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Nouse talks to new Vice Chancellor, Charlie Jeffery: His vision, goals and priorities for the University

“If we don’t have students shaping our strategy then, as managers we’re probably in the wrong place”

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Image Credit: University of York

AS STUDENTS WE might not realise all the tasks a Vice-Chancellor deals with. Or, in the words of the VC: “they might see this person speaking to them at an open day, or in Freshers’ Week, then possibly not see this person ever again.”That is not the approach that Charlie Jeffery wants to take. He voiced his desire to “be a bit different” wanted to engage directly with the wider student population at York. He tells us that he hopes this will make the position of VC less “mysterious to students.”

When setting out just what it is he does, he tells us he has three main roles:

1. Chief Academic“I lead the research at the University [and] en-sure we perform at the highest level in that academic area.”

2. Chief Executive The University is “a big organisation with a big budget, I’m responsible for making sure that money is deployed effectively.”

3. Chief Advocate for the University This is “an external role.” “I try  to affect policy internationally, and promote the University’s interests abroad” as well as in York.He tells us that “hopefully in my conversations with students, they will understand the [role of VC] better and how that affects them.”

Image: DS Pugh
Touching upon the colleges, Charlie Jeffery tells us how he “hopes to make more of that,” because “it’s quite special to York. There aren’t many places which have a college system. I’m finding out how important it is as a way of linking students to university.”We move on to one of the most important issues that students talk about: rent. The VC tells us that he’s been saying to “colleagues that we need to make sure that we have as good a range of price options as possible.” He defends the higher priced options that the University of York offers, stating that “they are in heavy demand, so there isn’t a problem with demand for those.” He does,however, concede that “many students do have financial challenges.”Going into more detail about his plans to help students who do struggle with rent, the VC tells us about the then upcoming plan to reduce 350 room prices to £99 a week, which Nouse recently reported on.

The VC is also keen to point out that the University does offer bursaries which cost the University “around £4.8 million a year.”Just 13 percent of the new rooms are set to be economy.“ There's also demand for high end accommodation”the VC reiterates. He adds that there’s “a 2:1 demand ratio for recently provided rooms.” The VC then tells us it’s important to have“as good a breadth as possible, so that price points and financial capability are not necessarily producing closed communities.” Talking more about the idea of closed communities, we ask the VC whether he knew that Heslington East, particularly Langwith and Constantine, have a reputation of being where rich students live.“No,I didn’t know that” he reveals. Despite not previously knowing about the existing reputation, the VC adds that “we need to work hard to make sure that it doesn’t happen”, and that he’s seen “that some universities have seen that kind of social demarcation.”

The Vice-Chancellor then makes a shocking statement about the new accommodation on Heslington East. He reveals that he doesn’t think we’re looking at “additional students.” Instead he reveals that the university would“ideally decommission” some of the“less good student residences we have.” The VC criticises the model that some universities have deployed of “grow grow grow...”.Instead, he says he is leading a strategy process to figure out what the University’s strategy on growth should be. The VC admitted that he thought “it may be possible that we grow,” but he went on to insist that“we need to do it with a clear academic plan, and a sense that there is student demand in some of our key areas.”The new accommodation “also offers a possibility to meet demand for second year returners, which we’re currently finding hard.” The VC tells us that “there are other avenues for growth, through external organisations off campus.”

We ask whether he can clarify if all of the new colleges would be formed from existing students. It is a question to which a clear answer is not given. The furthest the VC will go is in telling us that it “isn’t going to be all new students.” This doesn’t close the door to “additional student” numbers; it also fails to ensure that any existing “less good student residences” will actually be decommissioned. Asked whether he has any plans to give students more of a say in the rent setting process the VC gives a vague answer. He does say that he “wants to look for student engagement, and perhaps more systematically than may have been the case in the past.” He also says that he hopes “to have conveyed that to current Officers in YUSU and the GSA.”

A possible new student hub building?
The VC reveals he wants to make funding available to create a student hub building, “to incorporate University student-facing services, as well as the services that YUSU provides, and of course to provide additional facilities for societies”.He adds that this can only hap-pen “if we can make the money work.” The Vice-Chancellor seems very enthusiastic about this idea.Speaking a little louder than before,he declares “I think we need it! I’ve got colleagues discussing the options ... and that conversation will certainly involve the broader student body. We don’t want to construct a building which ends up configured in a way students don’t want to use.”
Image: Arian Kriesch
University Strikes
We interviewed the Vice Chancellor in late November just as the last rounds of strikes were under-way. Talking to him about the part of the dispute he has control over, pay casualisation, we ask him if he will commit to improving things for staff who feel they are not being valued. Perhaps by ending one year contracts? He replies that he’s “hearing that’s the biggest issue,not just here but across UK picket lines too. I’ve raised this with our local UCU, saying I’m happy to have a conversation about casual staffing, pay gaps, and workload issues which are all bundled up into the UCEA locally focused action."

“When we have 28 different academic units, we have all sorts of practices and I think understanding the situation across all that diversity is a good step towards ensuring we have high quality employment con-tracts for our staff.”He adds: “a former colleague at the University of Edinburgh had a mantra: “happy staff, happy students. I think there’s something to that.”

We then pointed out how the Vice Chancellor of Essex penned a letter supporting the strikes, saying that the trustees of the pension fund were“ overly cautious”in allocating money .We asked Charlie Jeffery if he was willing to say that the striking lecturers deserve more compensation?“My position is that we have had a second bout of industrial action in two years, and this obviously isn’t good. We need to find a method tackling this issue in an enduring way. That’s got some difficulties. This is partly because the national regulation system for pension schemes, and the pensions regulator who interprets government policy to set guidelines for the schemes to follow, they set certain assumptions about how you do valuations. There is lots of dispute around those assumptions.“I was a supporter right at the start of the joint expert panel process, which was the idea that the organisation for the pensions dispute, and UCU, should jointly work on some of those assumptions, anyhow the scheme might be governed best in the future.”

A different kind of Vice Chancellor?
The VC skilfully sidesteps when we ask what he thinks of his predecessors. In particular, we point out that it does appear as if he is much more willing to engage with the student body. “I can’t comment on that because I wasn’t here!”He adds “I’m bringing my approach to the job. That Chief Academic role means offering leadership to the staff who enable academics to do what they do, but it’s also about engaging with students. It’s just how I understand the role. If that is noticed and appreciated, then I’m pleased and I’ll carry on doing it.”Engagement is also his answer when we ask what feature of his time at Edinburgh University he’d like to bring to York. “I want to make that [engagement with students] as effective as possible.Given that students communicate in ways that older people don’t necessarily communicate, that can be a challenge sometimes.”

Climate change
One of the new Vice-Chancellor’s first acts as VC was to announce that the University had divested from it’s holdings in fossil fuel companies. We asked him what else the University can do to help become more sustainable. His answer... “All sorts!”Good answer we quip.The VC then sets out in more detail what’s being done. “One of the first things I did was to effectively reboot the working group we had on sustainability issues,and to give it a different remit, and a sense of expectation on timescale. The goal has to be about three things... One is thinking about University operations,and carbon emissions associated with it, and we have to work within the constraints of our 1960's buildings,which aren’t particularly carbon efficient.Secondly, we have brilliant research across academic departments here on climate change. I think we can do more to bring that together to make a bigger impact,both here and in the outside world.That’s where we will have our biggest effect on the climate crisis and its impact on global warming, if we can get our technologies, and our insights adopted widely. And perhaps most importantly, it’s students.

This was the VC’s first interview with Nouse. A new VC with anew record, new goals, and priorities. Our job is to see how successful our new Vice-Chancellor will be.

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