Vice Chancellor's Office

VC's open staff forum: 14 June 2017

Presentation slides

VC's presentation 14 June 2017 [PDF 1.14MB]

Presentation video

Questions received online and via text message

University reputation and rankings

How can the University increase its profile further among prospective national students? Speaking to senior alumni at a variety of networking events recently, this has been a recurring topic of conversation: that we are a top choice internationally, but less so with national students. What do you think the reasons are for this? Is it a marketing issue or something else, or a combination of factors?

We’re actually performing well with recruitment in the UK – applications rose by a third last year and have grown significantly again this year. Our competitor universities are changing. However, in order to consistently be a top choice for students in the UK, we need to do a lot more to clarify our uniqueness. Defining and delivering on that uniqueness will be our strongest asset as we move through these changing times – and is central to the development of our new strategy.

Strategy

Previous strategy documents suffered from lack of detail on implementation and lack of clarity on how targets were to be achieved. You have mentioned that the upcoming new strategy will intentionally lack such details and will instead be a vision statement. Why not call it then a vision instead a strategy and develop a separate strategy document which embeds an implementation plan? Or how else are you going to ensure that the University is able to achieve the new targets and people know their role in the delivery?

The process this year has been to develop a strategic framework which will help to guide the University over the next decade.  This will be complemented by detailed strategies for Research, Education, Engagement and Sustainability and each School and Professional Service will need to ensure that their strategies interdigitate with these. 

The next few years will probably be amongst the most challenging that universities have faced for decades and the key thing that the strategic framework will do is to ensure that we have a shared vision for getting through these complex times.  

We will also agree a small set of key indicators with Council that will allow us to understand how well we are doing against our vision.

The University has decided to seek accreditations - EQUIS and AACSB; to what extent was the decision to pursue either of these preceded (as it should have been done) with a strategic needs discussion?

EQUIS and AACSB are the internationally accepted accreditations for leading business schools and they provide prospective students with an additional guarantee of reliable standards in teaching, research and other activities. BMEc has made great strides since its establishment just a few years ago, and EQUIS and AACSB accreditation would reinforce the School’s position as a market leader globally in business education.  I appreciate the huge amount of hard work that goes into making these submissions and I’m very happy to talk more with the teams involved.  

IT

What is the Business Continuity Plan around the communications to students from IT when their systems fail?

Why don't IT have a contingency plan for when electronic submission fails? Or do they, and what is it?

The recent IT collapse led to marking times being drastically reduced. This has a detrimental impact on a host of things. What guarantees can you give that this fiasco will not be repeated again?

The University has over a number of years under-invested in our IT infrastructure and many of our systems do not compare well with those in other universities.    

We are already making changes that will make things easier – and in three or four years’ time all of our students will be cloud-based, rather than locally managed. We know that improving our technology is absolutely critical to running the University today and in the future.

Infrastructure improvement will form a key part of our new strategy. It will become a lot clearer in the coming months what we need to do, to deliver our plans. An improved – and more likely ‘transformed’ - technology provision will very likely form part of that.

Please can you make our search engine work?

We know it needs work.  However did you know you can also search it using Google. In the Google search box, you just have to enter +site:sussex.ac.uk before your search terms. You can also limit your search to particular parts of the Sussex site in the same way. For example, to search ITS only, you would type +site:sussex.ac.uk/its before your search terms.

Sustainability

The VC recommended that we turn off / shut down computers completely in order to save energy. ITS doesn't seem to agree: it would be good to clarify.

Can SEF and ITS provide straightforward advice about turning off PCs overnight? We've had conflicting guidance from each.

As a result of the increasingly successful spate of cyber-attacks, ITS have changed the time at which security updates to software are implemented to the night time.  Consequently, ITS advice is not to turn off your staff PC; you should simply log out. Staff Windows computers automatically go into a low-powered sleep state after 10 minutes if there is no user logged in. The energy consumption is not much higher than if the computer is turned off completely and this enables it to wake up automatically at around 5am to check for updates. It will then install any patches or software updates while networks are quiet, restarting if it needs to.

It is essential that you log-off because downloaded updates are not installed unless you do and the risks both to your data and the University network are significant and growing if staff engage in poor practices.

