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View from the VC

Today (Tuesday 7 April 2020), the Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell updated all staff, in his regular View from the VC email, on some important developments the University is making.  You can read the full View from the VC below.

As we head into the Easter long weekend, I am conscious that I would normally be sharing a more restful message with you. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 situation, this does not feel quite right.
 
I also want to apologise for such a lengthy message but I would encourage you to read to the end as this contains some important developments. 
 
I have been mulling over the events of the last few weeks, in particular the concerns that many staff have raised about their own or their colleagues’ employment situation. I know that this is causing a great deal of anxiety for some people.
 
From the first day that I started at the University in September 2016, I committed to being transparent and sharing the hard decisions with you, and to do so as soon as possible. Never has this been more important.
 
Last week I wrote to you about the University’s new financial guidelines, and to apologise for the language that we used. Although the document was intended for senior budget holders only, we needed it to be much clearer about what we meant given that some of these guidelines are about staffing and had wider ramifications. It’s for this reason that we have taken the decision to publish the revised guidelines for budget holders in full today.
 
Since the original document was drawn up, we’ve had useful discussions with the campus trade unions, Heads of School and Directors of Professional Services, as well as other colleagues. These conversations have enabled us to clarify or further define our approach, although we have not been able to agree everything that the unions have asked for.
 
These measures, while undoubtedly difficult, reflect an underlying reality: to ensure that we are extremely cautious in spending money, so that we can secure our financial sustainability for the benefit of current and future staff and students.   
 
In saying this, it is important that everyone has the latest information on our financial situation if we are to work together on this.
 
The University really is under increased financial pressure – the impact of Covid-19 is compounding an already challenging student recruitment environment. Although the University is currently in a sound financial position, we need to take immediate action in order to prevent greater damage to our finances, working environment, community and stability. 
 
During the last year the University undertook a comprehensive review to identify ways in which we could make savings in order to invest in our research infrastructure, the student experience, our estate and our IT systems.

Now, however, the Covid-19 pandemic is costing the University millions of pounds. We waived accommodation fees due for students who have left their rooms for the rest of this academic year and we are anticipating the need to withdraw the last remaining summer school session not already cancelled. We are also incurring additional costs to help students on our Study Abroad programme to return to the UK and to make urgent further unplanned investments in IT to power our online teaching and learning and assessment capabilities. All of these things were the right things to do, but collectively they will cost nearly £10 million. Although, as I have said, we are currently in a sound financial position, losses of this magnitude are truly significant.

As for next year, we simply cannot tell at the moment what will happen.  Many of you would have seen coverage in the national media (such as the BBC or The Times), as well as our own sector press (Wonkhe or Times Higher Education), about the very real financial problems that many universities are now facing. Some of this is because we can no longer expect international students to come to the UK in the numbers that they once did. For a university like Sussex, which has built on internationalism, a large drop in students would not only diminish the diversity and vibrancy on campus, it could lead to a significant reduction in our income. 

There may be other pressures too and we do not know whether and how the government will support universities. At this stage, putting specific numbers on the strain on our income would be speculation.  

Coming back to the measures in the financial guidelines, I hope you can understand we are seeking to conserve cash where we can. Like everyone, I hope that these are temporary, and if things turn out better than expected, we will relax them. For now, though, we cannot carry on as if next year will be a return to normality.  Universities are not alone in facing challenges and every university that I am aware of is taking a similar – though not identical – approach.

As part of our on-going dialogue with our campus trade unions we continue to ensure there is a shared understanding of the institution’s financial situation and future direction.

We have started exploratory discussions with the trade unions on a Voluntary Severance scheme. I know that some may find this worrying, but a well-designed scheme can be mutually beneficial, allowing changes to be made by staff voluntary means. I recognise that by sharing this development, it will lead to many more questions and we will share details as soon as we can.
 
This is an exceptionally difficult time for everyone. None of us welcomes this but I am confident that the decisions we are taking now will allow the University to emerge in a strong position from this unprecedented crisis.

I will continue to keep you updated on all important decisions. Thank you for your continued commitment.

Best wishes

Adam Tickell
Vice-Chancellor

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By: Harvey Atkinson
Last updated: Wednesday, 8 April 2020

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