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VC Bulletin – 5 March 2015

  • Vice-Chancellor Graham Galbraith (right) with Professor Eugene Coyle, Dean of MTC (centre) and Professor Sarim Naji Al-Zubaidy, the Vice Dean for Academic Affairs (left)

    Vice-Chancellor Professor Graham Galbraith (right) with Professor Eugene Coyle, Dean of MTC (centre) and Professor Sarim Naji Al-Zubaidy, Vice Dean for Academic Affairs MTC (left)

    The month of February has been very busy for everyone as we enter the peak of our teaching activity, engage in the collection of key data sets such as National Student Survey and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education and, of course, develop our academic and financial plans for the next academic year.

  • I began the month with a very useful discussion with the Director-General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), Professor Dominic Tweddle. This was a very good meeting and, with the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dave Russell, we explored our current range of collaborations and how we can continue to grow our relationship in the future. There are very significant changes taking place at NMRN and the challenges they are facing in relation to funding will require reorganisation and a refocusing of their activity. They very much wish to enhance our partnership working and the time will be right to consider this in greater detail once their new internal structures and responsibilities are in place.
  • This month I attended the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) annual conference, which was this year held over two days and involved an increased number of external commercial speakers. The highlight of the event was the presentation by HEFCE Chief Executive Madeleine Atkins, which, as always, was clear and interesting but also challenging.
  • The important message was the view held by all political parties that the sector has been protected from the efficiency demands and cuts that other areas of the public sector have faced. It was clear that unless as a sector we can show the direct benefits and returns to government from investing in, for example, Student Opportunity Funding (around £4.7m income to us) and Higher Education Innovation Funds (HEIF) (around £773k income to us), then they will be a target for reduction or possibly even removal. Irrespective of which political party is in power after the election, we will be facing a level of funding cut that we have not had to face for many years.
  • It was also emphasised that universities have much more work to do on widening participation (WP) with the cold spots report identifying areas of the UK where higher education participation is worryingly low. Our WP statistics do look good on the face of it, but these colds spots do include our own city and surrounding regions. We will need to consider carefully our own response.
  • Greg Clark, the Minister of State for Education, also spoke to the conference. He gave little away but did praise the sector for its achievements, while at the same time indicating quite clearly that we need to be more innovative in our teaching, both in flexibility and modes of delivery. He did give a clear message around the funding of excellent research wherever it is found, which was very welcome, but how this will translate to funding is another matter. He has of course initiated a review of the Research Councils with talk of them being merged into one. He considered that a review of their operations was overdue and he wanted assurance that cross-disciplinary and thematic research was being properly considered and funded, which is interesting for us. He did not consider a rise with inflation of the £9,000 maximum student fee a possibility. This is a significant challenge for the sector, as costs for us continue to rise and it makes the diversification of our income an urgent consideration.
  • It is likely that our funding announced in the March grant letter for the next academic year will not involve any surprises, but as our academic year spans two financial years, we have been warned to be prudent as adjustments may be made when a new government is in place.
  • I was fascinated by a presentation from the innovation charity, NESTA, about innovation and the fact that research and development innovation was only a very small part of this landscape. It did seem to me that the idea that practice-driven rather than theory-driven innovation may well be where we need to engage as a sector. It is the case that universities often operate based on conventional wisdom and we don’t challenge ourselves enough through a proper evidence base. We talk much about innovation, but are we, as an organisation, innovative in our operations?
  • I also attended a regional roundtable event on the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) review currently being undertaken by HEFCE. It was an interesting afternoon with many questions raised, from the effectiveness of the external examiner system, whether we need a QAA equivalent at all, to what any future QA system should aim to achieve. An interesting and heated debate on the equivalence of honours grades between institutions and, for that matter, between different subjects in the same institution created much debate! This relates to real questions that the government are asking of the sector.
  • As we face our QAA review we have the tendency to complain about this five-year event and the amount of work involved in maintaining our QA processes and records. Yet when faced with the prospect of an OFSTED-type assessment body for universities, I think we should feel that there are many advantages with the current system.
  • On the same day, I rushed to a private VC dinner in London hosted by our external auditors Deloitte. The theme was the sustainability of the sector and Ian Diamond, who is currently reporting to government on efficiency within our sector, made a brave attempt at defending our record and the quality of what we do. However, the Chair of the Science Select Committee, Andrew Miller, while praising what we do and have achieved, emphasised the view within all political parties that the sector will need to consider, under the current challenging fiscal times, how to deliver more for less. A consistent message if nothing else!
