Sir Steve Smith: 'One v-c said I’d done moral equivalent of invading Iraq'

THE speaks to former UUK president, Sir Steve Smith, four years on from the tuition fee protests

November 6, 2014

Source: Teri Pengilley

What happened in public was that a lot of people wept tears of regret, literally in one case, that they had to charge £9K fees, and then charged them

It might seem strange to ask someone with 12 years as a vice-chancellor under his belt – along with a Universities UK presidency and the obligatory knighthood – whether he has a thick skin.

But Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, gives the impression of feeling very acutely the criticism he has faced during his time at the heart of higher education policymaking.

As head of UUK from 2009 to 2011, he was, of course, first in the firing line when the elephant guns came out in response to the coalition’s tuition fee reforms. And over lunch at The Delaunay restaurant in London’s theatreland, it is clear that he is still bothered by the venom he faced over what he sees as his efforts to secure the future of the UK’s universities.

But before we get to his time as UUK president, when he helped to forge the new funding regime in the white heat of the student protests, I ask for his thoughts on the current turbulence – and turnover – among those running our universities, and the tensions emerging in their governance.

“My honest view is that it is all down to the marketisation,” he says. “The sector is very turbulent. And in that situation, academics have one view of things, management have a view, and alumni, students and governors all have a view. So it is hardly surprising that you get this turnover, because everyone is trying to work out which way is up.”

Clearly the crises at individual institutions can be acute, but Smith worries that however disruptive such cases are locally, the ramifications may end up being much farther reaching.

“My worry is that someone comes in [to address governance crises] and says, ‘Right – we need to regulate this’, and then regulation hits us all. So I think governance is an issue for all the sector, not a hierarchical thing that happens down here, but not up here.”

He has also been around long enough to know that personal factors can play a part in the turnover we are seeing among university leaders. “I think that some v-cs have just said ‘sod it’, I really do,” he remarks.

So after 12 years in charge at Exeter, in which time the university has grown dramatically, increasing its turnover from £85 million in the year before he arrived to £306 million last year, and with student numbers reaching 19,000, has Smith ever felt that way?

“No,” he says, before instantly reassessing his position. “Only momentarily. I mean, yes of course, when someone has another go. I don’t mind them disagreeing with me at all, but what I find very depressing is this [suggestion that] ‘v-cs are philistines who only care about the bottom line’.

“I have my critics – that is completely reasonable – but it’s when people say ‘you’re doing it for some [ulterior motive]’, that’s when it gets…”

Which brings us to Smith’s time as president of UUK. It’s hard to forget the pungent whiff of revolution in the air at the time of the tuition fee vote. Nick Clegg, as the pledge-breaking leader of the Liberal Democrats, was indisputably cast as the villain in this drama. But if Clegg was the man stroking a white cat, then Smith was seen by opponents of the reforms as one of his heavies, standing shoulder to shoulder with David Willetts, the universities and science minister who drew up and implemented the plans to treble the cap on fees and dramatically reduce Higher Education Funding Council for England grants.

Smith understandably sees things a little differently. “What became clear very early on was that whoever won [the general election in 2010], we would be in some trouble,” he says. “The sector would be cut; that was made clear by both main parties. And the attack on what UUK did – it was as if we made decisions that allowed them to cut. What we tried to do was limit the damage to the sector, and…I honestly think we did that.”

One of the enduring problems with the funding regime that was established is that there is now a broad consensus that the system is not sustainable in the long term.

British police at 30 Millbank demonstrations, 2010

This is partly because of increases in the resource accounting and budgeting charge (the proportion of state-backed fee loans that will never be repaid – the government’s current estimate is that the equivalent of 45 pence in every pound loaned will be lost). Many vice-chancellors would also argue that it is because the £9,000 fee cap has not risen with inflation, even as the science budget, which was ring-fenced only in cash terms, has been eroded in the same way.

The result, as we approach the next general election, is that higher education funding is back on the political agenda (if it was ever off it), with the Labour leader Ed Miliband trailing a policy of £6,000 fees earlier this year, only to drop it – seemingly at the last minute – from his party conference speech. One analysis of Labour’s stance is that the estimated £2 billion cost of the policy, which would have to be met if universities were not to face a harsh reduction in teaching funding, was judged not to be worth it at the ballot box, with shadow chancellor Ed Balls said to be particularly unconvinced.

Smith’s view is that Liam Byrne, the shadow minister for universities, science and skills, “has been heroic – he cares about the sector – and he has said he isn’t going to announce anything until he can show us where the money will come from”. Labour has indicated that its policy will be shaped following the chancellor’s Autumn Statement in early December.

