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View from the VC

Today (Friday 3 July), the Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell updated all staff, in his regular View from the VC email. You can read the full View from the VC below.

Last week, you could have been forgiven for thinking the COVID-19 pandemic was over as the heatwave saw crowds on the beaches.  And although the lockdown is easing by degrees in England, the impact of the pandemic on all sectors within the UK has not – and this is especially the case for Universities.

The Government’s first support package allowed, amongst other things, universities to access emergency loan facilities if they needed them to continue to pay staff and contractors.  Despite having to spend around £13 million this year on our pandemic response, we remain financially sound this year and have no need of such support.  Yet like almost every other Higher Education institution, we have had to take some financial measures such as the Voluntary Severance Scheme as we make changes to ensure our long-term sustainability.  We have also been clear that healthy recruitment of both home and international students in the autumn is essential.

This week, the Government made two, very positive, further announcements. 

First, there will be a comprehensive support package for research.  This will involve access to costed extensions to UKRI funded research projects and recognition that many universities – including Sussex – fund research by taking in overseas students.  The details are still being worked out in Whitehall but the largest element will be low-interest, long-term repayable loans. In the circumstances the country faces, the headline package is as good as we could reasonably have expected, even though it will fall significantly short of replacing all our lost income. 

Second, there will be an extension of the post-study work visa regime for PhD students and access to visas to work in, and study at, universities will be made easier.  This has been a major request of the sector, led by UUK International, and should demonstrate that the UK recognises the contribution that international students make not just to university finances but also to the life of the UK.

Students of course require more detail about the new academic year, and so I am pleased, that thanks to the hard work of many colleagues, we are providing greater clarity to future and current students on what next term’s academic experience will be like.  

We expect students to be either living on campus or in the city at the start of the academic year, and the signs are that most are planning for this already and there is plenty of housing available for rent in the city.  We do know that some students, particularly those travelling from overseas, may be delayed in getting to us for the start of term and possibly as late as January for a smaller number, so we will be letting them know we will support them to study remotely in these circumstances, while they make arrangements to get here as soon as they can.

We’re also putting in a lot of planning around the specifics of the blended learning approach and some minimum guarantees and expectations students can have.  This is important as we move into a complex year for everyone.  I know that PVC Kelly Coate has been incredibly grateful for the contribution of academic and professional services colleagues, and student representatives, as we navigate through what is possible.  I don’t doubt for one moment this is easy.

We need to share our commitments upfront with students as part of our Office for Students obligations – so there are clear understandings between both students and their chosen institution.  This is the right thing to do.  So, we will shortly let students know they can expect a minimum of 11 hours of live interactive learning, either in the classroom or online, per module, across the semester.  This approach will enable students to engage with their tutors and fellow students, alongside a range of other types of online learning plus some classroom (campus) based teaching.

At a Senate Briefing session this week I was asked whether our emphasis on ensuring that students have a high quality teaching experience in the autumn signalled a broader change in our mission as a research intensive university.  There is no such intent.  Sussex has a proud history, outstanding present and bright future as a research university.  This year, we are on course to produce our highest ever value of research awards, our preparations for the REF have given us confidence that we have a strong submission, and we have some of the most highly respected academics and scholars in the world.  It is, of course, intrinsically important that we teach our students to the highest possible standards but, equally, we know that we support our research disproportionately through tuition fee income: improving our NSS scores and other measures will actively help us to maintain our research prowess.

It is in this context that I’d like to highlight the COVID -19 Research Network which aims to generate high quality research and collaborations that will explore the effect COVID -19 is having on our health, society and economy.  Just a few months on from its launch, the COVID -19 Research Network now has 260 members from across a range of Schools and disciplines, and is overseen by a smaller co-ordinating group, made up of researchers and professional services staff, chaired by Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, Seb Oliver.

Members of the COVID -19 Research Network have already secured five COVID -19-related research bids worth £433,000, working closely with colleagues in the Research and Enterprise Division.  A further 51 bids have already been submitted, and there are many more being prepared.

Developing a new COVID ‘dashboard’ for the NHS and working with partner pharmaceutical companies to test the effectiveness of existing drugs that might help treat COVID -19 symptoms, are two examples of projects that have been funded.  You can read about all of the agreed projects here. I would like to thank both the researchers and the professional services colleagues for all their hard work which will, no doubt, have a positive impact on our society and the lives of people affected by COVID -19 in the long term.

One of the first examples of the practical support Sussex provided was in the early stages of the pandemic when the University and Brighton and Sussex Medical School agreed to the request of the local authority to house a temporary storage facility for the deceased on campus.  Although this facility has not been used, we have agreed with the local authority’s recent request to maintain this facility until the end of the year, in case there is a second peak.  Again this is a precautionary measure, and it’s highly likely it won’t be used. 

Finally, while we can be cynical about rankings exercise, it was lovely to see the University ranked as the 15th best ‘Golden Age’ university in the world and separately that six of our academic subjects rise in the Shanghai rankings, otherwise known as the Academic Ranking of World Universities, which assessed more than 4,000 universities.  Geography has risen into the top 75 globally and Psychology has moved into the top 100.  Our rankings have also improved in Ecology, Environmental Science and Engineering, Business Administration and Public Administration.

For those of you who made it to the end, apologies for a longer than usual message!

With best wishes

Adam Tickell

Vice-Chancellor

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By: Harvey Atkinson
Last updated: Friday, 3 July 2020

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