Vice Chancellor Simone Buitendijk: “We have all been through a difficult time but we are coming out so strong and so focused. I think we will thrive.”

Despite having, as she describes, “a crazy year” in her new role – “we have all been through a difficult time but we are coming out so strong and so focused; I think we will thrive.” – and not having been able to visit large parts of the University she now heads, Simone Buitendijk remains largely positive about her time at the top so far. “It’s been absolutely amazing. I think the University of Leeds is such a great community and people are so focused on being a local presence and on really wanting to change the world with social activism.”

Prior to taking up the position of VC last year, Buitendijk studied medicine in her home country of the Netherlands before embarking on an academic career specialising in research on women’s health. Then followed two Deputy Vice Chancellor roles in student education including Vice Provost for Education at Imperial College London. Although more than happy with her life in London, it was visiting campus and meeting Leeds students that charmed her enough to leave the capital. “I love the students,” she beams. “I met one of the student execs, Lauren [Huxley, former Union Affairs and Activities Officer at LUU], and she was just so incredibly excited and happy to be here with a sense of pride of being part of the University of Leeds community.” It was enough to convince Buitendijk to apply for the role of Vice Chancellor.

She has also been beguiled by God’s Own Country – “I had no idea that [Yorkshire] was this beautiful” – and enthuses about hiking in the Dales and the greenery on her walk to work. “The fresh air compared to London has been a wonderful change I must say.” 

Naturally, I turn Buitendijk’s focus onto the pandemic’s effects on the student learning experience. The official University website states that all students will have a combination of online and face-to-face teaching, with the latter only available for some small-group settings. I remind Buitendijk that many readers will want to know what the University is doing to ensure that students are getting the most out of their degree. 

“We are already moving all workshops, small group teaching and teaching that needs to be interactive into face-to-face mode with, of course, the security measures that we need to take. We are trying to make the experience as physically interactive as possible.” On top of that, she adds that the continuation of large-scale lectures online is not only due to coronavirus, but also because of its pedagogical inefficiency. “Without COVID-19 we would actually be phasing out the large scale lectures with the teacher in front talking for 45 minutes; that’s just not the best way of really learning.”

The numbered days of the traditional lecture, or, as she jokingly describes it, replacing the “sage on the stage” with the “guide on the side”, is a subject she is passionate about. Buitendijk sees the future of learning in higher education as more group work, more focus on real-life problems, students working together more across different disciplines, and students from marginalised backgrounds (BAME, LGBTQ+, working class etc.) bringing their lived experiences into working groups. What’s more, these ideas are due to be implemented as part of the Vice Chancellor’s new strategy for the University which includes annual spends of £10 million for the next decade in order, Buitendijk claims,  “to completely change student experience”.

The aforementioned strategy, of course, was informed by the Big Leeds Conversation, an online platform set-up to facilitate anonymous discussion and shape the University’s values and an endeavour with which she seems thrilled. “I’m still convinced that finding a set of common values that students and staff and the entire community feel are ‘us’ is so important,” she explains. “I think it is absolutely critical as a guiding light. When we have to make tough choices, we need to have a common set of values to underpin our strength as a community.” Currently, the project is in its second phase, encouraging staff and students from across the University to ‘check and challenge’ the draft set of values. 

However, the Big Leeds Conversation was not popular with everyone. In a joint letter to the VC earlier this year, University of Leeds’ LGBTQ+ Staff Network and University College Union (UCU) criticised the platform for failing to “remove or moderate widespread transphobic comments” with one member of staff going on to say that she witnessed “‘some of the most explicit transphobia that I have ever seen in a University context”. The same letter also accused the University of harbouring a “hostile environment” of “systemic transphobia” with problems ranging from outdated IT systems deadnaming and outing transgender staff and students, staff being asked for Gender Recognition Certificates to change gender markers, and the everday culture of transphobia found on campus. It is certainly a hot topic for the University at the moment with local news outlets covering transgender issues on campus as well as national publications such as the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. 

I ask Buitendijk directly if she thinks that ‘systemic transphobia’ exists at the University of Leeds and, if so, what is the University planning on doing to change that. She gives an evasive response. “Equality, diversity and inclusion are absolutely at the heart of everything that I want to do and I’ve appointed two deans to make sure that we drive that agenda with a vengeance.” In her answer, Buitendijk does not make specific reference to the transgender community or to the UCU letter.

Nevertheless, the alleged institutional transphobia is not the only sore point between UCU and the University. At the time of writing, UCU have opened the ballot for members to vote on industrial action to demand high education employers acquiesce to their four fights: addressing the gender, ethnic and disability pay gap; ending contract casualisation and rising job insecurity; tackling unmanageable workloads; and increasing pay and securing pensions. 

When I put these demands to her, Buitendijk immediately refers to the University’s ‘Fairer Futures For All’ campaign and claims that “three of the four fights that UCU are putting forward nationally and that our local UCU are talking about are also firmly in our strategy.” She adds: “I am very focused on decreasing the number of fixed term contracts, on giving, especially younger, but all colleagues job security, making sure that we focus on workload issues.” As for UCU’s fourth fight regarding pay and pensions, she is keen to emphasise that she is powerless to change anything – “I feel a bit like I am with my back against the wall. There’s nothing I can really do locally even if I felt like we could afford to give the Unions exactly what they want in terms of the pension contribution.”

Yet, as I highlight the impact a potential strike is likely to have on student education, Buitendijk remains optimistic. “I think you’re right that our students are very concerned about the potential strike action,” she says. “I am really hoping that we are not going to get strike action but if it happens I really think that we can keep the damage contained.”

When it comes to highlighting the work going on within the University she is proud to see, Buitendijk is quick to praise the LUU student exec. “[They] are unbelievably bright and driven and focused on the wellbeing of students they are such a delight to work with.” In particular, she commends the exec team’s work on the safety of female students, planning for industrial action and combating climate change. “When I was their age I really don’t remember being that focused on what needs to happen and what students deserve and what the world needs.”

In fact, as our interview draws to a close, the Vice Chancellor is especially eager to express that “I really am on the side of students.”

 “I would like to invite your entire readership, if there are things that they feel I am not picking up on, to make sure they bring them forward and let’s have that open communication” she says. So even though I am far away from most students I really want to listen to them; I want to encourage them to let their voices be known.”

Header Image Credit: University of Leeds