First impressions — Vice Chancellor's blog
This is the end of my first month as your Vice-Chancellor, and I would like to begin by saying how very grateful I am for the warm welcome I have received from all parts of our global University.
For my first blog, I wanted to share my initial reflections of the many visits and experiences I have had at Nottingham so far, to touch on a few of the immediate issues facing us both locally and as a sector, and to announce three early initiatives that I hope will engage as many members of the University community as possible.
I have been fortunate in these early days to have had the opportunity to visit all UK campuses, as well as UNNC and UNMC, and I have been impressed with the commitment, energy and the range of high-quality activity that I have found everywhere I have been. There are more examples here than I have space to mention. The breadth of our contribution to both fundamental research and innovation was brought home to me by a poster session at Nottingham City Hospital. Groups of senior academics, postdocs and postgraduate research students presented projects relating to stroke trials, cystic fibrosis, the development of anti-bacterial shunts, the next generation of cancer research and the prevention of tobacco and alcohol addiction. Similarly, the truly global scale of our research on Future Foods became apparent to me when seeing the work being done on the molecular structures of plants at Sutton Bonington, and at the Crops for the Future Research Centre on the other side of the world. A particular highlight was being able to taste some of the extraordinary dishes made with plants grown locally in Malaysia.
I have had a range of conversations with students, and with our committed and caring Students’ Union officers. I was inspired by student-led enterprise projects at the Ingenuity Lab and discovering the rich array of activities undertaken by four student societies in the School of Law, including organising visits to the Supreme Court and engaging with local school children about human rights and justice. I had a revealing exchange with a group of research students from Nigeria who explained the challenges of adapting to a UK pedagogical culture. A visit to the Libraries, Research and Learning Resources department revealed an array of creative educational initiatives involving students as partners, as well as new approaches to digital learning. Being able to tour teaching and learning facilities has helped me recognise the advantages of the new laboratories in the School of Chemistry and aerospace engineering, state-of-the art recording facilities in the Department of Music and the new student work areas at UNNC. However, I am also aware that we face complex challenges with some of our spaces at, for example, the Queen’s Medical Centre and the Business School on Jubilee Campus.
It is clear to me that people value our University immensely. I have met many generous donors who appreciate the quality of what we do. I have attended a number of alumni events, including in Hong Kong, where younger alumni from Ningbo were present, and at University Park campus, where a Golden Alumni Reunion saw over 100 graduates from the class of 1967 sharing warm memories of their time at Nottingham. I cannot count the number of people I have spoken to who have worked at the University for over 20 years — including cleaning staff, professional librarians and senior professors, with one individual who has given 43 years of service to the University.
My overall impression from this first month is of a University that is productive, proud and committed to success. However, I have also heard concerns about the current state of staff morale and how we will fare in the future, given the intensification of global competition. I truly regret the distress and anxiety that staff and students have experienced and have expressed through the Gallup staff survey and directly to me via email and during my visits to schools and departments. We have work to do to ensure that our University community is fully engaged as we go forward to face global competition, Brexit, value-for-money challenges, new national regulatory regimes and the negative media attention that UK universities are enduring on a daily basis. The staff engagement survey was a major focus of a recent UEB away day, and I know my UEB colleagues are as keen as I am to work with you to address these concerns. We are also committed to improving the transparency of our communications and decision-making. As a start, we will soon be developing an internal website to make UEB minutes available to all staff within the University.
I have asked colleagues to begin three early initiatives to ensure we more effectively draw on the wisdom and talent of our University community.
First, we will immediately set up a Review and Improve Task Group to address the problems staff and students have identified that have emerged due to the delay in the implementation of new IT systems. This will involve an independent group of expert senior academics and professional services staff from across the University advising UEB on practical solutions to some of the issues that have arisen over the last few months. This work is intended to move us forward and is not a restructure or reconstruction of what has taken place previously. Simultaneously, we will undertake a separate review of changes to timetabling. The details of both are now available on workspace.
Second, we will build on a creative project sponsored by our PVC Education and Student Experience, Professor Sarah O’Hara, to consider the 21st-century University. This will outline the current challenges facing our University, explore what the future might look like and set out a vision for where we want to be as the University of Nottingham over the next decade. This is an open conversation with you all, and in the coming weeks I will be inviting staff and students who were involved in the original workshops to help facilitate our discussions and debate. The project will be rolled out across the campuses to help us tap into the imagination and creativity of Nottingham’s staff, students and partners as we seek to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing environment.
Finally, I will be devoting a significant amount of attention in the next few months to equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) in terms of both staff and student recruitment and experience, and staff career progression. Beginning in the new year, I have asked Professor Marion Walker, our Associate PVC for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, to sponsor a project to look at our practices and behaviours around recruitment of staff from an ED&I perspective. We will identify good practice from within the sector and beyond and ensure that we work together as a University to develop our approach to an issue that is critically important to our success as an institution.
To end, I would like to remind everyone of my private email account — firstname.lastname@example.org — which will be live until Christmas. Many of you have sent your thoughts and ideas to me already, and I thank you for that. I invite others to contact me, and I will acknowledge all emails. Finally, on Thursday 7 December, I will deliver my inaugural lecture, where I will set out my vision for the future of the University to staff, students, university partners and our civic community. More details of this event will be coming soon.
Professor Shearer West
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