The Vice-Chancellor and the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Education and Student Experience took part in an emotive open meeting with students, increasingly unhappy with the University of Portsmouth’s decision to raise tuition fees by £250 per year.
Following a petition, that has to date attracted over 1300 signatures, both Graham Galbraith (Vice-Chancellor) and Paul Hayes (Pro-Vice Chancellor) agreed to meet with students to field questions about the University’s decision to raise current and future fees.
Conducted in 3rd Space, the meeting saw angry students turn out in number to question the University’s controversial decision.
Opening the discussion, Mr Galbraith opted to present a slide show that broke down the University’s current spending. In his opening address, the Vice-Chancellor explained that the University of Portsmouth has been operating on the same budget since 2012.
He went on to break down various spending patterns by the University, and noted that Portsmouth made a total income of £225.2 million for the last academic year and of that, £184.5 million went back into teaching expenditure.
As well as the income and surplus budgets, the chancellor was at pains to stress that the University spend £7.5 million on ‘Bursary and Hardship funds’. A notable cause that allows those from more difficult backgrounds the opportunity to study. This is also a scheme other universities often don’t offer.
However, the main thrust of Galbraith’s pre-questions speech, was to stress that the University are
merely raising the fee’s in line with the inflationary 2.8%, linked to the retail price index (RPIX). He also stressed that the rises were there to ensure the future and legacy of the University for years to come.
Before opening the floor to questions, Galbraith attempted to deflect attention away from the fee rises by claiming that he was: “Surprised that the student body were so upset about this.”
“I’m really surprised that the student body are not more upset about some of the other changes that I think are much more fundamental for you as students.”
“For example, I was amazed that the change from maintenance grants to loans went through and the student body didn’t have anything to say about that. Because I think that’s much more important – it’s a huge amount of money. It almost doubles the cost to students, and yet we have allowed that to go through.”
Passionately he continued: “The second thing I found amazing, is that the promise made to students that the threshold of £21k at which you would begin to re-pay the loan, would not increase in line with inflation.”
“I think the argument should be that if fees are going up in line with inflation, which is right, then so should the threshold go up with the average earnings in the United Kingdom.”
“Personally speaking, I think the argument should be that if fees are going up in line with inflation, which is right, then so should the threshold go up with the average earnings in the United Kingdom.”
However, despite much of the Vice-Chancellor’s reasoning, he did little to persuade the students in the audience. Many of whom were unimpressed with Galbraith’s deflection of the issue and his business-like approach to education.
One student, James Thompson, questioned the University’s ability to successfully lobby the government’s decisions on behalf of the students, claiming: “students don’t often get much support outside of their student unions in lobbying, protesting against the fees.” He continued: “How much work has the university actually done to help students?”
Noting that it was a strong question, Galbraith took his time to explain that the University now have a liaison who works on behalf of students and staff to get MPs into the university to fight their corner. Yet tellingly, the Vice-Chancellor conceded that much of his attention has gone on other matters such as Brexit.
Such was the tone of the open meeting, both Galbraith and Paul Hayes accepted that the student’s frustrations were valid but pointed out other areas that students should be more frustrated with. Both referred to the University as though it were primarily a business, not exempt from the struggles of inflation and an increasingly competitive market place.
They accepted that a huge mistake was made in delivering the news about the fee increases. The one email, which was bizarrely sent out without either Galbraith or Hayes’ knowledge, abruptly informed the students of the plans to increase the fees to £9,250 a-year.
On the mistake, Hayes conceded that it was “very embarrassing” and that his colleague Vice-Chancellor Galbraith was “extremely angry”. However, there was not much either could do once the “send button had been hit”.
The session reached the peak of its tension when Thomas Lashbrooke, the creator of the petition and Faculty Representative for Technology, hammered Galbraith twice on the use of the University’s surplus funds.
Visibly frustrated, the Vice Chancellor was at odds to explain the various ways that the University’s funds are divided up. He explained that the surplus was not in fact ‘profit’ but was instead invested back into the University, in order to help retain its future legacy and survival.
Yet both ideologies were clearly at odds. Lashbrooke conveying the sense of frustration that current student’s feel regarding the fee hike, while Galbraith’s long term goals for the University did little to reassure those in the audience that their concerns were being fully addressed.
“Indeed it appears that the Vice Chancellor was justifying an increase in tuition fees without any true projection to warrant it” – Thomas Lashbrooke, 22.
Concluding on a positive note, both men responded to a student question about engagement, by claiming that in the future, they’d be open to engaging more with student representation. In closing, Galbraith did accept that making changes to an institution as large as the University of Portsmouth is indeed difficult.
He went on to explain that: “The only way to change things is to vote. If students utilised and voted, we’d have far different outcomes in recent years.”
The organiser of the petition, 22-year-old Thomas Lashbrooke, wasn’t convinced by the presentation, and said in a post-meeting interview with The Galleon: “I found the meeting very challenging, as [the] data presented in the University’s latest financial review illustrates a growing surplus that did not seem to match up with the Vice-Chancellors claims.”
He continued: “I was dismayed that a University committed to those from a disadvantaged background, would be first to be hit in a projected financial crisis.”
“Indeed it appears that the Vice Chancellor was justifying an increase in tuition fees without any true projection to warrant it and suggestion that the hardship fund would be first to ‘strike a line through’ was emotional blackmail to all students present, [in order] to force acceptance of the inevitability of this rise to tuition fees.”
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