An interview with Sir Alan Langlands

After 7 years, Sir Alan Langlands is stepping down from his role as Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds in August. The Gryphon sat down with him (virtually) to discuss the state in which he leaves the university during these uncertain times.

“Mum can you stop hoovering, I’m about to face time the Vice Chancellor.” This is not a normal sentence I thought I’d ever say but then again, these are not normal times. I imagine the irony certainly is not lost on Sir Alan Langlands. A university statement in September announced his stepping down from his role as Vice Chancellor (VC) and praised his timing for allowing ‘an orderly transition to his successor’, leaving a university which ‘can face the future with confidence.’

Of course, a lot has happened since September. Two sets of lecture strikes which amassed to over three weeks of disrupted classes. Not to mention the coronavirus pandemic which has killed 41,969 people in the UK alone and lead to the unprecedented closing of all universities in mid-March for the remainder of the academic year. The first question I asked our departing VC, sitting in a light room adorned with white walls, was whether he still deemed the timing of his decision right. 

“I think it was the right time to leave because of my age (68) and long spell at work. Come the 31st of August when I step down, I will have been continuously working for 46 years, public service all through. It’s right that the university has new blood, new ideas; it’s important to have changes at the top which refresh the institution.”

Indeed, after 46 years of public service, Sir Alan seems like a person who has seen a lot, if not all. He takes his time responding to my questions and his answers are thoughtful and carefully composed.

“In these strange circumstances we’re doing everything we can to ensure a smooth transition. I and colleagues have spoken to the new Vice Chancellor (Simone Buitendijk), she’s been fully briefed on the work were doing on COVID and the plans we’re putting in place for next year. Someone with her experience will pick this up very quickly.” Buitendijk spent four years as Vice-Provost at Imperial College London, responsible for ensuring the quality of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. She is also an internationally respected expert in maternal and child health.

Image Credit: George Stamets (Instagram: @gstamets4)

Nonetheless, although he may not admit it, times of crisis are not the opportune moment for a change in leadership. And the university sector is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect storm on an already forbidding sea; it seriously threatens income from international fees and taught postgraduate courses, as well as potentially cutting undergraduate numbers for at least a year. This Sir Alan cannot deny.

The university sector, he says, is “more fragile than it has been for a while but universities are pretty resilient organisations. The sector overall is resilient enough to weather the storm. It’s going to need some government support.”

Significant government support, in the form of a multi-billion-pound bailout, has already been rejected by the treasury. Instead, the government has brought forward £2.6 billion in tuition fees that universities would have received at the start of the next academic year, as well as £100 million in research funding. Sir Alan is hopeful that there is more to come.

“It’s all about timing. The treasury must have a virtual queue around the block, everyone wants more money from them. We’ve been pushing for short-term relief before the summer holidays. Everything hinges on student recruitment; I wouldn’t be surprised if the government were waiting to see how recruitment pans out before deciding the extent of the funding. I think there’ll be more to come after the summer.”

“Universities are so important to economic recovery and as important vehicles for social cohesion. Especially with Brexit coming down the track, they will play an important part in the UK being part of the world community, through international alumni and academic links with foreign institutions. That’s important to the country. We’re going to have difficult times but universities should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

And what about Leeds in particular? According to the 2018/19 annual accounts, the university has an operating deficit of £11 million due to charges relating to the universities superannuation scheme (USS) pensions and the likely losses in international student fee income. According to a university spokesperson, the deficit is a “one off charge spread over 8 years relating to the USS pension deficit recovery plan.”

Sir Alan admits “the financial hit (of the pandemic) will be very significant. We have lost a lot of income from the summer term, no income from student residences or conferences. All of these are crucial issues which adds up to a lot of money.”

But he is unequivocal, “We have taken quick steps to give us breathing space, Leeds is well prepared to cope. We have paused our capital programme (investing in infrastructure), cutting back on non-staff costs and have been very careful when making new appointments.” “The biggest issue is international recruitment”, he admits, as it makes up 20% of the university’s total income.

