End of Year Reflections
As I reach the conclusion of my first year as Vice-Chancellor at Nottingham, I am writing to reflect on what I have observed, what I have learned, what we have achieved together and where I feel we should be going next.
First, I will reiterate my positive impressions of Nottingham that still hold after my first nine months. The University is thriving in numerous ways: we have outstanding staff and students, a global reputation, international campuses that are the envy of many and an excellent track record for student employability. A gold award in TEF, an ambitious research strategy and the closing of a highly successful fundraising campaign all attest to the special features that help make Nottingham what it is. Our University has many strengths and we will need these to weather the many challenges ahead – both within and without our institution.
My concerns about the external challenges we face have deepened as the year has gone by. We are operating in a highly volatile national and global environment of which Brexit is the most visible manifestation of the populism that we have also witnessed in the US and across Europe. The question of what Brexit will actually mean for our staff and students remains as changeable as ever.
The UK government has torn up the rule book of the higher education sector and effectively started over, with the Office for Students, UKRI, and the post-18 fees and funding review, just to mention a few. Universities are perennial targets in a hostile media environment, and issues such as mental health, freedom of speech, hate crime and sexual harassment are dominating social media.
And we face internal challenges as well – to better support our people and improve our infrastructure. The staff engagement survey and Project Transform have underlined a lack of trust in the University leadership, and the national USS pension dispute surfaced much unhappiness not just with pension reform but also the more recent culture of higher education.
Our foundations both physical and organisational need work, whether that is ensuring we have the right IT to deliver our ambitions for education and research or the effectiveness of our governance and decision-making. We also need to consider the financial challenges that will follow from frozen student fees, the potential reduction of funding resulting from recommendations of the post-18 review and the possibility of additional pension costs – all in the light of rising student and government expectations about demonstrating value for money.
Such challenges are severe but also surmountable, and I return to the vision I set out in my inaugural lecture: deepening our partnerships; refreshing our approach to global and civic engagement; innovating for the disruption opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; and most importantly, cultivating the talent of our people and our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. All this of course must be supported by financial resilience that allows us to plan, prioritise and invest.
The work has already started to make this vision a reality, and together we will build on this with additional momentum in the coming academic year:
- reforming our ways of working, governance, decision-making, and how we plan for future success through a covenant to restore trust across the University.
- enhancing our digital capabilities and our IT infrastructure to better support research and teaching, as well as continuing urgently to address the issues we face with the delivery of Project Transform.
- refreshing our strategy for global engagement, with a series of projects to ensure that our international campuses continue to thrive.
- rethinking our approach to civic engagement, working with Nottingham Trent and other universities, as well as the city and county councils, MPs and city residents to move our civic mission forward.
- improving the support our students receive during their first few months; reviewing our disability support arrangements; and investigating the issue of sexual misconduct on- and off-campus to ensure we provide the safest possible environment.
- cultivating the talent of our people through a new approach to PDPR; improving ways to reward and support staff; and an intensive focus on equality and diversity driven by the appointment of a new PVC for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
It will take time of course for all of these individual initiatives to bed down and for the whole to appear more than the sum of its parts. However, perhaps the biggest piece of work for next year is a wholesale rethink of our University strategy. Global Strategy 2020 is nearing the end of its life, and I would like to work with the entire University community and Council to take a fresh look at our aspirations for the coming decade and how we should set our strategic priorities.
However, that is for the new academic year. As to the conclusion of this first year as Vice-Chancellor, I must thank all of you for the warmth of your welcome, the intensity of your support, and the success of your work – which has been a pleasure and a privilege to experience. It is very good to be at Nottingham.
Professor Shearer West
26 June 2018