Smith is unusual (although not unique) among vice-chancellors for paying such close attention to, and seeking to be so personally involved in, national policy issues, particularly at a time when many university leaders are sweating more than ever about the performance of their own institution.

But he says that his chair of council, Sarah Turvill, has recognised the importance to Exeter’s future of a coherent funding scheme, and has licensed him to spend the time he does on national issues.

He adds that this is not just a priority for him professionally, but how he spends his leisure time: “I don’t put my feet up in front of the telly. I’m a data person. I look at trends, I read every report.”

So does he think that his efforts, three years after he finished his term as UUK president, are recognised and appreciated?

“In the sector, I don’t know what the view is [of my national policy work]. I mean, people are nice to me now. After the fees thing I had a lot of flak. I had horrible letters. One [letter from a fellow vice-chancellor] said I’d done the moral equivalent of invading Iraq. One wrote to me and said we should let the cuts to our funding go through because the people of Britain would react and there would be demonstrations on the streets to protect university funding, and we would get a Labour government elected in 2015 that would ensure that the cuts were reversed.

“What also happened in public was that a lot of people wept tears of regret, literally in one case, that they had to charge £9K fees, and then charged them.

“So as I look back, maybe I’m a little bit cynical, but I honestly think that if I had the time over again I’d do exactly the same thing; I just would have spent a lot more time explaining it. What was it Harry Truman said? If you want thanks and love, get a dog.”

His feeling of vindication is bolstered by the student applications data, which suggest that the fee hike has not dented aspiration, particularly among people from disadvantaged backgrounds (he describes the figures on the latter as “stunning”).

He also insists that he respects those fighting against the marketisation of higher education on ideological grounds (“these are people who care about the sector”), and admits that “there’s a debate to be had, and the kind of question you ask yourself is: ‘Am I a willing cog in the machine?’ But given the kind of choices that were coming, I think…we’ve done extraordinarily well.”

His tenure as UUK president was not the first time Smith had come under intense pressure over difficult and unpopular decisions that he nevertheless regards as essential. In 2004, two years into his vice-chancellorship, he took the decision to close the departments of chemistry and music at Exeter.

“It led to a huge amount of criticism: 117 news articles and two parliamentary inquiries,” he says.

“It was a very difficult decision, and there is a lot of animosity towards me about it, but the truth is that if we hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t be seventh [in the national league tables].”

Sir Steve Smith

I don’t mind them disagreeing with me at all, but what I find depressing is the suggestion that ‘v-cs are philistines who only care about the bottom line’

So am I right in my assessment that he is not as thick-skinned as some of his peers?

“The people closest to me would say that I agonise too much, that I worry, that I read the negative stuff,” he agrees. “The book I am best known for as an academic [Explaining and Understanding International Relations (1991)], one reviewer wrote: ‘If this is the best that the discipline can do, it’s in a bad state.’ This is a book I wrote with a world-ranking philosopher [Martin Hollis]. I may not be brilliant, but by God he was.

“Like anyone, bad stuff stays with you. It’s in the wee small hours of the morning that you think, did I do something right? But as long as I’m convinced that it was right, not just right numbers-wise but right morally…What upsets me is the moral high ground that people occupy, which is often an excuse for self-interest. But we did it [closed chemistry and music], I never want to have to do it again, luckily I think I’ll never have to do it again, and had we not done it we’d have used all the subsidies from the departments that were doing well to subsidise the loss-making departments.”

His instant recall of the 117 news articles reinforces the impression of an experience etched into his consciousness. The same goes for the “pithy” review. Where did it appear, I ask?

“In The Times Higher Education Supplement, and I know the person who wrote it.” He laughs. “The serious point is that I do read it all [the coverage about himself], and I think that probably is a mistake psychologically. I know other v-cs who never read any of it. But I try to do the right thing, and that’s what got me through UUK – that and having Nicola Dandridge [chief executive of UUK] beside me, who I think has done more than anyone to hold the sector together.”

In his 13th year of working an 80-hour week as a vice-chancellor, and with the UUK presidency behind him, one might expect Smith to think about other options. He insists that he is happy at Exeter and intends to stay for another five years – but surely he has considered moving on?

“I’ve thought about it of course, but I was doing a review of the National University of Singapore recently, and one of the people on the panel – John Casteen, former president of [the University of] Virginia – said that he’d done some work that showed that the institutions that have been most successful have had transformative leadership which is often in excess of 15 years.

“There is something in that. It is very difficult to change something in five years. The average lifespan of a British vice-chancellorship is 4.7 years. The first year you are there you are working out what’s going on. The second year you are building the team. The third year you can start to make the changes, but…as soon as you announce you’re leaving, you are a lame duck. So if you’re there for five years you have about an 18-month window.”

