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August 11, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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Grant Guilford [Full Interview]

How have you found it settling in?

It is a very welcoming university, very welcoming city. Really been impressed by the universities sense of ambition and self belief and enthusiasm for pushing on from here and continuing to grow its influence around the asia pacific. 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 raher 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.

One of your main things is the expansion of the university with the announcement of the Hub extension down at Pipitea and the science building at the top of kelburn. What’s spurred those on?

They were both in the planning prior to me getting here. The hubb 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. That’s part of the development there. 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 welly and truly past its used by date. We need to show our commitment to the sciences and to biology in particular which is essential in a country like ours whether that be the biological economy that we rely on or our commitment to our natural heritage or healthy living. That also provides the building that we are vacating a chance to completely refit that. That will be completely gutted and refurbished.

In the 90s early 200s there wasn’t that much development of the university.

That’s right. I think we ran into a period of financial difficulty around about that time. There was basically a decade where our physical plant started to run down. We didn’t keep up with the growth and we didn’t keep up with the maintenance. We are trying to catch up now.

The finances are better now then.

They are better now. They are still always a challenge but they are better than they were.

The government announced in the last budget lots of increased funding for STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] Subjects, will that help with the new building being science orientated?

It does help. The key thing that was in the last budget for us was an 8. 5% increase in the funding for the science subjects. The university treats that as revenue that comes to the university and invested in the appropriate places as defined by the uni council and senior leadership team. It doesn’t only go into sciences because we run our university in a holistic sense here. That translates to a couple of million dollars extra a year that we wouldn’t have had across the university. It translates to an increase funding from government that is still far less than the increased cost of living that we sustain. If you take CPI rises, government is increasing its funding by about half the rate of CPI. There is a big gap between the growth in our costs and the growth in government funding. Our costs are even higher than CPI. The result of that is that there is pressure on student fees to rise. Now we are down to to government funding about 55% of the direct education costs of students.

Both Joyce and Roberton 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 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. That then comes back to everyone pulling their weight in that regard. You can’t just sit there and whine about how little you are being supported by the taxpayer. You have to get in and help the taxpayer and help the economy grow in a sustainable way. You have a generation 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. That is in response to that idea. Lots of students feel taht intergenerational. There is a feeling of being a bit ripped off. What is your sort of response to those sort of people?

Very sympathetic in the sense that I completely understand the origins of the disquiet. I see a response from the older generation in that philanthropy is now on a bit of a roll in New Zealand. A lot of our donors are donating money primarily for student access. There is a sense of need to right this wrong. For me, running the university, I have a dual commitment. One is to a sense of trying to keep the costs of the university as low as you can and we are very cost effective. We run at about 95% of the expected costs by the university. 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 short changing peoples futures as well. It’s about finding this balancing act.

And I guess your hands are tied to a certin extent in that there is only so much legally you can do.

Ultimately it is a social issue between what can government afford to provide the universities for public education and what should we carry privately. We are just a pawn in that game like the student body is in the sense that I have to balance the books.

One area where the university does have a bit more sway in setting fees is regarding the Student Services Levy [SSL]. When we talked to Joyce in the contect of SSL post VSM, he said that VSM was good because it meant Students had freedomt to choose who they associated with but he said there was more discipline needed in SSL making sure that price rises aren’t too much and that students are getting services that they want and get value out of. Do you feel comfortable with how much Vic has increased SSL in the way that it does that?

I do and also with the way that it is spent. To give the government credit here they watch this very closely. Any increase is carefully monitered 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. In the end you don’t get anything for nothing. The quality of the services is determined by the amount that goes into it. It comes down to good consultation and prioritising it effectively. 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 where as ours was a counsellor.

Joyce hinted at the prospect of considering something like the Fee Maxima scheme [fees for uni can only increase by a max of 4% every year] in the SSL, is that something you would be comfortable with?

If there was evidence of abuse, but you don’t want regulation for the sake of it. There is a genuine effort from the unviversities 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% of 18-24 year olds voted, why should we vote this year? 23 mins.

You should. For me it starts with a sense of privilege of having this right to vote. That has come because I have done a lot of international travel over my life and I have been in communities where they don’t have that privilege and seen how important it is for those communities to get this privilege. People put their life on the line for it. In situations in countries like in the Middle East, a couple of years ago in the Arab Spring, and people were literally going out and dying for this privilege and you come back here and we can’t be bothered. We are a facing a lot of issues as a country. These are issues that are very important to our future and important to the younger generations 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? [You do with Student Health] However should there be an agreement between the councils that this is a possibility for students and we need to come in and play a part in some shape or form then we would probably play a part where it fits in with strategy, and the most likely part there would be around our commitment to dealing with some of the lost intellectual opportunities from the disadvantaged who don’t have access. For example we might support transport for some of disadvantaged communities into vic. This is part of a bigger issue about whether a city values its students. We are arguing that Wellington City needs to really show to tertiary students in general that they are valued. Bus fares are one thing. But I would like to see a lot more than bus fares as well. We are likely to run a student competition hopefully in partnership with VUWSA around developing a student APP, albeit for students in Wellington, that will shows things like where the cheaper bus fares are available, when they are available, what the cheaper routes are, where you can get a cheaper coffee with a student discount, where you might get a cheaper meal, where you might go to go get some work, an alert function so if we end up with some disaster on campus, we’ll be able to contact everyone and do it more effectively. We are likely to run that pretty soon. We are beginning to talk to contractors about how that might work. The great advice we got is that make sure it is student led.

At the start of the year we asked you what were your main things for this year and one of them was the office down at pipitea that you’ve got, and the other was the academic committee, the VC’s forum. How are both of those going?

Having presence on Pipitea is perfect because I get to see staff and students down there and you sort of get more understanding of what life is like on one of the other campuses. That’s really important. It has worked well in terms of meeting with members of the civic community. It allows people to pop in and have a chat. We are having some very good debates on our academic board, which is important because that is forum by which we can debate academic issues and engage in some of the nitty gritty issues that we face. The other big thing I had to do which is coming along reasonably well is the strategic plan. We are into a draft strategic plan now. We had a very good forum with student representative a couple of weeks ago. Lots of good ideas came out of that. The first draft will come out for consultation at the end of the week [Friday 8 August], and so that gives you some idea of some of the key strategic goals that we are setting for the university. The next month of consultation will determine how many of those things that we settle on. We then develop a set of strategies that get us to that vision and those strategies all have specific actionable plans across the course of next couple of years with timeframes around them. It is coming together pretty well.

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Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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