We absolutely MUST be sure that we are being as economical as possible with our energy consumption.  A couple of years ago, Npower estimated that the collective impact of unplugging phone chargers in the UK would provide all the power that Canterbury uses. 

I assume that we’ll be having an internal communications campaign to raise ‘green’ awareness and get behaviour changes over time.

What we want to do is have a proper campaign, both internally and externally, when the students return. We’ll be doing things that are proven to make a difference, like having competitions between buildings.

Campus development and maintenance

What reassurance can you give that the significant campus development will not have a detrimental effect on the student experience for those students starting Sussex this autumn?

We are working closely with our partners on this project, Balfour Beatty, to ensure that we minimise any on-site disruption to our University community during the phased construction process. We are providing updates as the development progresses and involving our students and staff at all stages of the build. This is an exciting development for the University as we look to continuously improve our buildings and facilities on campus.

Are you planning to build a new building for the business and management school? The space is very limited.

I completely appreciate the issues around space. When Simon Neale, the new Director of Estates and FM, joins us in July, he will advise me on how we can optimise our use of our existing infrastructure. I’ve committed to keep student numbers at their current levels as opposed to increasing them anymore, as I do understand the current situation.

 Are there any plans to refurbish windows anywhere?

We have increased the University maintenance budget to about £7 million a year. I absolutely agree that we need to smarten up existing parts of the campus – alongside our campus development programme.  We’ll come back everyone with the specifics during the year.

Space planning

Will the new developments on campus include a new home for SRM, so that they are able to leave the AMEX stadium?

A significant number of staff are currently housed in a windowless attic over the road ... whilst understanding there are space pressures, it's extremely frustrating to waste hours every week trekking to and from campus, especially when there are corridors of empty academic offices for significant portions of the year. When can we expect to move to a space with natural light and comparable facilities to campus?

The desire to move back onto campus is something I’m aware of, but the unfortunate reality is that the campus was originally designed for 2,500 students and although there has been considerable development since then we don’t have sufficient space to accommodate everyone on the main site.  Heads of professional services are working on ways to ameliorate the impact, including through introducing forms of flexible working for staff who want it.

Many academic staff share offices and use their offices for tutorials and other vital contact with students.  We are not considering reducing the availability of offices for academic staff.

Transport/parking

When the main parking is moved to the west of the campus, are we proposing to make any changes to manage the additional traffic cutting through the campus and to avoid sitting traffic and pollution?

We are currently working on some revisions to the University’s Travel Plan and, to help with transport and parking-related issues, we are bringing in some changes later this year. The first of two stages will introduce some immediate measures and initiatives – including the development of options for temporary car parks and optimising spaces in existing car parks. The second phase will involve consultation with the campus community and will cover elements such as incentives to encourage car share and sustainable travel.

The new Life Sciences building on the Science car park will lead to the loss of car parking spaces. What are the plans to remediate the loss?

As a mother of two very young children, I was unable to find parking almost every day last semester when I arrived shortly after 9am. Most days I ended up working from home, being forced to have meetings on Skype and missing many activities. When will the University drastically limit parking for students so that people who have to use cars can do so?

The reality is that parking will continue to be an issue as we lose some capacity as part of long-planned capital projects such as the Life Sciences building; we are not allowed as a planning condition from the local authority to increase the number of parking spaces. So we have to manage demand for parking spaces, because supply is outside our control and I would like us to be able to prioritise spaces for people who absolutely depend on them. The first thing we did was to police parking; that has had some very positive effects. We also need to do everything we can to encourage alternative forms of transport to and from campus; for many people (not all) it’s just as quick to cycle in, and the bus company is going to be putting on additional capacity, particularly up and down the Lewes Road. It will be an integrated approach.

We are open to ensuring that people with caring responsibilities have access to parking.

From September, most students who live in Brighton and Hove will not be eligible for a parking permit (with exceptions for those with caring responsibilities or a disability).

We are aware that some staff are parking in bays that are set aside for people with disabilities. This is unacceptable and there can be no waivers of charges in such circumstances.

The biggest barrier to cycling is that it is frankly dangerous, because of the infrastructure on campus and towards Lewes. Cars and buses get very aggressive. What is being done to improve that?

On most days I cycle into University from Hove. We’ll pick up on this, and if we have to put in traffic-calming measures on campus, we’ll seek permission to do that.

