All entries for February 2016

February 26, 2016

A busy few weeks!

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Variety is certainly at the core of this job! On Thursday, I was at Buckingham Palace, as the Departments of Mathematics and Statistics together won the Queen's Anniversary Prize - a really wonderful achievement. I've been meeting our local partners; and working to meet as many colleagues as possible around campus.

I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity of meeting some of our regional partners in recent weeks, to discuss our role in the region and our ties with local education providers, councils, business and industry.

It’s an exciting time for our region, with Coventry bidding to be City of Culture 2021, and the Midlands Engine helping to boost productivity and inward investment in the area. Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with Professor John Latham, VC of Coventry University, and Council leader Ann Lucas to discuss ways that we can collaborate further to benefit the city of Coventry. Our relationship, and commitment to, Coventry is an incredibly important part of this University now and in the future. But it's not just Coventry of course. We have, and will develop further, strong relations with Warwickshire.

Some of you may have noticed some extra bikes on campus as the AVIVA women’s tour launch took place– I’m proud that we can support this initiative, with the Warwickshire strand of the tour due to come through our campus in June.It will be a wonderful event, but also shows our connections to our county.

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As well as building our relationships, some friendly rivalry’s live on through the start of the Varsity competition this week against our neighbours Coventry University. The tournament started on Wednesday, and last night our ice hockey team put up a good fight against Coventry, with Coventry eventually winning 14 – 9. And on Sunday, I will be cheering on Team Warwick at the Ricoh Arena. I’m reliably informed that tickets are still available and can be bought online.

In addition to meeting partners within our region, our campus has also been very busy the past couple of weeks.

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This week marks the start of SU elections season, and I was happy to welcome a visitor to my office in the form of the SU election mascot. We covered many topics; from student democracy to Aston Villa (the mascot’s not a fan, and at the moment, who can blame them?)

I mentioned in my last post that I was meeting with a student called Alexander regarding our music practice facilities, as this was raised at the Student Question Time event held in my first week. He showed me around the music practice facilities at Westwood, and I agree with him that we have more work to do here. Alexander has sent me over a report he’s worked on and together we can look at longer term solutions for practice areas but also short term space availability.

I also had a follow-up meeting with Sam and colleagues from Warwick Pride regarding gender neutral facilities on campus – whilst Sam was pleased to hear that we’ll be committing to this for new buildings, concerns were raised about facilities in current buildings. Refurbishment of our buildings does happen from time to time, so we’ll make sure this is considered at that point.

Having heard from Sam and colleagues, I do think that we as a community need to further our understanding on different elements of the diversity agenda. I’ve offered Sam an opportunity to use this blog as a space to communicate some of that with us, much in the way the Warwick for Free Education group did earlier this week.

As well as a number of student meetings, I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting a range of colleagues from a number of different departments, including the Library, Warwick Sport and those at Westwood.

On Monday evening I met some of our campus security team - we’re a 24 hour campus, and it’s often easy to forget about those who work unsociable hours to keep our community safe and secure. It was fascinating to find out more about the breadth of work that our security team supports - from keeping our campus safe, to additional duties they take on for pastoral care for our students.

As you can see, it’s been a busy couple of weeks with lots going on. Have a great weekend and I hope to see as many of you as possible at the Varsity final on Sunday!

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February 24, 2016

Warwick for Free Education: Why Does More Debt Matter?

On February 1st, I sat on a Question Time session chaired by Isaac Leigh, President of Warwick SU. It was a useful session; I heard concerns raised around a wide range of issues from accommodation, timetabling clashes, provision of gender neutral facilities, free speech, sexual violence and consent workshops to investment in supporting sports societies and providing better facilities for music and arts practice spaces to list a few.

A number of questions came from students who are in the Warwick For Free Education group. They found my answers largely unsatisfactory and protested a few days later. Isaac invited me to meet with them to discuss matters. I did, and we had a good dialogue.

One issue raised was the change from maintenance grants to maintenance loans. I am very concerned about the implications of this change of government policy. When I was in my final year of undergraduate study, over thirty years ago, my maximum grant was a key pillar that enabled me to finish my degree. I felt a connection with this debate, and I agreed that in order to facilitate more discussion, I would be happy to provide a forum for the views expressed by the students in that meeting.

What follows is the viewpoint of the Warwick For Free Education group. This is not an endorsement of those views but I want to air them here – in full, without any editing – so that we might consider these issues further as a community. I do not imply that this group represents all students and do not want to privilege this group. It is the Students’ Union and its sabbatical officers that have this role.

To enable more formal discussions across university channels, a proposal is being sent for consideration at Senate.

I see this as being about facilitating debate. Warwick For Free Education do not. They see this contribution as being about ‘forcing concessions’. It is a view they have expressed on their blog. I do not see providing these opportunities as a concession; there we will simply disagree. I also do not support or condone the way the group conducts protests; invading working space of colleagues with a ‘noise protest’ is, to some, disruptive and intimidating. Perspectives should not be supressed; they should be aired, discussed and challenged, and it is in this context that the space below is offered.

