Rector interview and analysis: Sir Vince Cable

Published

Selena Jackson
Features Editor
Interview

Why do you believe that you would be a good fit for the role of Glasgow University Rector?
I think the two words are “credibility” and “commitment”. I think to be credible on the Court, when you’re dealing with senior university people, you need to have respect, and I think I have that. I have an academic background and I did my PhD here, and I think from my years in the government – I was Secretary of State for five years and that included responsibility for universities. I know the Scottish setup is different, and my main responsibilities were response here rather than teaching. I know the issues around universities in a way that not too many people do, so I think I would have serious credibility on the Court, and I think commitment to the students. One of the things I’ve done since leaving front-line politics is a project that I’m working on with the National Union of Students, about how to improve student voice, and I understand the importance of students having a voice and I know that that’s what the job entails, and that would be the focus of what I did.

What is your understanding of the role, and what would your mains be in your term if you were elected?
My understanding is that I am a representative on the Court and participation in university governance, but there to speak for the students – not for the University administration, and that may involve taking up strong, independent positions which the University authorities don’t like. That may happen on occasions, and I’ve got a record in politics of standing up against powerful people, and that’s essentially how I see the job. One of the things I would want to do when I was here would be to make a point of having “town hall” meetings in the union and listening to what people have to say and what they want me to do, following the model of my mentor, Charles Kennedy [Rector from 2008-2014].

Edward Snowden has been criticised for his “symbolic position” as Rector. Would you be able to dedicate a suitable amount of time to being physically present on campus, given that you are not resident in Glasgow?
I understand the concern, and I know there’s been this tension between a Rector who is present and involved, and equally a Rector who has got a name and prestige, and striking a sensible balance between the two. As I understand it, there are five meetings a year, so I would aim to be there for the meetings and to do other things as well. I do have to come up to Scotland quite often, for family reasons, so I don’t see a problem with that. As I say, when I was here, I would want to make more of it than just turning up for the meeting; I would want to actively engage with the student population.

You mentioned wanting to hold surgeries on campus – how often would you plan to do that?
I would just simply follow the model that I had as an MP. I would advertise a regular slot of a couple of hours, and would take up individual cases. A typical example which we’ve spoken about and I am going to raise in my manifesto is facilities for mental illness, so if somebody feels that they’re not being heard and are not getting access, they could raise representation through me, and I guess I’ve got a bit more clout than a student who’s feeling a bit helpless. I’m used to doing that as an MP, and I conducted my advice surgeries religiously, and it did make a difference.

In your manifesto you mentioned that you’d be keen to ensure the availability of affordable student accommodation. How would you plan to go about doing this?
There are a couple of ways into this problem. There is a lot of student accomodation going up, but it’s being done by commercial developers and it’s pretty expensive. One of the ways of rallying for student accommodation that is affordable is, regarding the big new development, ensuring that land is set aside for student accommodation that isn’t commercially rented. I think the University does owe that, because they’re trying to attract people from overseas, and if they’re expanding the University they have an obligation to the student body. The other is working with the city, and the balance between supply and demand is now much better but they do have difficult to let property with possibilities for refurbishment and turning them into more affordable residences, so I would want to sit down with the authorities and see whether there are any collaborative projects.

You have also pledged to increase the amount of study space available on campus. Do you believe that this can be easily achieved, or do you think that the problem lies in the University over-subscribing on the number of students it admits?
That’s partly a question of making sure that the campus development plan incorporates study spaces. I understand that facilities such as the library and so on are very congested. I think that the other thing I would want to do would be to work with the city regarding things such as public libraries, and trying to make sure that they are a joint resource, and they would probably benefit from the University making a contribution as they are struggling to keep them open, and students would then have access to them. So, treat “town and gown” in a much more integrated way.

[Regarding the question of overcrowding on campus] I wouldn’t be opposed to expansion. One of the things that my colleagues and I did in the Cabinet was to lift the cap on universities. There used to be a physical rationing of university places, which is fundamentally wrong because if people are qualified then the University should make a place available, so that will mean expansion. I do believe in social mobility; for the first time ever, people are qualified to go to university and we have to make space for them, so it’s a question of expanding the facilities to accommodate the student population rather than contracting the population to fit into the facilities. Sitting on the council, I would constantly remind the authorities that they have an obligation to do so.

