Looking forward to the Spring term

Trent surrounded by trees

Happy new year to everyone! I hope you all had a good break and return recharged and looking forward to the new term. I also would like to thank those staff who worked during the Christmas period to support our students and keep our campus safe.  

I think most will agree that 2021 was a very trying year, largely due to the ever-changing pressures caused by the pandemic. I would like to pay tribute to the tremendous job our staff have done to maintain our education and research missions, and to our students for adjusting to the enormous disruption to their lives. While we of course are not through the pandemic yet, a number of scientists are predicting that it is entering an ‘endemic’ stage which will enable the world to adjust gradually to living with this virus as with many other diseases. I would therefore like to look forward positively to 2022 and consider some of the future-focused work we are doing within the university.

There are enormous opportunities we can look forward to in the coming months, and I would like to encourage as many people as possible to engage with those consultations and discussions that relate to areas you care about. We are beginning, for example, a significant university-wide conversation about our ambitions for Castle Meadow Campus, and we genuinely want to hear your thoughts about how we can realise a vision of a campus that enables fruitful collaboration with local partners as well as providing significant additional benefits for our students and staff. I also appreciate the enormous and thoughtful input that the university community has offered in respect to our new Research Strategy, and we will elicit more feedback as we develop the implementation plan for that strategy over the coming months. Other significant projects include finalising arrangements with the Malaysian government to take full ownership of University of Nottingham Malaysia by becoming the sole shareholder, and improving our IT systems through work to replace Finance, HR and student recruitment systems—all projects that are long overdue.

However - and as discussed with colleagues in my Town Hall events last term - our efforts and investment are not solely focused on these big developments. These projects understandably gain much attention, but we are also determined to improve the working conditions for our staff and students. Although perhaps we do not emphasise it enough, in addition to investment in infrastructure, we have increased our investment in staff over the last few years and will continue to do so. Staff pay represents more than 56% of our cost base - consistently higher than the Russell Group average - and since 2010 overall investment in staff has grown from £273 million to £402 million, and is forecast to reach £524 million over the next four years.

I recognise that staff workload is a real concern and that the sense of unsustainable workload has been exacerbated by the pandemic. We began a review of workload issues under Professor Sarah Sharples prior to the pandemic, and Dr. Nalayini Thambar has now taken on the project to consider how we reduce workloads and support staff wellbeing. In addition to this, we are continuing to pilot a Graduate Teaching Assistants scheme to end the use of casual contracts, and we are intending to extend this scheme (with the lessons learned from the pilots) to many more Schools in the coming months.

I appreciate that one of the biggest pain points for staff and students in the university relates to the functionality of Campus Solutions. We are maintaining focus on continuous improvement of that system, prioritising some of the most complex periods and events such as examinations and confirmation and clearing. While there is still a significant amount of work to do, there have been improvements, and our data shows that, for example, enrolment problems were reduced from several thousand in 2020 to several hundred this year. That is of course still not good enough, but it is an indicator that we are at least moving in the right direction.

We are also accelerating our programme of maintenance to our existing estate, with a particular focus on health and safety, to bring all our campuses up to a standard that will provide better working spaces for staff and learning spaces for students. The purchase of Castle Meadow Campus will enable us to bring many of these plans to fruition more quickly and at a lower overall cost than we originally envisaged.

In a university, money is a means to an end not an end in itself; every penny of surplus is invested back into the core business. Careful budgeting enables us to make investments of this kind that are designed to improve the experience of staff and students. I am therefore pleased to note that prudent financial management and confirmation of our student recruitment numbers this year has delivered an additional c £6 million surplus to reinvest. I have asked Executive budget holders across faculty and professional service areas to generate ideas to use this funding specifically to alleviate workload pressures, improve performance and address the maintenance backlog in the interests of all colleagues.

I always enjoy speaking to colleagues and look forward to further conversations with staff this term, with another series of faculty and professional services VC town halls in February and through my VC surgeries, the next of which is on 18 January. You can book an appointment here

Finally, I would like to note some changes to UEB this term and offer some congratulations. I am pleased to welcome our new PVC of EDI & People, Professor Katherine Linehan, and we will bid a fond farewell to our FPVC of Medicine and Health Sciences, Professor John Atherton, in April. We will announce his successor later this term. In closing, I offer warm congratulations for the national honours secured by Professor Robert Mokaya OBE, Professor Tony Avery OBE and Professor Sir Jonathan Van Tam.  

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