Sasha Roseneil

Professor Roseneil is the ninth – and the first female – Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sussex. She is a highly respected academic who has written and edited eleven books on sociological themes, predominantly around feminism and gender issues.

She sat down with Maarten Hoffmann to discuss her academic journey which has now led her to Falmer...


Maarten Hoffmann: Let’s start with some background. What was your journey to your current post?

Professor Sasha Roseneil: I was born and mostly grew up in London. I did apply to Sussex, but didn’t end up coming here. I was offered a place at Cambridge but, considering what I wanted to do, compared to what Cambridge would’ve wanted me to do with my studies, I decided not to go there.

I actually went to the London School of Economics (LSE) for a number of reasons. The main one was I wanted to study social sciences. I also ideally wanted to stay in London, so my first degree was from LSE, followed by my PhD. After LSE, I got my first academic job at Leeds University in 1991, and spent 16 years there, starting off as a lecturer in sociology. In 2000,  I became Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies.

Personal circumstances meant I needed to move from Leeds back to London, so I got a job at Birkbeck (part of the University of London). For me, this was the perfect fit because it’s a special institution, focused on widening access to higher education, where almost all of the teaching is in the evenings. Birkbeck afforded me the opportunity to develop my research interests in what became the new field of Psychosocial Studies.

I was there for nine years, before being offered the role of Executive Dean at the University of Essex. I worked there for two years, before moving to University College London (UCL) as Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences. I later became Pro-Provost For Equity and Inclusion as well.


MH: At that point, were you just going where life took you or did you have a vision to step up to the top job?

SR: I didn’t. What galvanised me was the pandemic. We had to go, almost overnight, online. Doing this enabled me to think bigger than I had had to before, especially on the operational and planning side.

I was on the ‘gold command team’ at UCL during the pandemic and, through that experience, it became conceivable that I might do the ‘top job’.


MH: Were you excited by that idea?

SR: I was. I loved UCL and I wasn’t looking to leave; I was very immersed in what I was doing there. It was totally absorbing, but then I got approached about the Vice-Chancellorship at Sussex. I don’t think I would have been interested in another university as I had spent a lot of my childhood visiting Brighton, and I absolutely loved it. My Dad said he’d loved to have retired here, but sadly, he didn’t get the chance.


MH: This must have resonated with you, given your childhood memories?

SR: It did. But more importantly, it was Sussex’s mission and its reputation that interested me. Plus, there’s one thing completely non-work related – I love cold water swimming. In London, I’d swim in a reservoir near my home. Brighton obviously has the sea. However, I don’t go as often as I’d like due to the sewage discharge concerns. So the wonderful Sea Lanes it is.


MH: So you were asked to come to Sussex, and you came down for your first visit. What happened from there?

SR: When I was first invited down here, I did a bit of a recce. I drove around the city. I’m vegetarian, and my favourite restaurant in the world is Terre à Terre, which I’ve been going to every time I visited Brighton, so that was also a draw!

Sussex has a reputation, sometimes a challenging reputation, as being a university that has really pushed the boundaries intellectually, developing new ideas and ways of thinking. It has been at the forefront in so many disciplines, and that was very appealing. Plus it’s a university that’s strong in the social sciences and as I’m a social scientist, that appealed to me. So there were all sorts of attractions for me.


MH: How long have you been here now?

SR: I arrived in August 2022. I was made to feel very welcome. My first day was in August, so it was quieter than usual. It was a good time to start, because I could find my feet during a calmer period.

People at Sussex are very warm. And one of the university’s values is kindness. And we actually have people here who are committed to that value. It’s not just a strapline. One of the first things that I discovered when I got here, at the end of week one, was when the Director of Estates told me we’ve got a problem. There is a RAAC* issue on the campus – (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete). I’d never heard of it at the time. It now slips off the tongue, but I really wish I’d never heard of it.We’ve got a fair bit of it and it meant
that there were significant estate challenges  in my first week.

*RAAC is a lightweight form of concrete commonly used in construction between the 1950s and mid-1990s. It is found in many school and college buildings. It is estimated to cost billions to replace nationally.


MH: It’s a fiscal issue, isn’t it? The maintenance bill, which people don’t see, has always been there.

SR: We have to produce an operating margin to reinvest in the future of the university. And those margins are very hard to maintain. There are a very large number of universities in that serious deficit position.


MH: So that first month or two was quite a rollercoaster for you. With the RAAC problems, the students coming back during the Queen’s funeral, the pandemic, and the huge task you must have had in front of you at a university with a considerable reputation.
It must have been quite daunting…

SR: It was daunting and exciting. I wanted to meet as many people as possible as quickly as possible. I really do believe that a successful university is a community of people who work together. So I wanted to meet everyone as quickly as I could, including people in the schools and in the different professional services divisions.

