‘It’s been a tough year, but there’s a lot that we should be proud of’: an interview with University of Exeter Vice-Chancellor Lisa Roberts

University of Exeter

During an unprecedented and difficult academic year, Lars Mucklejohn spoke to Professor Lisa Roberts, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, about some of the big issues facing students and what the university will look like post-lockdown.

The full interview is available on the Anchor’s YouTube Channel.

Becoming vice-chancellor in September last year, Professor Roberts joined the university in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. She admitted that “it’s not been the year that anyone’s expected to have”, and “it’s been a tough year, but there’s a lot that we should be proud of”.

The vice-chancellor recognised that COVID-19 has significantly disrupted students’ university experience, saying that she can “completely empathise with everything that students are saying to me—that their overall university experience, of course, is not what you would expect it to be in normal times”, citing “feelings of loneliness”, “mental health issues”, and a “lack of belonging to the university” as some of the challenges facing students.

She revealed that the university has doubled its spending on mental health support during the pandemic while also discussing employability support and having students back on campus for the Festival of Discovery later this term, with maintaining a “dialogue with students” being central to the university’s approach to COVID-19.

When asked about the quality of education this year, the vice-chancellor pointed out that “we’ve done everything we can”, and “at the last count, it was about £35 million we’ve put in extra support for digital and blended and online learning”. On possibly refunding tuition fees, she said: “I understand that there’s not been the overall university experience, but I think tuition fee refunds, that has to be a government debate rather than an individual university issue.”

With social restrictions currently due to end on 21 June, the vice-chancellor hoped that next academic year will see some kind of return to normalcy: “We don’t know, actually, what it will look like come September. It looks like it will be more back to normal, and that’s the basis that we’re planning for—that it will be back to a normal academic operation of the university.” “I think, throughout all of our planning, the one that we’ve learned in the last year is that we’ve got to have a flexible and adaptable approach”, she added.

Students this year are promised a “no-disadvantage guarantee” to ensure that they will be fairly graded. Some were vocally disappointed that this approach did not more closely resemble last year’s “no detriment” policy. The vice-chancellor responded by saying that “we can say that, absolutely, what we’ve put in place is fair and equivalent to the previous year’s ‘no detriment’ policy. It’s got to be slightly different, of course, because as Tim [Quine, deputy vice-chancellor (education)] has explained in many fora and meetings, we don’t have the previous parts of the year’s results to base any results on”.

A big issue this year has been reports of racism on campus, including an article from the Anchor which detailed students’ experiences of racism. The vice-chancellor emphasised that tackling racism is a major priority of hers, and “the work on building an anti-racist university is never done—it’s something that we’re continually putting more and more effort behind”. “No form of racism is going to be tolerated at the University of Exeter”, she said.

With the proportion of state-educated students at Exeter remaining relatively low for the past few years, the vice-chancellor, who herself attended a state school, recognised that, despite having success in other areas of widening participation, “state school recruitment has been a little bit stuck, and we haven’t moved the dial maybe as much as we want to there”. She said that “we’ve got a special task and finish group that’s been set up to look at this”, and “I think there’s a lot of support and will behind tackling that one.”

Another issue dominating student life is sexual harassment and assault, with an open letter, which has over 600 signatures, calling for the university to introduce consent education during the next Freshers’ Week. The vice-chancellor said that she was “really saddened” by last month’s news that two students had been sexually assaulted on Streatham Campus. She stressed that the safety of women at Exeter “is absolutely paramount”, and “it may be that we do put things in like some consent training”.

In response to our readers’ concerns over the university’s confidence in its presence in Cornwall, the vice-chancellor said that “in our Strategy 2030, Cornwall will be a huge priority for potential expansion”. “I would like to see more students in Cornwall. I would like us to build on the real strength of some of the subjects that we have in Cornwall”, she added, stating an “absolute commitment to investment and making Cornwall really shine”.

As part of this Strategy 2030, the vice-chancellor has organised a series of Big Conversations, which focus on “giving everybody in the university community a voice”. She said: “Central to our strategy is our people, and that’s our staff and our students.”