  • The next day, on the 11 February, we had our visit from HEFCE to carry out an Assurance Review. This takes place every five years and is intended to probe the overall governance of the University, but particularly financial governance, to provide HEFCE with confidence that we are using government funds appropriately and are compliant with HEFCE requirements.
  • It was a demanding day for the University staff and the Governors who had to take part in this. Whilst we do not yet have the formal outcome, they were in general satisfied with our approaches and I hope will give us a clean bill of health. We will receive the formal report and result within the next two months.
  • On 19 and 20 February I attended the Universities UK (UUK) members meeting and much of what had been said at the HEFCE meeting was repeated. There was some interesting information on quality-related funding where the formula used will be on the same basis as currently, but with the weighting of 4* to 3* activity moving from a ratio of 3 to 1 to a ratio of 4 to 1. This, combined with a fixed pot of money (flat cash) and the 4* activity having risen by 70% and 3* by 24% for the sector overall, makes it difficult to guess what this will mean for us. We will of course know when our grant letter arrives later in March. We were informed that the HEIF element of the grant will not be announced with the main grant letter, due to difficulties with data recalculation, and announcements will be made later.
  • The most impressive speech of the event was delivered by Lord Mandelson. He showed real gravitas in his presentation and, with great subtlety, suggested that Labour would be better waiting until they are in power when they will better know the true fiscal position before making promises to reduce student fees to £6,000.
  • I must say there was real concern about the UUK letter to The Times expressing opposition to this Labour idea of a fee reduction to £6,000 without clarity about where the balance of funding would come from. Many felt that such a political stand was unwise at this stage, but the reporting on the Mandelson speech did delay again any formal policy announcement by Labour on their HE funding intentions. It really is silly season as we approach May with no real clarity from any party on what their approach to HE funding will be!
  • The month became even busier when I received, with one week’s notice, an invitation to the official opening of the Military Training College (MTC) in Oman where our School of Engineering is the academic contractor. This was a very important event with key government ministers present and I felt that I had to attend to represent the University. The fact that I had yet to visit the College was also something I did need to address in any case. Thanks to some amazing reorganisation of diaries by Shani at short notice, and the help of my executive team in fielding meetings for me, I managed to clear my diary to attend.
  • I did manage, on Friday 20 February, before flying out to Oman, to get to the Kings Theatre with my wife to hear our Drama and Musical Society perform Allegro, accompanied by our University orchestra. It was a real pleasure to hear from Bert Fink, the Senior Vice-President of Rodgers & Hammerstein (Europe), about the background to this little known musical, but even more amazing to enjoy the incredible talent of our students and staff which brought the show to life. It was a really enjoyable night and a proud moment for the University.
  • When I eventually arrived in Oman, I was incredibly impressed with the MTC, which has resources and equipment for students that we could only dream of. I was looked after in a very gracious manner and left with a strong feeling that this partnership has immense potential. I also felt that to make it work we probably need to engage more actively as a proactive partner and take more of a responsibility in making sure that this very ambitious venture succeeds.
  • I was pleased to hear that the recent validation event was successful and, while there were some concerning moments when it emerged that our degrees were not recognised in Oman, I am pleased that these initial issues are now resolved.
  • I am impressed with the fact that our School of Engineering not only had the foresight to bid for this contract, but also, against stiff opposition, was chosen to partner in what is one of the biggest and highest profile training and Higher Education developments in Oman. Well done to all involved and while I am sure we will face many challenges in the future. I think success in this will be a powerful demonstration of our strength in engineering education.
  • When I returned from Oman I was so pleased to be able to lead our farewells to Sally Hartley who retired from the University at the end of February after 26 years of loyal service. I cannot overstate the contribution that Sally has made to the success of the University and I am personally very grateful for her vital support and guidance as I settled in to the role of Vice-Chancellor. Her wise words of counsel and advice will always be remembered by me, but most of all we will all miss her sense of humour and ability to turn a difficult situation into a humorous theatrical pantomime. I am sure we all want to wish Sally a very long, happy and healthy retirement.
  • And finally, I wanted to refer to the great publicity the University has received this month. The publicity for Allegro, Asa Barber in our School of Engineering reaching an audience of billions with his work on the strength of limpet teeth, the Times Higher Education (THE) reporting our new Forensic Innovation Centre in partnership with Hampshire Constabulary, and the University website rated by THE 27th out of 339 sites reviewed, to name but a few – all great news stories which demonstrate the quality of what we do.
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  1. The month became even busier when I received, with one week’s notice, an invitation to the official opening of the Military Training College (MTC) in Oman where our School of Engineering is the academic contractor. This was a very important event with key government ministers present and I felt that I had to attend to represent the University…I also felt that to make it work we probably need to engage more actively as a proactive partner and take more of a responsibility in making sure that this very ambitious venture succeeds.

    I hope you were able to proactively raise some of these issues when you met the government ministers:

    John Williams, SLAS

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