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View from the VC

Today (Friday 26 June), 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.


Dear colleague,

A mixed picture emerged this week regarding potential student numbers this autumn.

Let’s start with some news that gives us cause for cautious optimism. According to UCAS, there has been a one per cent increase in the number of UK-based students accepting a place at a UK university this year. Alongside, there has been a two per cent drop in UK students deferring their start date.

On the face of it, this is good news for universities and suggests that fears have proved misplaced that home students would stay away en masse as a result of the impacts of coronavirus.

This is not a complete surprise. After months of being cooped up with the same people, and at such a formative age, the idea of going away to university – even if the experience will be different to usual – I’m sure still has a magnetic pull for many.

The difficulty, and the reason why our optimism should be only cautious, is that the data ignores significant variation across universities. Applications to Sussex, for example, were already down before coronavirus hit, so we already faced a huge task this summer to meet our targets.

More compellingly, perhaps, is the reality that we simply do not know how many of those holding offers will actually commit to beginning their degree in the autumn. And we know the situation for international applicants is complicated.

Nationwide, acceptances from students from EU countries are down six per cent this year, continuing a trend that started in 2016, when the UK voted to leave the EU. However, as the government has now confirmed that this is the last year that EU students will have access to the same fee arrangements as UK students, it is unlikely that many of those will decide to defer their place.

More concerning is the fact that deferrals among students from outside the UK and EU have jumped by 21 per cent this year. This could of course increase, depending on confidence levels in our government and institutions come the autumn.

With still around three months to go until teaching resumes, the data tells us very little for certain, other than a stark reminder that the non-EU international market is both the most volatile and has the biggest bearing on our financial sustainability as a university. It is already clear that there is going to be some impact on our international student numbers – the big question is how much.

Nevertheless, it is welcome indeed to see that there is still a clear demand for a quality university education in the UK. The will to come is there; we just need to show students how it will work. It is now up to us to convince prospective students that we will be ready to open in the autumn and to be as clear as we can, as early as we can, about the type of experience they can expect.

There is already a huge amount of activity under way on these fronts. Professional Services teams have been working with academic colleagues on many ways to bolster our recruitment efforts, whilst working remotely. I appreciate that this can add extra burden onto an already busy workload but the results we are seeing show this is having an impact.

The undergraduate Applicant Hub is receiving good levels of engagement, a Masters Applicant Hub is being scoped, and planning for the Virtual Open Days from 28 – 30 July is going well, with over 900 registrations to date. Clearing will remain key and we continue to seek to optimise recruitment via this route through our virtual call centre.

We absolutely can’t take our foot off the pedal in this regard and, in many ways, in order to secure the number of students joining in September this year and next, we will require even more collaboration.

This level of uncertainty is a big part of the reason why it has been so important for us to act now on our finances. You will know by now that the window for applying to the voluntary severance scheme closes at 9am on Monday (29 June). If this is an opportunity you are interested in, and you haven’t yet applied, I encourage you to look at all the materials we have made available over the past few weeks. The HR team are still available today to answer any questions not covered by our FAQs.

While Covid-19 has understandably occupied minds over the past few months, developments are also taking place at a national level towards setting the USS pension scheme on a sustainable path. The financial implications for the University and for many colleagues are significant, so it is worth spending a moment on this. The USS Trustees have published initial feedback from employers, which shows broad agreement on the proposed methodology for the 2020 valuation of the scheme.

Employers will now be formally consulted and, by the next time employer and UCU representatives meet in the autumn, they will have been told by USS what the overall contribution rate will need to be. We will then have three months to jointly agree a way forward. I very much hope that those discussions take place in the spirit of constructiveness that is sorely needed to address this very complex issue.

Finally, one of the peculiarities about Sussex is that our research is much more influential than it is funded (measured by, for example, the amount of times that Sussex researchers are cited compared to our competitively won research income). But, as I’ve highlighted in my last couple of messages, the number of new awards this year looks like it will be at a record level.

Inevitably, I haven’t been systematic in noting particular grants – Heads of Schools have let me know and are now prompting others to do the same. In this context, so I’m delighted that academics in HAHP are winning awards from a diverse range of bodies including the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (Ben Burbidge), Research Councils (James Baker, Vinita Damodaran), the Leverhulme Trust (Joanna Pawlik), and the British Academy (Gideon Reuveni, David Tal).

Similarly, Sue Currell (American Studies) was awarded the British Association for American Studies (BAAS) distinguished Honorary Fellowship 2018-19 and Clive Webb (History) was awarded the Arthur Miller Institute’s 2019 award for the best essay in American Studies for his article “The Nazi Persecution of Jews and the African American Freedom Struggle”.

Best wishes

Adam Tickell

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By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Friday, 26 June 2020

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