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This year, Vic got a new Vice-Chancellor. Most of the students we spoke to have no idea who he is, but Grant thinks that might be a good thing. He’s the man who leads the University. Salient went to his office in the Hunter Building to catch up and touch base.
How have you found it settling in?
It is a very welcoming university, very welcoming city. I’ve really been impressed by the University’s sense of ambition and self-belief and enthusiasm for pushing on from here and continuing to grow its influence. I’ve also begun to understand the sense of linkage between the city and the University, which is really nice to see, and something I didn’t experience as much in Auckland. Also, what I am really impressed with is the relationship between student and staff. It is a good-quality relationship. You get a sense of a valued peer-type relationship rather than the hierarchical relationship which is the usual.
Have you noticed anything about the student body that is different or similar to Auckland?
Pretty similar to Auckland in terms of the span of interest, both being urban campuses. Quite different to my experience at Massey, which was much more land-based and farming-type students: sleeves-rolled-up-on-the-farm-type interests. There are more political and social dimensions to this campus.
What’s spurred on the planned expansion of the University?
They were both in the planning prior to me getting here. The Hub in Pipitea was in recognition of the fact that the Hub on Kelburn has been a great thing for student experience. People had a chance to interact with one another. It developed a sense of community. We want to create the same thing for the Pipitea Campus. The Biosciences building that’s really about creating modern space for the Biology programme. They are currently in a building that is not fit for purpose. It is well and truly past its use-by date.
Both Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson said that it is too expensive to go back to a fully funded model. Do you think that’s true?
I think that’s fair. The debate, though, is what is the appropriate balance between the private good of tertiary education and the public good. This often becomes mistakenly seen as a zero-sum game. Attempts to define how much is private good and how much public is always doomed to fail. Ultimately, it comes down to what the country can afford to do. But unfortunately, you do have a generation that was set up very well [free education, cruisy summer job, cheap house prices] and a generation now that has quite a few challenges.
This year, there is a student group called Reclaim Vic with some pretty provocative signage. There is a general feeling of being a bit ripped off. What is your response to those people?
Very sympathetic in the sense that I completely understand the origins of the disquiet. There is a sense of need to right this wrong. For me, running the University, I have a dual commitment. One is to keep the costs of the University as low as you can, and we are very cost-effective. The second one is quality of the education. If I end up driving the University into a financially unsustainable position because I feel empathy for the position that the students are in and I am no longer able to appoint the right number of people to the teaching programme or the right quality of people, then in the end, I am shortchanging people’s futures as well. It’s about finding this balancing act.
When we talked to Joyce, he said there was more discipline needed in setting the Student Services Levy, making sure that price rises aren’t too much. Do you feel comfortable with how much Vic has increased SSL?
I do, and also with the way that it is spent. Any increase is carefully monitored by government, and that’s important, because government controls both the amount of students that can come in and the fees. I am very happy with the depth of consultation across the student body with the way this levy works. For example, I saw that last year, the consultation led to the view that we needed some more support in Counselling Services, and that was honoured by the University. One of the universities I used to be at said the priority was a weights room, and you can probably guess which uni that might be, whereas ours was a counsellor.
Joyce hinted at the prospect of capping the amount the SSL could rise. Would you be happy with that?
If there was evidence of abuse; but you don’t want regulation for the sake of it. There is a genuine effort from the universities to make sure they are cost-effective, but there might be abuse across the sector and if there is, by all means there should be some regulation of that.
Last election, only 42 per cent of 18–24-year-olds voted; why should we vote this year?
You should. For me, it starts with a sense of privilege of having this right to vote. I have been in communities where they don’t have that privilege. In the Middle East, a couple of years ago during the Arab Spring, people were literally going out and dying for this privilege and you come back here and we can’t be bothered.
We are facing a lot of issues as a country. These are issues that are very important to our future and important to the younger generation’s future. Things like environmental sustainability. If we don’t get that one right, it is going to be one hell of an awful world to live in. You have a stake in that. Also, no matter what your political leanings are, all parties have an appeal to the youth vote. There is a lot of choice out there.
Where do you stand on Fairer Fares?
The University has been partnering with VUWSA for lobbying Regional Council for cheaper fares. We aren’t prepared at this stage to put money into it, and that’s primarily out of a sense of what our mission is. Our mission is to educate and do research for this community. We are not a transport company. Otherwise, you end up putting money that should have gone into education into bus fares. What’s next? Should we be supporting the health system as well? [The university currently does fund Student Health through the SSL.] However, should there be an agreement between the councils that this is a possibility for students, we might support transport for some of the disadvantaged communities from Vic.
See the full unedited version here.