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Rhi Storer on VCQT 2018

By | Published January 31, 2018

Have you ever seen David Eastwood? I certainly haven’t, so I welcomed the opportunity to critically appraise a man best used to swooping the corridors of the Aston Webb building, and not the hallways of the Guild of Students.

I have to commend our Guild President Ellie Keiller for putting on this event. It’s good to finally make David Eastwood accountable for his role as vice-chancellor of our university – after all we are the students that are paying for our university to be well-run, well-staffed, and to make our wellbeing a top priority.

I echo Dan’s sentiments regarding David Eastwood actually attending this event with such confidence. It was clear that he had been prepped on potential themes that students may grill him on (fees, mental health, study spaces etc) before this event – in a way to cover his own back, but more importantly, so he could be seen as competent, with a clear answer for every question. Is this really making him accountable? I would have hoped that we could have really questioned him about what he has achieved at his time at our University a la Question Time style.

My question to Sir Eastwood was simple: Does he regret increasing the fees to £9000, and subsequently, was it a wise decision on his part to increase tuition fees as part of financialisation of the university? I wanted to raise the topic of tuition fees because tuition fees now stand in a new context.

Firstly, the inflation of student loan interests rate, which has surged up by a third to 6.1% due to a decline in the value of the pound since the result of the Brexit referendum. Some critics have argued that the consequences of this are morally indefensible and some have even had a change of heart in and are calling for them to be scrapped.

Secondly, the overwhelming majority of students voting for Labour based on the claim that the party supports writing off all outstanding student debt. Although this claim has divided much of the Labour party, the fact that students bore their red colours indicates a growing demand for change over the funding of higher education. Perhaps this is why Labour then successfully pushed a motion in the House of Commons to stop a £250 a year increase in tuition fees.

Finally, it is common knowledge that David Eastwood supported the idea of removing caps from tuition fees. He was one of the panel members as part of the ‘Browne Review’ which looked into how best to consider the future of higher education – yet the public, according to a recent YouGov survey, believe that scrapping tuition fees will benefit both the affluent and less well off.

David Eastwood unfortunately seemed to sidestep my question, failing to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’  response. He appeared flustered not only by my question, but other vital questions asked by other members of the audience. He instead diverted the question to suggest that a ‘graduate tax’ on tuition fees is much more beneficial to the student body. Much of the student population already knows the debate between accessing ‘free education’ or installing a ‘graduate tax’ – and to divert the question to this was, in my opinion, incredibly patronising. Indeed, there have been a plethora of reasons that the ’graduate tax’ is a good thing – ranging from raising revenues without reducing labour supply to recreating competitiveness in higher education. But for many, the point of education is that it should be free and not sold as a commodity. A graduate tax, arguably, allows the continued marketisation of the university. David Eastwood sidestepping the question is not really a surprise for me and is incredibly disappointing for such a diverse student body that makes up the University of Birmingham.

Another point of call for the Vice-Chancellor Question Time that I also quickly want to touch on is the controversy over the opening of a new campus in Dubai that is affiliated with our university. Although Dubai has built a tolerant and cosmopolitan image, the wider laws of the UAE strictly forbid any LGBT-related activities. Furthermore, while women have become more accepted within the workplace, UAE law permits domestic violence and continues to discriminate women and their relationships.

It makes sense that plenty of students raised concern over this. How can our university claim to produce the best academics who demonstrate the essence of western values (democracy, rule of law, tolerance, and freedom of speech), yet still push for opening a campus in a country where there is a clear contradiction of values and approaches to creating a ‘good’ society?

Some would argue this is just the continued marketisation of the ‘global student experience’, that is a debate in itself, but for our Vice Chancellor appeared to again avoid giving a concrete answer. When pressed again by a member of the audience, explicitly, whether “Yes or no can you guarantee the safety of women and LGBT rights?” our Vice Chancellor again failed to give definite reassurance, preferring instead to refer to their work with Stonewall in attempting to make it as safe as possible. This is frankly dangerous. Actively keeping silence on the persecution of marginalised people in society validates the idea that LGBT people, and women, are a social risk and only further entrenches discrimination in society. It is embarrassing that our Vice Chancellor could not answer the question in a city that is one of the most diverse in the UK.

Let us hope that in our next edition of VCQT, our Vice-Chancellor comes without a script so that we can really have an open dialogue on his views and practices.