The challenge is to continue talking and listening to people when you’re very busy. I want to keep hearing from people across all the different roles in the university.


MH: Do you feel you have managed that?

SR: Probably not as much as I would like to. I have regular open staff meetings once a term, and meetings with different schools and divisions, at different times.

There are so many different parts of the university – the students; the staff, the estates teams; the schools; the labs. A university is a really complex organisation because we’re doing all sorts of things. Here we are, teaching students across a huge range of disciplines, all of which have different methods of operating. There are trade offs at times between the needs of different areas, but the success of a university is the ability to integrate.


MH: You have a responsibility to the students; for them to have a great experience, achieve what they’re aiming to achieve to the best of their ability, getting high grades, having had a great time doing so, with the highest satisfaction. That’s such a multifaceted challenge; one you’ve obviously risen to and enjoyed?

SR: We are here for the students, to educate them, and to carry out research for the wider public good. So we have to centre ourselves around their needs. And those needs are always changing and the pandemic introduced a new set of unique challenges.

For instance, we have higher levels of mental distress amongst students – the cost of living crisis, and student maintenance levels are lower than they ever have been, and our students are working more than they ever had. Of course, students have jobs, but they shouldn’t be doing too much of it, as it starts to impinge on their studies. We really do need, as a society, to think very consciously about how to support young people as well as we can.

For example, at Sussex, we offer support financially where we can, so we introduced £2 meals. These have been hugely popular. For that, the students and staff can get a healthy, hot, cooked, vegetarian or vegan meal with a gluten free option, all through the day on campus. We have sold hundreds of thousands.

The meals are subsidised, and being vegetarian and vegan, which is something we encourage, they fit with our ethos of sustainability. Additionally, our chefs are getting more and more innovative, which is fantastic.


MH: If I may turn to funding. It’s a universal problem across all education establishments. There does seem to be a real crisis; a funding gap which the university has to make up. How are you currently dealing with the funding issues?

SR: Like all universities in the UK, we are facing serious financial headwinds. At the moment, things have been getting progressively more challenging because the home student fee hasn’t gone up since 2017. £9,250 sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t cover the cost of education and services. In 2012, when the £9,000 fee was introduced – increased by £250 in 2017 – it was about right to enable universities to have extra income and be able to invest. However, inflation means our costs have risen, but the fees have remained the same. So that fiscal boost has now been radically eroded.

International student fees have always been higher than home fees, and they are essential to run a university. But Sussex has been ‘global’ since it opened. One of the things I think the university is most proud of is that one of its earliest students was Thabo Mbeki, who went on to become President of South Africa.

We’ve recently been told that we are number one in the world – for the eighth consecutive year – for Development Studies. That’s something we’re very proud of. There are only a handful of universities in the UK that are number one in the world for a subject, and Sussex is one of them.

Development Studies is about global equity, social justice and sustainability. That number one ranking is so fundamental to what we are about. We haven’t gone out to find international students just to help to balance the books; we want them here because they
bring so much to the university. They are a vital part of our community.

It undermines the standing of the UK in the world when people suggest international students are not welcome. It becomes all the more distressing and fundamentally wrongheaded, because higher education is one of Britain’s great success stories.

One of the greatest privileges of the job has been meeting our alumni. They’re running major businesses around the world. They are running governments and civil services and major NGOs.


MH: Is there a concern that international students might be draining university resources from home students? It’s a concern the man
or woman in the street occasionally raises.

SR: British students are not being turned away because of international students. Most international students are Masters students, not under-graduates. They’re actually helping to fund the universities, in order that we can give a better context for UK students, enabling us to do research, especially when there isn’t full funding for research. Research undertaken by British universities is absolutely fundamental to the health of the UK economy. So there’s a complex ecosystem and interrelated set of dynamics in university finances, and international students are part of that; they are fundamentally supporting the British economy.


MH: With the very real challenges and deficits faced by a lot of universities, do you feel that the university system needs to embrace fundamental reforms, for instance in the form of mergers or partnerships? Do you think that’s where we’re going?

SR: I don’t think that mergers are the solution to the challenges we’re facing. Merging two freestanding, autonomous institutions is incredibly complex, and it doesn’t necessarily save any money in the immediate future, unless you’re shrinking the provision of one of them. These mergers we are seeing are not necessarily being driven by financial imperatives; there are other factors at work.

Certainly collaboration and partnership between regionally situated universities is absolutely vital. We have a joint medical school with the University of Brighton – Brighton and Sussex Medical School. It’s a joint venture between the two universities that’s 20 years old now, and it’s a huge success.


MH: One advantage being you’re sharing the cost?

