Welcome to the new academic year

VC blog - 041

Welcome back to the new academic year. I hope that everyone was able to take some time off over the summer with an opportunity to rest and relax with family and friends.  It is wonderful to see our campuses bustling with the return of our students, full of the optimism that a new academic year brings to our University community.

The wider world certainly has not stood still during the last few weeks, with the death of Queen Elizabeth II the latest shock to the equilibrium of our country.  We now have a new King, but we also have a new Prime Minister and new Secretaries of State in government departments, including those with which we work most closely - the Department for Education, BEIS and the Department of Health and Social Care. 

The ‘fiscal event’ of last Friday is re-drawing the economic landscape of the UK, and we do not yet know what implications this will have for education, R&D funding, or our association with Horizon Europe. During August, we also saw the launch of a new Devolution Deal for the East Midlands, which includes the prospect of additional funding in the region as well as a new elected Mayor by May 2024.  Locally, we welcome Anthony May as the new Chief Executive of Nottingham University Hospitals Trust and the opportunity to build closer collaboration with our partners in the NHS.

Nothing stands still, and we must continue to adapt to changing circumstances. However, the continuity of the start of our academic year and welcoming more than 12,000 new students to our University this week is something to celebrate. I would like to thank all colleagues across the University and Students’ Union for their hard work in welcoming students to their accommodation, study programmes and campus life in Nottingham over the coming weeks.

The year ahead

This year, we aim to progress fundamental developments and improvements in our research, educational offering and in the student experience at the University. We will act on the framework, agreed by our Council, for improving our performance and our culture as an institution, where we know that we are not performing as well as we would like in some of the indicators that underly our position in global rankings - and are determined to improve in those areas that are most meaningful for our staff and students. I also recognise that our NSS results are not consistently strong across the University, and we will be learning from those programmes that have high levels of satisfaction and will support colleagues where we recognise the need to improve. 

Building on our good REF2021 outcome, we will begin to implement the new Research Strategy, targeting investment in our strengths and understanding where we need to do more to enhance quality and impact. I am grateful to Professor Neil Crout, interim Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange, for leading on this transformational work.

Continuous improvement in the performance of Campus Solutions remains high on my priority list, and we will be progressing a new student living strategy in partnership with the City Council and Nottingham Trent University. We will also continue to develop our plans for Castle Meadow Campus, to provide a new home for NUBS and a base for our civic engagement, including Digital Nottingham, working with our industry and business partners to enhance our already considerable strengths in collaborative research, impact and innovation.

We will also reinforce our focus on people. This includes implementing our EDI priorities, notably our commitments under the Race Equality Charter; more comprehensive support and development for Heads of School; and continuing our programme to improve staff workspaces in our older buildings by upgrading mechanical and electrical services and progressing roof and window replacements.

Support in the cost-of-living crisis

However, we continue to operate within a challenging economic and political environment.  The cost-of-living crisis will be the dominant feature of politics, government and national life this year.  It will have an impact on all of our staff and students. While the cap on energy bills announced in the ‘fiscal event’ last week is welcome, this will not mitigate the genuine challenges that members of our community will be facing. 

The University is developing a package of support for students to help ease concerns and will announce full details early in the new term. This is likely to include: increasing the amount of and access to hardship funds; targeted support to help students access sport, societies and the additional costs of student life; more self-catering facilities and budget food options on campus; and providing warm spaces for study and entertainment across the winter evenings. Working closely with the Students’ Union we will, I know, be doing everything we can to support our students most affected by rising prices and energy costs.

For our staff, we have prioritised those at  Levels 1, 2 and 3, for whom we are implementing a three-year pay offer of 7.6% in year 1 and a 3-year total of 16.5% that exceeds any other offer available in the higher education sector. This is in addition to a number of reforms that will also see these staff receive increased annual leave, pension benefits and enhanced pay rates for bank holiday and closure days.

We have already raised the standard maximum pay spine for staff at Levels 4, 5 and 6 to help support staff who are experiencing significant cost-of-living pressures in the current economic climate. The measure will provide a 3% uplift for all colleagues who are currently on the standard maximum points of these pay scales when it is implemented in August 2022 – in addition to the 3% national pay rise from UCEA.

Improved pay and conditions is just one of a number of commitments in our agreement with our UCU Branch, and we will continue to honour and progress these this year, including rolling out the Graduate Teaching Assistant Model, so that all faculties have adopted the model in full by the end of the academic year; and working constructively and collaboratively to eliminate gender, race and disability pay gaps, in particular to accelerate work to deliver a reduction to the race pay gap by 2024.

Political turbulence remains the order of the day, and we must continue to be nimble in the face of the ever-changing policy landscape. The new Prime Minister and her Cabinet are facing a massive in-tray, but so far, there has been little attention to education, skills or R&D. 

During this academic year, higher education will be facing a final decision (positive we hope) about association to Horizon Europe, a new Higher Education Act, with the question of what a Lifelong Loan Entitlement might be, and the implementation of the anticipated Freedom of Speech Act. Current challenges in the energy sector will tempt government to focus on short-term fossil fuel solutions, but we must continue to highlight the excellent work our own researchers have done on net zero and potential new sources of energy.

Amidst all of this turmoil, I know we can all draw strength from our community and University Strategy in these challenging times, living our values and supporting each other as we focus on what it is important to us – our students’ education and campus experience, our commitment to research that changes lives for the better, and our civic role in enhancing the social and economic fabric of our city.  

I am looking forward to our first full year of teaching, research, activities and events on campus since the start of the pandemic and I hope that all colleagues will continue to spend increasing amounts of their time here. The University is on a long-term path towards agile working and this year I would like us all to shape our thinking on how and where we work, alongside new support for IT and connectivity, to delivering the best possible research, teaching and support for students.

May I wish every colleague at the University a happy, productive and enjoyable start to our 2022/23 academic year.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Shearer West signature

Professor Shearer West

27 September 2022

University of Nottingham

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Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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