His ambition for Exeter, which he says he does not intend to grow beyond 22,000 students, is for it to join the small elite that occupy the top places in the world university rankings.

I ask why rankings are so important. Why would he not be happy for Exeter to be a very good university in the South West of England? His answer is that the very best research is done by international teams, and Exeter needs to be at the top to work with the top.

“It’s the concept of assortative mating: if you are seventh in the world, you don’t mate with number 497. So we have to be in that research grouping at the top,” he explains.

“It is not a ‘nice to have’, it is essential. To use the football analogy, you are asking why don’t we just play in the Premier League, when the real action is in the Champions League.”

As we come to the end of the meal (Sir Steve ate prawn cocktail followed by grilled calf’s liver with bacon and mashed potato and a black coffee – “no Black Forest gateau”, he points out), he has one parting observation about his time at the heart of the policymaking machine.

You have to be careful, he says, “because it can go to your head, this job, and there is an aphrodisiac quality – I don’t mean literally – about being close to power, to politics…”

And with that, he is off. To a board meeting at UUK – where else?

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Reader's comments (4)

The legacy of Sir Steve Smith (so far) as I see it and as it follows from this interview: Locally - Exeter rises in league tables by shutting down its Chemistry and Music departments. Introduction of the traffic light system for monitoring of academic performance has been transformative; possibly a different version of living in Dante's hell as a faculty member with an orange or red colour attached to your performance (this bit was not mentioned in the interview). One of his pawns in shutting down the Chemistry department then moved to Queen Mary University of London. Let us watch what will happen to the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences there. Sir Smith's legacy is also present in the people that come out of his school of management. in the UK- University representatives back a change where costs associated with the function of the higher education sector is largely passed on to those who cross its doors in their formative years; as opposed to general taxation (but with general taxation supporting the banks managing the new transaction). Marketisation of the Colleges is now accepted as an economic reality and the questions that are open only have to do on how to adapt in the new situation (no worries that students are not customers; they will be treated in this way from now on because that is what is profitable to the emerging market). What does the future hold? Given the gross unfairness of the new order, Sir Smith warns about top-down regulation, which is likely to be enforced (I share his worry on this point). We differ in that my understanding of the only way to fight back against such external interference over College autonomy is to keep academic control and financial independence (via central government funding) within the Colleges. This requires several reversals of policy and certainly criticising the core values and directions of Sir Smith's legacy. Conclusion This is why some feel the sector has been betrayed from the top, and from Sir Smith in particular. For what matters, i.e. whether the right decisions were made by the Government and whether the sector was complacent or faught back according to the interests of Higher Education, there is little relevance if the betrayal was because of low guard against the aphrodisiac qualities of proximity to the power structures or to other ulterior motives or to lack of understanding of how severe the blow received by the sector was or to lack of confidence that the sector could pull its weight demanding that a share of the nation's wealth should be invested in it.
To the "moral equivalent of invading Iraq", one can add the forelock-tugging in response to a letter from Clarence House. The letter sought to have Prof Edzard Ernst fired because he had the temerity to disagree with Prince Charles' barmy views on medicine. Rather that telling Clarence House that its attempts to influence university policy were wrong and unconstitutional, Smith subjected Ernst to disciplinary proceedings for the best part of a year. Who would want to work for a VC who failed so signally to support good science and his own staff. I think the wrong person got the knighthood.
And, one might add, Smith has clearly no idea how science works (why should he? He's never done it). Repeating buzz-phrases like " very best research is done by international teams", as an excuse for bullying staff, is deeply unimpressive. The very best research is done by the very best people, sometimes alone, and sometimes with others at home or abroad. If he wants good research, he needs to make Exeter a place where good people wish to work. He's doing the opposite.
Exeter is fashionable and also a pleasant place to live (with the possible exception of some very windy winter days), so it tends to attract good students and good (or potentially good) academic staff in equal measure under almost all circumstances. Possibly at least some of its grant awards reflect the fashionableness too, as they do elsewhere, whatever the VC might or might not do. I am not sure that the traffic lights system for goading research has been an outstanding success. Those who get the red or amber lights are expected to prioritise grant applications over everything else, a strategy which is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The closure of Chemistry was a disgrace, but worse than that an obvious mistake. Why should one department that is temporarily successful not subsidise another which is temporarily in deficit? Such is the basis of collegiality. Otherwise we would eventually see a reductio ad absurdum where just a handful of departments survive and the diversity of the institution collapses.