SR: Well, we work together. We’ve got a division of labour between the two universities, and we come together and ensure that our shared medical school is working with both our fundamental science, and our psychology at Sussex, and with allied health professionals at University of Brighton. It’s a great model. Similarly, we’re working with the University of Chichester in relation to our postgraduate teacher training. We’ve also just recently joined the Eastern Academic Research Consortium (ARC), which includes University of East Anglia, University of Kent, University of Essex, and now Sussex.

We’re going to collaborate around issues of the coast and coastal communities, issues of socio- economic challenge and deprivation as well as opportunities in coastal communities. We are also researching coastal biodiversity and  environmental sustainability.


MH: One major concern I have is that the next government, assuming it’s a Labour government, is going to remove VAT exemption and charity status from private schools. Do you have similar concerns for universities?

SR: I don’t know, because the Labour Party is keeping its cards very close to its chest about Higher Education policy. But I have written a manifesto for Higher Education. It suggests – assuming tuition fees are not going to increase – grant funding, especially for mental health issues among students. I advocate for a Covid Premium for universities.


MH: Given the lack of repayment of tuition fees, the cost of non-repayment is expected to hit £460bn by 2040. Surely this is unsustainable?

SR: I think that’s more of an accounting issue. Before we had student loans, there was a sense in which students were funded through revenue. Today, this is now considered to be ‘debt’. And that is effectively an artefact of the funding structure.

We could do with a radical re-think of how universities are funded. Another part of my manifesto suggests a major review of university funding, that operates something like a ‘Citizens’ Jury’. We would bring together young people, prospective students, graduates who have student loans, alongside ordinary taxpayers, people who work in universities – a cross-section of stakeholders – to interrogate financial experts about this, and really think through how to fund universities.

But the bigger question is, how do we understand universities? This manifesto points out that universities are institutions for the public good; we should be seeing them for what they generate. To me, they produce all of the professionals who keep the country running. Every teacher, social worker, medic, nurse, physiotherapist, almost every business leader, politician – you name it – has been through university.

Universities are generators of the country’s economic prosperity; our wealth, a source of ideas and innovation. So the current thinking of universities as being these enormous sources of debt is totally incorrect. They’re enormous sources of creativity, innovation, and the future of the country.


MH: Is it not actually a result of when we originally started to charge university fees in the first place? It was once all premised on the long term view of these highly skilled people, highly educated people go into the workforce, collect increased tax receipts, enhance the economy, and so on. Was it not the imposition of fees for universities in the first place that caused this issue to bloom?

SR: I agree. But we’ve got some great minds in this country and it’s not an impossible problem to solve. It needs careful thought because, whichever way you look at it, the current system isn’t working well.

We’ve got students who can’t afford to live because they’re just not getting enough to live off. Parents who can afford it are subsidising students very heavily, but there are a lot of parents who can’t afford it. So students are working too much, and really struggling with their mental health as a result.

There needs to be a different way of thinking about it. Instead of saddling students with debt, perhaps we might consider a ‘graduate tax’; a separate tax that graduates would pay because – and there is plenty of truth in it – those individuals who go to university benefit enormously from it personally. There are personal benefits and enormous public benefits.


MH: Moving on to EDI, do you feel that the university is achieving equality and diversity across the board, or do you still have a long way to go?

SR: We’re working hard on it. But no university has achieved anything like full parity for all the different groups. Universities are diverse communities and Sussex is a very diverse community, but we’re not as diverse as we would like to be.


MH:  Most councils around the country are spending up to 85% of their entire budget on adult social care regarding mental health issues. You’re in your own mini-city here. How do you deal with that?

SR: Speaking as a psychotherapist and a social scientist – again, there’s no magic bullet. We need universities to provide robust psychological services, and I think we do that at Sussex but we’re always stretched but I think we also have to recognise that counselling and psychotherapy are not the whole answer. Very often what people need is a supportive network, a community, on a personal, human level.

They need to be able to find the resources to build friendships, because social media has something to answer for. It may offer people a lot of connection but it’s not the same as real human, in-person interaction. We must ensure that we enable students to meet and hang out together.

The arts have a role too. We’ve got a fantastic musical theatre society, we’ve got a lot of creative activities happening on campus, and a lot of music making. And that is really vital to students’ well being.


MH: Final question. What’s the future for you?

SR: Sussex’s future is bright. For me, personally, I’m really immersed in the job in the here and now. Every day is very full and I’m definitely thinking about the next ten years here at Sussex. The whole community is developing the Sussex 2035 strategy. So we’re looking ahead over the next ten years of the university. It’s very exciting.


MH: Many thanks for your time Sasha and now that you have inspired me regarding the campus architecture,
l am off to the Meeting House.

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