In a number of respects, this term has ended as it started: nationally, we saw seismic changes on the political stage and the looming shadow of Brexit; locally, we experienced problems with our IT systems and unhappiness within parts of our University, reflected in industrial action. I am sorry that this has been a difficult term for many of our staff and students, and I hope we can work together to prevent such a nadir in the future.
We have also published our new University Strategy which articulates the vision, values and goals that are shared across our global community and includes a commitment to join the city of Nottingham in its ambition to become carbon-neutral by 2028. The Strategy was the result of an extensive consultation with staff and students on all our campuses, and it therefore provides an ambitious and positive direction of travel in what are undoubtedly testing times.
The General Election
As we end the term, political uncertainty has been replaced, dramatically, by certainty. Whether or not individuals advocate or abjure the path before us, the Conservative Party - with a significant Parliamentary majority - is in a strong position to take forward its agenda.
For universities, a Conservative government offers a potential boost to research funding as it aims to reach a target of 2.4% of GDP invested in research and development and the mooted ‘DARPA-style’ agency for ‘high risk, high reward’ research, although it remains unclear how the new funds will be targeted and allocated.
A focus on ‘place’ will be essential if the government wishes to retain the support it garnered from left-behind towns in former Labour heartlands. Such a place agenda aligns with the civic principles in our new University Strategy and the ‘Universities for Nottingham’ initiative with Nottingham Trent. The Russell Group has identified a number of other areas in which the sector could work positively with the new government in its General Election statement.
However, the new government also offers the worrying prospect of returning to some of the Augar Review’s recommendations on fees and funding, unnecessary intervention on campus freedom of speech and micro-managing a range of issues about which they are ill-equipped to make judgements, such as admissions, marking practices and so-called ‘low quality’ courses.
The new political era also makes Brexit a certainty, with the introduction of a Bill as early as this week to effect the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement and leave the European Union by 31 January 2020. This of course will not ‘get Brexit done’, but starts the new government on a long and doubtless difficult journey to negotiating the country’s future relationship with Europe and the rest of the world.
Our Brexit management team continues to make contingency plans to support staff and students and minimise any potential negative impact on our teaching and research. Brexit Contacts are in place in every school and professional services area to support local planning and respond to issues that colleagues might raise. The University's EU Taskforce continues to prepare for a post-Brexit environment, developing approaches to protect student recruitment and research partnerships and ensure that the University continues to thrive.
In policy terms, we will want to see how the new government addresses the question of the UK’s future participation in Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ and how they will continue to welcome EU nationals as part of a new points-based immigration system. We will also want to see how the Prime Minister lives up to his promise to heal the many divisions in our society. For the University of Nottingham, our strong international links will become even more important as our country navigates its future global position, and the undertaking in our new Strategy to cultivate a global mindset becomes even more urgent.
I am personally concerned for all our EU staff and students, and many others in our community who will feel anxious, angry or betrayed. Our University is devoted to global education and scholarship, and we will ensure that everyone continues to be welcomed, supported and valued.
Campus Solutions & Moodle
Colleagues and students will be painfully aware of the problems with our IT systems at both the start and end of term. The impact has been severe, and staff across the University have worked tirelessly to mitigate the issues. Apologies and thanks have been extended to colleagues and students a number of times; it is worth repeating my own here.
Whether Campus Solutions or Moodle, the systems, causes and solutions to the problems were different each time, but they all point to the pressing need for fundamental reform of both our systems and how we maintain them.
The emerging IT Operating Model has been criticised, I think prematurely, for proposing a mix of in-house IT expertise alongside that of external partners. Technology and expertise in IT is moving much faster than any university, or indeed any other large organisation, can keep up with. We already work in partnership with specialist agencies in delivering services in construction, healthcare, catering, cyber-security and many others. We need to improve our IT capability and cannot do it all ourselves.
As we develop the model over the next 12 months, I have asked that in meeting our future demands for effective digital services, platforms and skills, we fully involve our staff in their design and ensure that any external partners bring an expertise that is matched by alignment to our values, culture and ways of working. We will spend the year examining the detail of what an optimal model would be, and we will be inviting schools, departments and professional services colleagues to contribute to that thinking.
Division at a national level has also been reflected within the University of Nottingham, among some 60 others, with strikes over pensions, pay and conditions. As we are in a national collective bargaining position for both pay and pensions, no single University can resolve the points under dispute. I continue to urge colleagues at UUK and UCEA, as well as UCU, to retain an open dialogue and seek a negotiated national resolution.
The second report of the Joint Expert Panel was published on Friday, proposing significant reforms to the USS pension valuation method, governance and contributions. My hope is that this offers the scheme’s Trustee, UUK and UCU improved grounds for national discussion and agreement on maintaining the scheme’s excellent benefits over the long term.
These things said, there are local actions that we are taking now, or will be taking shortly, that may address some of the grievances expressed in the industrial action. Nottingham already has one of the UK’s most detailed workload planning models, and a task group is being set up to look more closely at workload issues in the new calendar year. The University is already working in partnership with our local UCU branch to implement a new set of Principles for Working with Teaching Affiliates, designed to ensure consistency, equitable pay and fairness.
We are also engaging with UCU locally to examine negative behaviours and bullying and ensure that the expanded network of Dignity Advisors can support individual colleagues as well as cultivate a more positive working culture. To this list, I will add my desire to establish a new task group to examine and deliver further action on our gender and ethnic pay gaps, which are reducing due to proactive changes in our practices, but which would benefit from further momentum. I am also committed to work with the other unions and staff groups on related issues.
While it is only natural to look at the significant challenges we have faced this term, the University continues to be successful and well-regarded at home and overseas and has evolved a number of initiatives to build further success.
This term has seen the launch of a new approach to fostering equality diversity and inclusion, supporting our culture as a University and impact in our research, innovation and teaching. The inauguration of the Nottingham Institute for Policy & Engagement is helping to put our experts, research and thought leadership at the forefront of shaping public policy and debate, with the ultimate goal of improving public policy and having positive societal impact.
Colleagues in China have made considerable progress in their negotiations with the Ningbo Municipal Government to support our proposed China research beacons. And at home, I was delighted to be part of the stimulating What is University? symposium, organised by students from the Foundation Arts programme, and to hear inspiring stories of people who have given their time, wisdom and generosity to the University at our Supporter Reception and Volunteer Awards.
In all of the highs and lows of this term, I have continued to reflect on what makes universities so crucial: our common purpose, our desire to improve the world and our shared values. If nothing else, the General Election has further underlined the importance of treating each other with civility and indeed kindness - whether or not we agree in our ideas, perspectives or principles. These values of inclusivity and respect are expressed in our new University Strategy, and I look forward to working with you to make them a lived experience for all staff and students.
However you are choosing to spend the seasonal break, I wish you a peaceful and pleasurable time with your loved ones.
Professor Shearer West
16 December 2019