There will be other views and I am happy to facilitate the airing of those as well. I hope that we are able to continue discussion through the wider Warwick community.

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Why does more debt matter?

On Thursday Jan 13, a backroom committee of just 18 MPs voted to officially abolish maintenance grants. With no parliamentary debate, vote in the Commons, or any semblance of democracy, the Conservatives have cut a major source of financial support for approximately a million students in the UK. Undoubtedly, maintenance grants represent a lifeline for the poorest students, and their abolition is nothing less than catastrophic.

Yet, when confronted with heart-wrenching testimonies about the impact of maintenance grant cuts, the Tories’ major justification has been the minor net increase of overall available funding in the form of maintenance loans. This is, in the strictest sense, factually sound. More money than ever will be provided at the point of access, with maintenance grants converted into loans and more loan than ever made available. Our critique of maintenance grants cuts therefore does not concern itself solely with the removal of financial means, although we also must not ignore the broader austerity programme within and outside education that has seen cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance. Rather, we condemn these cuts on the grounds of how debt manages us, conditions us and demands of us.

Debt locks us into a relationship of obligation which structures our future aspirations around a schedule of repayment. It is a form of ‘support’ transacted with terms and conditions – an idea that some Tories have outrageously suggested should also extend to Job Seeker’s Allowance. Debt is an act of control rather than compassion, and the cuts amount to little more than leveraging the hardship of the most vulnerable and poorest attending university, inflicting greater pressure and economic constraint to prepare us for, and bind us to, the demands of a labour market under austerity. Faced with the prospect of poverty and debt, we end up with no choice but to navigate a stagnant labour market and to assimilate into an inequitable status quo. Everything we are – everything we could be – is ensnared by a ruthless model of exchange in which our collective futures are risked, and our education, welfare and public infrastructure are forfeited to a rich minority. Our public debt, the outcome of a collective bailing out of a reckless minority of financiers, is transformed into the private debt of those with the least responsibility for it.

Indeed, the Conservative’s programme for Higher Education reform openly describes the purpose of university as a delivering of the ‘pipeline of graduates needed for a 21st century economy’. Debt is a mechanism that ensures our compliance with this function. After all, in order for the student finance system to be financially sustainable in the long term, this debt has to be repaid, else the whole structure will collapse. Even now, for every £1 lent, 45p is unpaid, a crisis of repayment that will only be exacerbated by piling more debt onto poorer students. Working class students are effectively forced to pay more for our education than our richer counterparts, and we will be indebted for longer throughout our lives – due to the freezing (and hence lowering in real terms) of the loan repayment threshold. With more and more draconian measures emerging such as the threat of prosecution for graduates who cannot repay their loan on time, students must enter a debt relation unnavigable for the poorest in society. In effect, the greatest financial burden for the cost of our education is imposed on and underwritten by those who can least afford it.

And for what gain? The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that the abolition of maintenance grants will ‘do little to improve government finances in the long run’, saving a mere £270 million per cohort in public funds. This is negligible, especially when it is set against a context of year-on-year cuts to corporation tax until 2020.

It would appear as if the cuts to maintenance grants are more ideological than economic – after all, we inhabit a class-stratified society, which exhibits strong patterns of reproduced advantage and privilege. In other words, those who are born poor are likely to remain so, regardless of university qualifications. It is the education and lives of the most marginalized that bear the brunt of the merciless Conservative agenda of deficit reduction and balancing-of-the-books. This reflects a broader context: for all the Government’s lip-service to ‘widening participation’ since the introduction of 9K fees, none of this class mobility has materialized in the broader economy. Incomes have stagnated in real terms, job insecurity is rampant, living conditions have declined, and homelessness has increased. Housing benefit cuts for younger tenants have been proposed in the midst of a mass housing crisis, the Tories have decreed that under 25’s do not deserve the living wage because they are not ‘productive enough’, and the prospects of the young and the marginalized seem bleaker than ever. All the while, the 1,000 richest people in the UK have doubled their wealth since the financial crash of 2008. Few have prospered, and many have suffered. This is a situation that cannot go unanswered.

And we can win: grants have been scrapped before, in 1997, but were fought for and won back.. By forging a powerful and broad-ranging movement which is ready to confront a Government uncompromising in its austerity programme – and, atrociously, which abolished maintenance grants in the most opaque and undemocratic of ways - we can win. We have done so before, and can do so again. This is not simply a question of access to university - this is a question about our lives, our futures, and the type of society we wish to inhabit. This is about resistance to a social order where nothing – not even unconditional support for the poorest and most marginalized students – is safe from the imposition of the market. This is about resistance to a Government intent on dismantling education as a public good, intent on capitalizing on our disadvantage, intent on turning any form of assistance into a debt sentence.

