A Covenant for a Positive Future
I would like to use this week’s blog to propose a covenant to support how the University and our staff can work together for a positive future. While I appreciate that scholars may dispute my adoption of this term, and those without faith may find its religious connotations somewhat uncomfortable, I am using it in the sense of an agreement that is two-way, solemn and long-term.
It is well-recognised that there are a number of historic and organisational reasons for an erosion of trust within our University community: a scepticism towards senior management combined with perceptions of a lack of transparency; too many ‘top-down’ initiatives which are poorly communicated or implemented; a feeling of disempowerment while faced with a compliance overload; and a sense that the expertise and ideas found throughout our University are not being listened to.
I saw these and other concerns expressed in the staff engagement survey, experienced them during my autumn visits to Schools and Departments and read them in the many emails I received in my VC-Engagement account. Well before the national pensions dispute, it was clear that many staff in our University were not in a happy place.
I recognise these concerns, I share many of them and I feel it is only right that we tackle them together as a University community. I also recognise that we are not always going to agree on everything and that coming to the ‘right’ conclusions in such a complex environment is not always going to be easy. However, this covenant is my proposal for beginning to address our cultural issues together.
To improve openness in senior management, I am initiating series of measures to burst the ‘bubble’ that was identified in the staff engagement survey between the University Executive Board (UEB) and the wider University. This will involve all UEB members engaging and working more closely with Schools and Departments, and UEB sub-committees and away days being opened up to wider membership.
To improve communication between the UEB and the wider University, we have developed an engagement plan so that each member can present and discuss their ideas with you on our biggest strategic issues, for example our finances, our global vision, and the external challenges that will affect us all at the University.
Work is well underway to introduce a new web-based staff information page and to reform our communication channels to be clearer and more accessible. Looking ahead to late autumn, we will hold a series of events to gather staff views and ideas to inform the University’s strategy beyond 2020 from the ‘bottom-up.’ I would welcome your ideas about what else we should be doing.
To delegate more decision-making, reduce duplication and increase joined-up thinking, UEB is reviewing the University’s governance model to ensure that decisions are made at the right level - whether that is by School, Faculty or UEB. Too often, UEB has become the default body for many decisions which should rest at School or Faculty level, and we need to change that and re-empower individuals who work at different levels of the University.
To improve and broaden our decision-making, we will be using many more ‘task and finish’ groups to tackle the big issues we face as an institution. During this academic year, the work of such groups on the organisational effectiveness of student support, timetabling, and equality, diversity and inclusion in recruitment processes have demonstrated just how powerful and creative diverse groups can be in solving our institutional problems. I will announce more details on how we will take this forward in September.
To ensure we benefit from a greater variety of the expertise, ideas and views from across our community, UEB sub-committees will be reconstituted in the new academic year to include members of staff at different career stages as well as students, representing diversity in all its forms - from gender and ethnicity to roles, experience and expertise.
And to improve transparency, UEB away days will increasingly operate as ‘think-tanks’ examining strategic issues, and we will open up a small number of places in each meeting to application from anyone in the University who wishes to attend and participate in proceedings.
Given the crucial importance of equality, diversity and inclusion to our people and our culture as a University, I will appoint a full-time UEB position to oversee policy and action to tackle the challenges we face, for example, in the gender pay gap for our staff or the attainment gap for our black and minority ethnic students. This role will be open for application from University staff later this week and I would welcome interest from across our University community, including opportunities for a job share.
For my part as Vice-Chancellor, I intend to hold surgeries later this term, modelled on MP surgeries, so that any member of the University can come and speak with me, about anything, on a first come, first served, basis.
If these prove popular, I will continue them throughout the next academic year. I will also engage with our overseas campuses in a way appropriate to them when I visit. The first surgeries will be held on each of the three UK campuses before colleagues take a well-deserved summer break – to review dates and register interest, please go to VC Surgeries.
I hope that, over time, these changes will result in more distributed and delegated decision-making, a more inclusive environment for addressing the challenges we face as an institution, as well as ensuring that all of us - whatever our roles - find new ways of working together.
And those challenges are considerable: Brexit, the demands of the Office for Students, the post-18 fees and funding review, the health and wellbeing of staff and students, global competition and undoubtedly greater constraint on financial resources - just for a start.
As Vice-Chancellor, I present these thoughts about what I personally, and UEB generally, can offer to a covenant. In turn, I would ask that all staff across our University work with me to rebuild trust and that we work together to make our University ever more successful as we navigate these challenging times.
Professor Shearer West
05 June 2018