Amid a tumultuous few months for our institution – the state of play has changed. We felt it was best go to back to the Vice-Chancellor’s office to get answers surrounding Bangor’s financial situation.
You’ve come to Bangor as Interim Vice-Chancellor. Despite being a temporary tenure, how important is it for you to do a good job here?
Well, I was on the Council here for two years. Whilst Council members won’t get to know all the details about the university, we are still heavily involved in the university – so I haven’t just walked through the door.
But my links with Bangor go back a lot further than being on the council. I did my PhD in Cardiff and then worked in Cardiff for 14 years. You could say there was a little bit of rivalry between North Wales and South Wales! At Cardiff, I was head of the School of Education. Cardiff was the University of Wales and we had a lot of engagement across the country. Then, as you may be aware, I was Interim Vice-Chancellor at Wrexham Glyndwr University. In that period, we signed a collaboration agreement with Bangor University. So, my knowledge of Bangor goes back a very long time and I’ve always been very positive about Bangor.
It’s a very special place in Welsh History and Welsh Education. So when things started to go wrong, of course, I had to step up and get involved.
You’ve been in the job a month now, can you give us an overview of the financial situation as you see it?
Before I go onto that – let’s forget all the issues and problems for a moment. We start with an institution that is a really good institution. An institution that is absolutely committed to high quality learning, teaching and research. The evidence is there, from the NSS scores to the TEF Gold Award – we’re a good place. Academically, we’re a vibrant and strong community.
Admittedly, we’ve got some problems. They’re primarily financial. The rest of the university is going well. But financial problems always have a knock-on effect to what happens in the rest of the place. I think it’s unfortunate that over the last few years we’ve had to do some restructuring because of financial issues. That’s demoralizing for staff and students.
We’re not in a desperate situation. But the issues are serious. Over the last couple of years, recruitment of undergraduates – home and EU particular – have fallen below where they need to be to achieve the budgets we’ve had before. University’s mainly depend on student fees for income. Once you get a drop of a couple hundred students, that’s a lot of money gone from your purse, so to speak.
We can’t go on how we are. As painful as it is, we’ve got to address it. We’ve got to do something in the interest of long-term security and stability for staff and students. The financial problems aren’t the worst I’ve seen. I’ve been in institutions where the financial situation was in a much direr position. But what we’ve got are serious problems.
What have you been doing to try and tackle this situation?
This is the 5th University I’ve been Vice-Chancellor at now. So I’ve got a pretty good background in running a University. I do understand numbers and money – not a lot of Vice-Chancellors do. That gives me a head start when you’re trying to manage an organisation with £170m+ turnover.
Clearly, a process of cutting costs has begun. I came in the middle of that process, so I can’t just stop it. That’s going ahead and the Council has committed itself to that. My job is to make sure that goes ahead and it will achieve the objectives it will need to.
What I’m bringing is an open approach. We’ve told Trade Unions that we’re totally willing to co-operate and put everything on the table for them. We’ve had the Q&A Sessions with Undeb Bangor and the Sabbatical Officers. It’s important to make sure that everyone has a joint understanding so that we can help one another through this difficult process.
Beyond that, we’ll be looking at our systems and making sure that they are effective and efficient going forward so that the University is ran in a business-like way. We’re looking at our planning processes, a newer approach to resource allocation so that Dean’s and Head of School’s know how much money they’ve got to spend. It’s crucial that, particularly, we modernise our financial management processes to make sure that we’re a step ahead of the game. I don’t like surprises. We need to make sure that we can see what’s coming and take advance action.
This is about settling the medium and the long-term. We’re in this for the long game. We’ve got to make sure the University is around for another 134 years.
Was a joint understanding lacking when you first arrived?
That’s fair to say. It’s clear from comments and reactions that students didn’t know what the financial position is. It’s all very well telling students to look at the financial accounts and business cases – not everybody would be able to read them. Evidence suggests that people haven’t been able to understand that information. So, we need to put it on the table. There’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t be able to look at the accounts.
At the protest which happened in January, the main thing which students want is transparency – is there room for improvement in terms of transparency?
Absolutely. I’m totally committed to transparency. Many universities use a devolved budgeting system where a Head of School should be able to clearly see how much money from fees they are getting and what their costs are. We currently don’t have a system like that. That makes it harder to share that information. So, we’ve got to modernise our system so that people can see what’s happening.
On the protest itself – if people aren’t feeling they aren’t getting the information they need or they’re angry and frustrated, they should make their voices heard. Lots of problems in history and society have come from voices not being heard and people’s expression restricted – so it’s fine. I’ve got no problem with it in principle.
You’ve extended the consultation period twice – tell us about the thought process behind that.
I’ve come into the middle of a process that I didn’t start. What became clear is that the process wasn’t ideally timed around the Christmas period and exams. Trade Unions argued well for an extension. It’s slowed it down a tad but it’s not the end of the world. It’s a big issue – if an extension improves the discussions and communication that can take place then let’s do it.
The consultation isn’t a sham. We are listening and looking at the comments that are coming through. There are some cases where the original plan might go ahead, in others we may change plans based on the feedback.
