The view from the top

With higher education having undergone the biggest shake-up in years, talks to Vice-Chancellor Brian Cantor about what the future holds for the University of York

To the ­­outside eye, it has not been the rosiest year for the University of York. Having slipped down the ranks of every newspaper league table, out of the elite top ten into the ranks of the masses below, and with our position in the world top 100 now a thing of the past, one might think Brian Cantor, our now infamous Vice-Chancellor, might be a little sombre. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I don’t think it is an issue about the top 10. As far as the league tables are concerned, York is still in the top 10 in teaching quality and research quality” he says, confident in his assertion of York’s continued excellent reputation nationwide.

“The newspaper league tables tend to bob round a bit, and we have always been, for the past 20 years, in the top 10- 15 universities, fluctuating sometimes from 12 or 13 to as high as four or five. We generally move around within that range. We are one of the best universities in the country by all those standards and we give one of the best educations in the country and we are very proud of all that. We think students will want to come here.”

“There is potential for growth but can we afford it is the question…I think we will find out over the next year or two

“With regard to our performance globally, the world has woken up to the fact that Universities matter and countries across the world such as China are pouring millions into their Universities, whereas the British government has different priorities. The competition on the world stage is getting very tough” he added.

Sitting in his Heslington Hall office, Cantor is something of a smooth operator, answering questions in a well-rehearsed tone. Certainly he snidely dismisses any questions on his role to fight higher fees (“Are you sure you want to ask me about what happened a long time ago. I don’t think it is helpful to look back at things that happened a long time ago”), and skirts round my questions on the recent accusations in an alternative White Paper signed by over 400 academics that the 1994 group, of which York is a key member, failed in their “lack of leadership…their defensive approach to financial cuts has meant that by failing to contribute on the values of higher education they have not met one of the vital functions of a university”.

“The government decided, rightly or wrongly, to have an austerity programme, across the whole of the public sector. I don’t think the outcome was going to be different whatever Vice Chancellors said at the time, and I was very much opposed to some of the implications of the proposals and was very vocal in saying so at the time” he says simply. “I think we now look to the future given the system.”

Despite being more familiar to most for his six figure salary and penchant for first class travel, Cantor has in fact overseen a huge expansion of the University since his appointment in 2003, and it is undoubtedly his proudest achievement.

“We did need to grow as we were in danger in some of our departments of collapsing. The Heslington East program, which was critical to making that happen, was a very difficult project to oversee and bring to fruition and I am very proud that I helped to lead that. I played my role by setting the ideas and helping to shape the ideas a little bit. I know that through that, the University is bigger and better, with some great new facilities, because of all the work my colleagues and I put into the project over so many years.”

Yet with the whole face of higher education funding shaken up this year, I put to him that this must have quashed any further ambitions to expand. As with most of his answers, he is reluctant to be definitive, and gives answers worthy of our most slippery of politicians.
“In 2003 we devised a long term plan for the university, which was a 10-20 year plan and our objective was to grow our small and medium sized departments so they were on an even footing intellectually and financially. We had departments like Archaeology, like environment, like Maths, like Physics, which needed to grow to be in a firmer position. But we always said the first 10 years we would be able to grow based around how we were doing, and we would get through the first phase of Heslington East. But we always said the second stage of growing would depend on whether the funding arrangements would be beneficial to continued growth”.

“We have lots of growth opportunities, but in broad terms the rate of growth may slow down, now student numbers have grown and the campus has been expanded.”

“We now have between 14-15,000 students coming to York, when in 2003 it was 9,000” he continued. “There is potential for growth, but can we afford it is the question? It is hard to be sure, it depends how these new funding arrangements from the government work out. I think we will find out over the next year or two.”

Nonetheless, despite assuring me “there is no harm in pausing for the time being while we observe the impact of recruitment and funding changes”, there seems to be no stopping of the Heslington East expansion for the next few years at least.

“We will almost certainly be building a new college” he tells me animatedly. “We haven’t committed to it , but it is hard to imagine we won’t need another college on Heslington East after we complete Langwith College next summer. We are also rebuilding Chemistry and we have committed to a new environment building on Heslington East .”

Yet with every newspaper plastered with headlines about this year’s application figures dropping by 12 per cent and higher, is such expansion still wise? He shakes his head in disagreement, clearly riled at mention at the mention of the figure.

“It’s a slightly sabre rattling story as it’s such an early stage” he says, insistent that it is not worrying at this point in the game. “I think one has to be very careful about it, it is very early in the recruitment round as anyone involved will tell you. At this point it is a notoriously bad predictor of the final outcome as the last two years prove, because it is too early in the round.”

He continues: “Even if they are, it may well be that we have higher quality and we may end up taking more than we want. Application figures are not well correlated with intake. Some of our departments are doing worse in applications, some are doing better, some are up; the spread from one department to another is very variable, which is another issue which is not obvious. It is very dangerous to make predictions at this point, and I don’t think I really want to comment too strongly on those figures.”

And so, while students continue to fight against fees, and academics rail against the ‘commodification’ of universities, Cantor may be the most optimistic person in higher education. As I leave, I ask him whether he ever considers jumping ship to a university that is on its way up, rather than on its way down the league tables.

Shaking his head, he tells me “No way. There is no other university with such a community, and with such a great mix in both our staff and in our students.” It may be the only definitive answer he gave me all evening.