But predictions for “the biggest issue” look bleak. According to the Guardian, several higher education institutions are expecting a reduction of 80-100% in the number of foreign students. An 80% drop in Leeds would equate to a £124.46 black hole of lost income.

Image Credit: George Stamets (Instagram: @gstamets4)

If these financial tsunamis do materialise, surely the university will have to take more drastic measures and cut their £412 million staff wage budget by reducing salaries or letting staff go? Afterall, both Bristol and Newcastle have started issuing redundancy notices for some staff on precarious contracts.

Sir Alan shrugs, “Job reductions, I honestly don’t know. I can’t speculate on salary cuts or layoffs for staff. We have enough financial strength just to see how things go over the summer.”

When it comes to talk of salary cuts, the VC is accustomed to having to justify his own, which last year totalled £284,000. 

“I don’t deny I am very well paid. I have tried to show self-restraint. During my 7 years I have only once had a pay increase of 1.1%, the same as everyone else. I hope that is a signal that I don’t think huge salaries are in tune with universities.”

But enough about the university’s finances- the real losers of cancelled classes have been the students. Many are not satisfied with universities’ provision of online learning; a national petition calling for students across the UK to have their tuition fees refunded has surpassed 340,000 signatures.

Sir Alan is sympathetic to the situation. “I see their point. But if you can justify that you’ve made the best possible effort to maintain education through online support and the personal tutor system. That’s as good as we could possibly do.”

Some final year students have complained that Leeds’ best effort has not been good enough. One told The Gryphon, “I’m really upset with how the university managed the situation. I had no support for my dissertation.”

Sir Alan acknowledges this. “There were clearly bumps along the road given that we had to close the university at a few days’ notice. We are confident that this year’s cohort will graduate with the integrity of the Leeds degree.”

And what about the quality of teaching for next academic year? The former VC of Edinburgh university Tim O’Shea has said that Leeds is one of the few universities with both the capacity and the will to develop high quality online resources.

“We hope to have a good high-quality offer. Face to face learning in smaller groups and online learning for big number lectures. A lot of people are busting a gut to ensure that quality online resources are there. Even before lockdown we had over 1000 staff undertaking online learning practice and we are one of the few universities in the country offering support for staff when using online facilities.”

The pandemic is not the only crisis which has shaken society to its core. Over the last few weeks the world’s attention has been diverted on to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. The murder has sparked protests across the globe against racial discrimination.

On Sunday, more than 1,000 people attended a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration in Millennium Square as Leeds joined other UK cities in expressing the need for racial equality. The VC echoes this sentiment.

The footage of George Floyd’s death “was horrific, beyond imagination.”, Sir Alan says. “It’s good that we are now having a balanced discussion about the history of racial injustice. This should be a big moment.”

But as important microcosms of society and “vehicles for social cohesion”, universities must do more to combat racial discrimination on campus. According to statistics from the office for students, over half of universities in England have an awarding gap of 20% or more between Black and White students.

And Leeds is no different. During the 2018/19 academic year, 7.9% of black students were awarded class 1 degrees, a rate four times lower than white students (33.3%).  The University’s Action and Participation plan aims to close the gap.

“The university abhors racism. What we are trying to do is close the awarding gap from 12.7% in 2017 to 5.5% by 2024 and the ultimate aim is to get to 0 (by 2030/31).” 

To finish, I ask the VC what he is most proud of and what he will miss the most about our university.

Image Credit: George Stamets (Instagram: @gstamets4)

“You learn something new every day, across a tremendous breadth from the arts to the sciences. I’ve enjoyed that. The work in the environment faculty has really led the discussion on climate change, allowing the university to take a strong position on sustainability and driving our net 0 carbon footprint target by 2030.”

And his biggest regret? “As you get closer to the end of your career you want everything to happen much more quickly, you want to see things through to their endpoint. My biggest regret is that I don’t have more time to do more of the same.”

But Sir Alan does not strike me as a person who dwells on the past. Citing the £96 million Brag building, which “will be a tremendous asset to the university”, he is keen to stress that despite everything, the future can be bright for the university. A future for which Sir Alan Langlands, after 7 years of service, has carefully paved the way.

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