In our interview with Prof. John G. Hughes back in November, the demographic deficit was cited as a key reason for cutbacks – do you also believe this to be the case?
It’s one of the reasons. But that’s effected every university in the UK. It started 3 or 4 years ago and it’s been known about for a long time. If you’ve got fewer 18-year olds then you’re going to have issues with recruitment.
Another big issue is the cap being lifted on student intake in England. Before the cap was lifted, English universities would usually get more applicants than needed and would have to refuse a certain amount. Places like Manchester University have grown hugely in the last few years as it’s recruiting students that it couldn’t have in the past. This has had an impact on all Welsh universities.
The third issue has been a big surprise since I’ve been here on a more permanent basis. I’ve always known Bangor, so you think that everyone must know Bangor. But the feedback we get from a lot of students is: “where is Bangor? What is there to do? Where are the nightclubs?” Now that students pay a larger fee, they’ve been more interested in the entire university experience than they used to be. Students don’t see us in the way we hope they would. We’ve got to further market Bangor to promote the name of Bangor, our strengths and why you’d want to come here for 3 years.
There has been criticism from staff that the demographic dip could have been predicted and combatted 3 or 4 years ago?
The dip is quite significant but there’s still a lot of 18-year olds out there. There could have been cutbacks at the time to make things gentler. But I don’t know what would have been achieved at that point by making 20 staff redundant. At the time, the aim would have been to recruit and be hopeful that we’re a good university and we’ll hold our share of students.
In November 2018, we were told that student facing areas would be protected and that lecturers wouldn’t be made redundant – looking at the business cases, can we still say this is a true state of affairs?
In a process like this, I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to protect any area. My approach would have been to have looked at where are the problems are. If we’ve only got 10 students in one school, I’m not going to argue that we should have five lecturers for them. Likewise, if there’s 160 students in one school with only five lecturers, again, that wouldn’t be right. So, I don’t believe with protectionism in that regard.
Fundamentally important in this whole process is the student experience and the quality of learning and teaching. That’s what we have to protect. But the student experience isn’t just about the academics, it’s about what happens in the library, in school offices and in IT. So, I think the student experience should be protected, but that experience isn’t only provided by academics.
We’ve got to work within our budget. There won’t be anybody to bail us out. We can cut non-pay spending. However, cutting costs often means reducing the number of staff. Our situation means that it’s not just a case of easy trimming around the edges. We have to face up to the fact that serious cuts have to be made for the long-term future of the university.
That’s the whole point of the consultation. It’s to come up with proposals that can do that without causing harm to the student experience.
How will the student experience be protected?
It starts in the academic unit. It’s not me telling an academic school what to cut. It’s up to the academic school to evaluate themselves and determine how they can operate more effectively.
It’s the same for professional services. For example, we’ll be looking at our estates and asking: ‘are we effective in managing that estate? Do we need all the buildings we’ve got? Can we be functioning effectively as a university without spending money on the range of buildings we have?’
It’s common sense but on a big scale. It’s not much different to what we do on a personal basis. If you’re buying clothes or a holiday you’ve got to plan and work around that. Sometimes you can’t buy everything you want to have.
The UCU have published various reports criticising the University cuts – what is your general response?
It’s an accountant view of where we are. I have no problem with it. There’s nothing with what that person has highlighted. But a lot of those issues need talking about. It would have been better if we could have had a conversation about it. Perhaps they could have worked with our finance department to get a better understanding of the situation.
The report has been a good starting point for a lot of questions which I think we’ve been answering quite well. There are weekly meetings with the UCU. So, there’s a commitment there to openness and collaboration.
But there’s nothing in the report which goes against the position that we have to make cuts. The trade unions accept that we’ve got to deal with the situation. The past statistics which are in the report are very interesting, but the reality is now. I’ve got to deal with where we are. If we don’t, we will go under.
How important is it to engage with the people that you could possibly be making redundant?
Hugely important. It’s an awfully difficult process to go through at this point and to be threatened with your job disappearing. People have families and lives and all that. So, it’s not at all easy, I understand that. Particularly in an area like Bangor where there aren’t all that many other opportunities.
You’ve also been engaging with the Student and Undeb Bangor with the Q&A Sessions?
I think it’s crucial, particularly in the current climate when you’ve got a lot of things happening. It’s got to be a team effort, not just one person. When I was a student, sport was my thing and I used to play football. I was the captain, but it didn’t matter. When you step out on to the pitch – you’re all equal. Everyone’s got to play to win the game. So my lesson from sport is that you’ve got to be a team, you’ve got to support one another.
We’re in a difficult situation here, so it’s even more important that we’re all working together.
As I say, you came in as an interim, it’s been a whirlwind past few months with all the events that have unfolded. How hard has it been coming into Bangor as a VC at this point?
I knew a lot about Bangor by being on the council anyway so I didn’t too many surprises regarding the financial situation. I came here knowing what I’m here to do.
I think we’re in an uncomfortable position, but I feel we can get through that if we work together. My aim is to get a level of stability within the University to help overcome the issues of morale that have impacted the changes here. And hopefully the new Vice Chancellor will be taking over a steady ship with a much clearer direction for the future.