On Friday of Week 7, join us to fight the cuts and demand #GrantsNotDebt.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1666121383640789/


February 08, 2016

Reflections on my first week

They say that a week is a long time in politics. Well, it can seem a long week in other areas of life too. Last week was one of the busiest of my life…and one of the most intense.

Following my message to all last Monday morning, I received over 400 messages during the week. I have worked hard to reply to them all…. if I haven’t yet replied, please bear with me! There were messages from staff and students, and also a number from alumni, which was heartening. I only had one negative comment…that the text was too long to read on a mobile device. True! Sorry for that.

qt.jpgOn my first evening in my new role, I took part in a SU Question Time event, hosted by the SU President, Isaac Leigh. I won’t pretend that it was an easy discussion to have on my first day in post, but it felt like an appropriate way to open up communications with our students and get their direct feedback. I had some very positive conversations with students straight after and in the following days.

Whilst many of the issues raised cannot be resolved overnight, I reported back to the rest of the executive team and progress has already been made in some areas, for example, I can confirm that our new Teaching and Learning building will house gender neutral facilities, and the new National Automotive Innovation Centre will have unisex private cubicles. We will also take this into consideration in future building projects across campus. Other issues raised, concerned access to buildings for disabled people, access to facilities for musicians, and how we support elite sport. I am looking into all of these at the moment.

On Thursday afternoon I met with a group of students in the Students’ Union who had been holding a protest in University House. The meeting was a starting point for future conversations, and more details will become available in the coming days and weeks. Earlier that day, I had spent some time in the Students’ Union building, I met colleagues throughout the building and have some discussions to take forward with the Advice Centre and Warwick Volunteers about the wonderful work that they do.

Understanding the views of students is of course really important in a university. One additional way in which voices can be heard is through the National Student Survey, and I would also urge any final year undergraduate students to complete it.

While at the SU, George Creasy and Alex Roberts presented about the beating heart of our campus; sports and society involvement and I was amazed to hear that over 15,000 of our students are involved in sports and societies; and also the scale of activities (including financial scale) that students organise themselves. I hope that many of you will be supporting your teams during the upcoming Varsity competition. I even committed to having my picture taken with our mascot, so watch this space…

I’ve always been proud of Warwick for accepting and celebrating all members of our community and if you’ve passed University House this week, you may have seen the LGBT flag flying alongside our own Warwick flags. The flag was raised on Wednesday by Ken Sloan in celebration of LGBT history month. I have no doubt that this event will continue to grow over the next few years.

On Friday morning, I met colleagues based in Argent Court in my first staff visit. Many of these roles are part of the critical engine room that make our campus run smoothly, and aren’t always highly visible to many of us. I spoke with colleagues from all departments based at Argent Court, and the pride and dedication staff take in their roles was really evident.

So how did my first week go? It was a week of learning, a week of sharing and a week of meeting some of the people who bring this campus to life. And it was intense… Whilst I’ve only met a fraction of you, important questions have been raised and conversations started about how we can work together to face any future challenges and opportunities.

Overall, a good week… surprisingly topped off by Aston Villa beating Norwich 2-0! I’m now looking forward to what the next week will bring.

Thank you for your support, it has been most appreciated and I look forward to talking with more people in the coming weeks and months.

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February 03, 2016

My first day as your new Vice–Chancellor

Stuart Croft Dear all,

Even though I’ve worked at Warwick for nine years, today feels a bit like my first day at school. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t particularly enjoy any of my first days at school. I hope this one will be different.

It is an interesting time to be taking over as Vice-Chancellor. On the one hand, Warwick is riding higher than at any time in its history, according to every league table at which you might look. The past few years have been marked by a whole series of achievements in teaching, research, in our organisational efficiency, as well as in our ability to raise the funds that we need to invest in our future. We have great students and wonderful staff; which we are adding to through top quality recruitment. On the other hand, not all of that success has been easy, and there have been a number of difficult moments for us all. The success of the university has depended on the hard work of so many, and I do not underestimate the effort and personal cost that this has entailed. Let me start as I mean to go on – by thanking you for that effort, energy and commitment.

In fact, there is still a lot for us to do. But this is tempered by what I know of the University of Warwick.

We can achieve a huge amount, because of the incredibly high quality of staff and students that we have, because we pull together when we need to, because we have wonderful friends amongst the alumni base and beyond both locally and around the world. The future will be challenging, there is no doubt about that. But there are real opportunities for us to make Warwick a still better university. And we must work together to take those opportunities.

Please click hereto read my full ‘first day at school’ letter. It’s where you’ll read more about the challenges we face, and how our ethos and people will ensure we face those challenges with confidence. You’ll also learn about some exciting new developments for Warwick both on campus and further afield.

I hope this is a useful way of beginning a conversation. I plan to write more for our blog, and my colleagues will do so too. I also plan to get around the university as much as I can, starting this week, and look forward to a very large number of conversations around all these issues – and more!

Best wishes,

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