You spoke about your enthusiasm for social mobility, but you’ve previously voted in Parliament in favour of increasing tuition fees in England. Would you be in favour of the introduction of tuition fees for Scottish students remaining in Scotland, or an increase in fees for others?
I wouldn’t be coming here to take a role in Scottish politics and dictating what the government here should do, as that’s up to them to decide what kind of higher education policy they want. Actually, you understated my role, because I was in charge of the policy, so I do own it. I think my general view on fees is that I’m totally opposed to up-front fees. A lot of people think that you come along with a cheque book or a bag of cash, and that is not how it works. What I am in favour of is some kind of graduate tax system by which graduates who do well and get high incomes pay more for their tuition in relation to their income. That was a system that I introduced in England, and of course if you don’t earn and you’re out of work or having a family, you don’t pay. The consequences of this progressive system are that more disadvantaged people go to university than before, and in fact more people from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university in England than in Scotland, and that’s one of the failings of the Scottish system. It hasn’t deterred people from going to university.

Finally, you worked closely with the Remain campaign in the lead up to the Brexit vote. How would you plan to represent international students who want to come to Glasgow to study?
It’s massively important as an issue, and I was going round the country campaigning for Remain, and I still believe that the British people as a whole have made a big mistake and will regret it. One of the big casualties of the Brexit vote will be universities; they will be hit in several ways. There will be the loss of student numbers – people no longer have access admission on the same terms and student support. There is a very high percentage of university staff come from the EU, many of them uniquely qualified… and universities will lose them. The biggest issue is research funding: Britain gets far more out of the EU than it puts in as far as research is concerned, and Glasgow and Edinburgh, as research universities, would be heavily penalised. I would be very heavily involved with Anton Muscatelli and other Chancellors across the UK to ensure that the government, under no uncertain terms, understands where universities are coming from.

Analysis

In his manifesto, Vince Cable, a former PhD candidate at Glasgow University and Glasgow City councillor, sets out his pledges to fight for affordable student accommodation, protect funding and the interests of students affected by Brexit, and to work towards providing better mental health provision for students in need.

Cable does not go into a huge amount of detail concerning exactly how he plans to go about achieving these aims, but they are likely to be popular with a large proportion of the student body nonetheless. At the end of his interview with The Glasgow Guardian, he emphatically expressed his view that there is a “pitifully small amount” of funding available for mental health services, and that something must be done to cut waiting lists. When questioned on his plans to increase funding, he highlighted his belief that the University’s approach should be one of prevention rather than cure, and that when contrasted against the University budget, the sums needed would be relatively small.

His actions as a prolific Remain campaigner would likely be mirrored throughout his term if he were elected as Rector, as he details the reduction in research funding that will be seen upon the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. He assures that he would lobby the government to ensure that Glasgow University is well represented throughout the negotiation process, to mitigate the losses as far as possible.

He promises to be a “credible” and “committed” Rector, saying that his experience as an MP would stand him in good stead as a representative of students at the University Court. He intends to implement the model used by former Rector Charles Kennedy, and to arrange regular surgeries on campus in ensure his physical availability for any concerns that may arise. How often these surgeries will in fact be held is unclear, and the fact that he is not habitually resident in Glasgow raises questions over the feasibility of this promise. Regarding the question of overcrowding on campus, Cable says he is in favour of expansion and attempting to create space for the increased student numbers, rather than condensing them down into limited available facilities. However, he did not acknowledge that with the redevelopment will come an increase in student numbers, thus the vicious circle may simply be allowed to continue.

Finally, an issue that is of particular concern to students is Cable’s previous support of tuition fees south of the border. He is keen to emphasise that tuition fees do not operate simply by expecting prospective students to sign a blank cheque at the start of their education; rather, funded via a graduate tax system. However, his ambiguity regarding his position should students at Glasgow University require a strong voice to represent their interests in the event of any proposed increase in fees for non-Scottish students is a cause for concern.

Overall, Vince Cable is certainly a qualified candidate who will appeal to a lot of students, however whether he will manage to engage enough to actually win the election will remain to be seen.