The Lewes Road from Brighton is a very well designed and segregated cycle space from the gyratory.  Further south, it is less well designed and we are talking to transport planners.  The A27 to Lewes has a dedicated cycle lane as far as the town.

Cycling remains a very safe way to travel as long as defensive techniques are used. Ensure that you are visible (lights, reflective clothing) and that you do not ride too close to the kerb because, paradoxically, drivers believe that they can sneak past you on roads that are too narrow.

Human resources

Has progress been made regarding the introduction of flexible working arrangements for all professional services staff, to allow equal access to this across the University?

How we manage all our HR processes is up for review since the appointment of Sheila Gupta as our new HR Director. One of the first things Sheila has been doing is to look at everything in the round. 

When can we move away from basic skills updating to real staff development in professional services? The courses offered are at insultingly low levels and, once you have done the few that are offered, the annual review process becomes meaningless.

My ambition is that Sussex should be considered one of the best universities to work at in the UK. Transforming our training and career-development programmes for all staff is absolutely crucial. We have already begun work here; however, there is more to do to create a new reward and recognition strategy that looks at changing pay reviews and promotions as well as personal and professional career development.

Before saving on lower-grade professional services staff, would it not be better to start with those posts which are purely there because of nepotism, i.e. employing the wives of "important academics". How is that fair?

The University applies strict recruitment rules for all positons that are adhered to at all times. If you have a specific point to make please contact our Director of HR.

Senior leadership and appointments

Why have professional staff divisions been asked to cut staff costs at the same time when the University seems to spend a huge amount of money on additional senior management staff and PVCs?

The challenge that the University faces should not be under-estimated and our capacity to match it has to be unrivalled.  The current arrangement has our thematic PVCs having dual responsibility for managing academic clusters.  As there are insufficient hours in the day for them, and the urgent always crowds out the long term strategic need, they have not been able to focus sufficiently on their thematic duties. 

I have made one additional appointment to the University Executive Group, with the Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor position.  We are at a critical time of change at the University where we need to adapt to future challenges in order to thrive.  I recognised very quickly after joining that we need additional skills and expertise as part of the senior team to help us proceed along this path.  There have been no additional PVC appointments.  We do now have two Deputy PVC’s for Equality & Diversity, who have taken on this responsibility in addition to their substantive roles – these were both existing senior members of staff, so no new headcount.  You are right we do need to keep a close eye on our staff costs at all levels of the organisation – this includes at the most senior levels.  

How are the recruitment processes for the COO and new DVC role progressing?

Our new Chief Operating Officer, Tim Westlake, will join Sussex in mid-August. Recently we announced that Professor Saul Becker will be joining us in September as Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

Who will be covering the role of the Academic Registrar after Sharon Jones leaves?

Are the professional services positions going to be replaced like for like, or is a big reorganisation being planned?

With the new appointments and restructuring, is there clarity on where the Residential Sport and Trading Services division will sit in the future?

In the immediate term, we have appointed an interim Director who will take responsibility for both the Academic Registry and Student Services and she will start in July. We will review this with a view to ensuring that our professional interaction with students is seamless and joined up. Tim Westlake has already met with the Directors of Professional Services and will listen to them in framing his approach to professional service delivery.

Equality and diversity

What are the plans to reflect diversity among the leadership team in the University?

I recognise there is strong evidence that diversity in leadership contributes to more effective leadership.  I can absolutely assure everyone that this was at the front of my mind during the recent recruitment process for the COO and Deputy Vice-Chancellor appointments.   The process for both appointments included input from students, academic and professional services staff – and although we didn’t end up increasing the number of women in the senior team following these appointments, I am absolutely sure that everyone else involved shares my commitment to putting issues of equality and diversity right to the top of the agenda at Sussex.

We are developing a leadership training programme and I both hope and expect that talented people from across the institution will form part of our leadership in future.

Who can staff go to for personal help and support on equality and diversity where Human Resources cannot help?

If there are particular challenges, either of the two Deputy PVCs for Equality and Diversity – Andrea Cornwall and Claire Annesley - would be happy to hear from you. There will be news soon we can share about the Equality and Diversity Unit.

