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View from the VC

The coronavirus crisis is first and foremost a public-health emergency and it is right that the absolute priority is the preservation of life and minimising suffering.
 
Those of us not directly involved in this healthcare response have a responsibility to prepare for how we can help society emerge intact, once the immediate threat has subsided.
 
At Sussex, we are organising ourselves to maximise our contribution to the national effort. I outlined some of our initial measures a few weeks ago but it was clear very quickly that we had untapped expertise, equipment and facilities that could help in a more co-ordinated way. We have submitted a number of ideas to the government directly and have established a task force to consider ideas and requests and to set the wheels in motion. At the moment, there are three main strands of work: developing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the NHS; supporting Covid-19 testing; and Covid-19-related research. I’m incredibly proud of everyone involved – thank you.
 
Alongside this, many academic colleagues continue to contribute to the public discourse around Covid-19, which is an important public service in its own right in this era of misinformation. You can get a flavour of how Sussex experts are informing the media, in this feature.
 
Last week, we also shared the news with you that we have agreed that a small area at the edge of our campus can, should it be needed, be used as a temporary storage facility for the deceased. This is a contingency measure that is being replicated up and down the country, including at other universities. Everyone hopes that it will not be needed but we feel strongly that it is our duty to help ensure that people’s loved ones are treated with dignity and respect in death. The team in the medical school working on this, alongside government staff, are very experienced in caring for the deceased and operating to the highest standards of protocol. An extremely rigorous risk assessment has been carried out and there is no risk whatsoever of increased virus transmission as a result of this development. I know that our assistance is very much appreciated by the authorities.
 
Few people and sectors have escaped the disruption that has rapidly descended in the past few weeks but the education of our young people is one area that has come into particular focus.
 
At Sussex, in the areas for which we have autonomy, we have been working through these at pace, prioritising the most urgent. Following our decision to move all teaching online, we have been in frequent communication with our students to keep them abreast of our growing portfolio of policy responses to the crisis. 
 
We have been able to share detail on how students would be assessed under these conditions, introducing a ‘no detriment’ position, meaning that students’ overall grades cannot fall below their average for the first semester, provided they gain at least a pass. We were pleased to be able to provide this reassurance, which is in recognition of the many, variable challenges they have faced and are still facing at this time. We have also quickly moved to cancel student rents where students have left their University residences and we have put in place round-the-clock support for those who remain.
 
I’m really grateful to all our staff who continue to work so hard to improve the lives of our students still on campus. We’re now offering a daily hot breakfast and hot meal service to students that they can order in advance. It’s not easy to deliver services such as this at a time of lockdown but it’s proof of the care that staff have for the students that it was pursued so fervently and now is in operation. I also loved this video from our Campus and Residential support team and our amazing team of residential advisors and student connectors. Thank you for all that you are doing.
 
I’ve been really pleased to see the levels of engagement on Canvas and Panopto since moving online. It’s obvious that colleagues have put in a huge amount of work to deliver teaching that is supporting the learning outcomes of all students, who have varying technology and space challenges. 
 
I am very grateful for your assistance in developing new ways in which to present the University to applicants now that visiting an open day on campus is not possible. I am delighted with the progress that has been made in just a few weeks and we now have a bespoke Applicant Hub on our website, underpinned by the many technologies we now have in place.
 
Of course, a big part of University life is everything that comes around the learning and this is what many students are missing the most. Actually, lots of activities are continuing, albeit in virtual form, and we have brought all of these things together in one place on the Student Hub, on a new page called Things you can do. It’s fantastic to see colleagues from across the professional services and the Students’ Union come together to create this new destination for students. We know that students want routine in their lives at this time and this kind of daily activity guide can really help with both their mental health and staying connected to our community and Sussex.
 
I am very aware that all of this fantastic work is happening against a backdrop of huge disruption. Some of the challenges are shared but some of them will be unique to you – and I fully acknowledge that for some these will be very difficult indeed. You may be caring for children or other family members, be worried about your own health or wellbeing, or have significant logistical challenges. I am clear that we cannot expect people, especially those in difficult situations, to be working in the same way as before. We have asked all line managers to keep in contact with their teams and make individual arrangements and I thank you all for your flexibility. I hope you feel you are receiving the support that you need.
 
Many of you have asked about whether we could use the government’s furlough scheme in certain situations – we are actively working on this and will be sharing more information soon.
 
Of course, some of the biggest questions, such as the disproportionately large impacts – financial and otherwise – on the UK’s universities, will require a national response.
 
I am working really closely both with Universities UK and with the other universities across the south-east region to ensure that the outcomes are the very best possible for all involved. While of course universities are concerned about their own affairs, I have been really taken by how willing my peers have been to set aside competition for the common good.
 
Overwhelmingly, universities are working incredibly hard to provide the best solutions for their students, current and future, and their staff. We are sharing ideas and strategies for helping students and supporting each other as and when issues arise. Importantly, we are largely speaking with one voice in our conversations with government – which is where the most impactful decisions will be taken.
 
I have started talking with our region’s MPs as we continue to make the case to the government of the importance of the UK’s universities, both to the national effort against coronavirus but also for the recovery that will need to happen when the dust settles.
 
Universities at their best are a coming together of minds and mindsets and, although physically dispersed, I believe the last few weeks has exemplified this more than ever.

Best wishes

Adam Tickell
Vice-Chancellor

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By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Thursday, 23 April 2020

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