to provide their payroll number in order to vote in this referendum. Conticini disagreed stating that the methods used by the university are the most humane way of dealing with a compulsory situation. He argued that if the university does not remain financially sustainable then there would not be any jobs at all.

There was heated discussion about the prioritisation of funding for staff and quality of education over building facilities, such as the new Hive or a hotel for the Hospitality students. A question from the floor identified that students are paying for the whole university experience, not just the teaching, and asked how the management was planning on dealing with this change in mindset from prospective students. Botha drew upon the decrease in student satisfaction overall and that while facilities are important, health and wellbeing in particular must take priority. Conticini identified that the National Student Survey has a delayed affect due to it being for final students to reflect on their whole experience at university; he argued that management are now taking the steps to resolve problems, such as when lectures were held in the Odeon in 2017. Russel interjected asking whether these were not simply reactionary steps taken by the university. Conticini admitted to their being an issue with feedback at the university, whereas Botha argued that the university is “irresponsible” for knowing that our surgery is oversubscribed and still increasing student numbers. Conticini once again pressed the fact that this is an issue of funding and argued a new management would still face that problem.

The night came to a close with both spokespeople admitting a need for better accountability of the university.

You can rewatch the debate here.

Make sure that you vote in this referendum on the Student Union website: www.ussu.co.uk


Created with an image by Allec Gomes

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