Salaries and pay

Salaries are very low in Brighton and, considering that it is not much cheaper than London to live here, Is there any chance the University can consider at least adopting parity with Oxford or similar?

Why must all staff start on the lowest rung of the ladder, irrespective of the level of experience they bring to the University, and forfeit their first year's salary increment if they start after April? Promotions and pay rises are similarly almost impossible to achieve without changing jobs within the University, even having proven oneself.

Progression is an essential part of an effective HR strategy. My personal opinion is that we’ve not put enough thought or effort into this in recent years. Obviously there is a limit to the number of roles we can offer at more senior levels; however, I believe there are many other ways we can allow staff to progress, which is not always about promotion. Growing skills and capabilities is extremely important, as is allowing our staff to be more in control of their careers at Sussex. I want Sussex to be an amazing place to work. The Director of HR, Sheila Gupta, has staff progression at the top of her agenda.

Teaching and assessment

I am incredibly proud to work for an organisation that supports refugees to study. Is there a plan to increase the number of scholarships for refugees?

We provide two scholarships including a full fee waiver and an £11,500 cash award for asylum seekers or those with discretionary leave to remain – we have just increased that bursary, following discussions with our students. Fifty English-language scholarships for Syrian refugees are also available in 2017; the latest cohort started this 10-week course on 19 June.

When will we have some clarity on growing our provision of transnational education (TNE), an area where we are years behind the majority of our peers (including the Russell Group)?

Online distance learning is central to transnational education; it’s really important for us and we’re working hard to get our proposition right. I want us to be far more flexible in what we offer – especially through taking advantage of the latest technologies. Having a technology-led approach to teaching is the direction of travel we have to consider. It could be an extremely exciting journey for us.

Will be there a cap on the number of Life Sciences students? If not, will the budget for teaching labs be increased?

I strongly believe that we need to be investing more in our teaching and learning space – having a larger surplus allows us to invest and gives us more options.  Clearly the new Life Sciences building will provide a fantastic new teaching environment for students.

Please give an assurance that you will not attempt to change the examination system in Mathematics. The current timetable for the academic year functions pretty well: 12 weeks of teaching, revision period, exams – both in the autumn and spring terms - and we want to continue that.

Where schools believe that examining twice a year is the best way to do things, I’m not suggesting we don’t do that. But we need to make sure we provide an appropriate volume of exams, and we examine appropriately; having open-book exams is another way of doing things. Secondly, the length of time that we spend on exams in the winter means that our academic year is just too long. Having a shorter period of exams in the winter will be better for the students and will give us more time for research in the summer.

External and community engagement

Has Sussex tapped into the Greater Brighton strategy? What are its plans for working with the local authorities around the Sussex area?

I meet regularly with both officers and elected councillors from Brighton and Hove and from East Sussex County Council and also with a range of other local bodies (such as the Chamber of Commerce).  We are working closely with the University of Brighton around developing a joint approach to working with local government to ensure that we can make a strong contribution.

Prof Michael Davies, our Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research), sits on the Greater Brighton Economic Board, which was set up in 2014 as a partnership between local authorities in Brighton and Hove, Worthing, Adur, Mid Sussex and Lewes. One of the key projects in the Greater Brighton City Region to receive government funding over the coming year is the £5.5million Sussex Bio-Innovation Centre, which will be part of our new Life Sciences building on campus.

It’s great to hear that the University is keen to work with the local communities. From what is listed on the website of the Sussex Community Festival, the emphasis is put much on "business" and what academics can "offer" to the local communities. Will the University consider forging more equal and fluid partnerships with the local communities and addressing existing and emerging "real-world" issues that are not "business" in nature?

Discussions in recent months as part of the development our new strategy have shown that staff and students are keen for the University to engage even more closely with the community and the wider region. The conversations have demonstrated a wish for us to play more of a part to help locally - for example in partnership with charities, social enterprises and so on. We are keen to maintain and develop our links with the city of Brighton and Hove and the south-east region, and we are conscious of our social, economic and cultural responsibilities in the local area. The survey of volunteering activities by staff that we will be launching in July will help us to identify new opportunities for networking with charities and community partners. 

Politics and world affairs

What is the naughtiest thing you've ever done? Please don't say it has anything to do with fields of wheat!

I’m invoking the 5th Amendment on this, I’m afraid.