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Dan Wootton on VCQT 2018

By | Published January 30, 2018

I think this event is long overdue. The ‘Vice Chancellor’ has for most been an abstract at UoB with the decision-maker of our university keeping well away from the students.

Vice Chancellor Professor Sir David Eastwood was bold in coming down to the Guild of Students, that much must be said – he entered a room full of students who were there to challenge him on virtually every aspect of his policy decisions for our university. What I most wanted to quiz Sir David on was the student experience at UoB and what is being done to improve it. With fees rising again to £9250 per year I wanted to know what additional support and services students here would be getting for their money. I’m going to talk about two questions in particular from the two hour event.

The first was the question I raised to him in the Guild Council Chambers – ‘How will an expensive hotel and conference centre benefit students at the University of Birmingham? And will any percentage of the profits taken from that centre go into initiatives that benefit students, like increased welfare services and mental health support?’ I was encouraged by the round of applause that followed my question as it corroborated my belief that others were perplexed by this too – would spending millions on another project come back around to improve students’ lives? A couple of key phrases from Sir David were ‘resource for the university’ and ‘reputation of the university’ – the overriding feeling I got from his answer was that the multi-million pound cost to build the complex was for the prestige of the university. He didn’t refer to the centre as ‘a resource for students’, it is worth noting, merely the university’s brand. The tangible benefit for students was seemingly non-existent. It’s also worth noting that the Vice Chancellor was at pains to make plain that the cost of building would not be raised through tuition fees. And yes, while it’s important the university itself is financially stable and able to turn a profit, I’m not sure this was the way to do it – there are many departments across UoB that would have been grateful for just a fraction of that, and the money raised from the centre would go into the accommodation and catering budgets. With student welfare being an issue of such import, and justly so, I would have rather seen a fraction, however small, going into improving these services for students.

The second question I’d like to note came from Redbrick’s Editor-in-Chief Will Baxter, which received the most vocal support of the night save only the moment when a student called on the Vice Chancellor to resign. Will asked why the Guild was ‘chronically underfunded’ in comparison to other Russell Group university student unions, citing the figure of the Guild receiving £63 per student in comparison to the RG average of £85 per student – and how UoB uses societies in its promotional material but does not help groups survive. A rather infuriating answer followed in which the Vice Chancellor suggested this was not a good comparison (I’m intrigued what statistic would be a good comparison when examining student union funding, in Sir David’s eyes), skirting around the issue of why he doesn’t feel the need to provide the Guild with further funding despite being ‘enormously proud of what the Guild does’. Moderator Nick Petrie followed up on the Vice Chancellor’s answer, asking if he thought the Guild had enough money to do its job on behalf of the student body, to which again Sir David avoided the question, suggesting the Guild’s priorities should be examined as to what the money would specifically go to – again, I would say, not the point. The stat of how much money the Guild receives in relation to other Russell Group universities is damning in showing where in fact the Vice Chancellor’s priorities seem to lie – in building a global reputation for the university.