Vice Chancellor's Office

VC's Year Ahead Address: 27 September 2018


Unanswered questions: The VC's Year Ahead Address

Human Resources

How will Sussex help to support precarious early career staff on short-term contracts in the coming year?

This is an important balance between the University providing funding, training and employment opportunities and also preparing the individual to thrive in academe, industry or another chosen career.

It is as much about giving the individual the skills to pursue their chosen career and have the assurance of an income for a reasonable number of years.

We already provide bridging funding for up to six months, where staff are in a period between contracts. This is one of the most effective ways of supporting early career research staff.

In the coming year, as part of our People Strategy, we will be looking at a range of ways of providing continuity of employment for researchers.

We have a new mentoring framework and we will encourage more staff to become academic mentors to help provide advice and guidance to ECR who want to become academics.

For those who aspire to become a PI, we will provide researcher development to enable individuals to become a named researcher on a grant. 

Permanent employment comes through having a strong publications record, proven funding success and, importantly, contributing to education.

So we will support development in these areas for ECRs. This is often a challenge for all research-intensive universities and Sussex does have established policies in place to transfer staff to open-ended contracts wherever possible. 

How will you help staff in lower grades progress, and when will these initiatives be implemented?

We are looking at models of good practice and have found the 'AUA Career and Professional Development Framework', to be one such model.

There is detailed work underway to develop this with the aim of launching a structured career development framework for PS staff at Sussex by the end of the calendar year.

The aim would be for this to be used in appraisals to support managers and staff to plan the professional development of staff in a way that will really help them progress in their careers. Many universities have adopted this model, e.g. I understand that the University of Kent did so recently.

How will your expressed commitment to flexible working be achieved when Sussex - an employer of thousands - has advertised few or no part-time professional services roles at grade 8 or above in the last 18 months?

Flexible Sussex - becoming an organisation that is “flexible by default” to ensure we are inclusive in everything we do – is one of the four goals within the strategy. Flexible working forms one strand of delivering this goal.

Since 2 October, roles have been advertised as open to flexible working arrangements, subject to business requirements.

This means we will invite applicants to raise and discuss potential flexible working options from the outset, to make all roles as accessible and open as possible.

We are open to this at the highest level - including the PVC Research, which we will shortly advertise.

Balancing the needs of the University and the individual remains, so not every request for flexible working can be accommodated.

Where there are fixed requirements or constraints for a role that exclude certain flexible working arrangements, this will be clearly stated in the advertisement. However, the emphasis is on working together to mutually agree on options.

The process for existing staff to request a flexible working pattern has also been streamlined, with Human Resources being involved only as a point of escalation or where changes affect conditions of service.

Does the University have plans for a more robust system for recording stress related absence in order to inform action to better support staff?

All absences are currently recorded by each Division/School submitting a form to Human Resources. In future we wish to implement an electronic system of recording absences. 

In the meantime, HR Business Partners are working closely with Schools/Divisions and discussing relevant staffing matters including advising line managers on how best to support members of staff who are experiencing stress related absences, taking advice from Occupational Health as necessary.

It’s also worth noting that we have now arranged for staff to have free access to new counselling services in addition to those provided through Occupational Health. 

Care First provide a 24 hour confidential service with specialist staff on hand to advise on a range of personal or domestic matters. More information.

Why are so many staff across campus working a full grade down from comparable posts at similar sized UK Universities? When will this disparity be addressed, as we are all expected to deliver more but without the resource to do so? Surely without the right input then things like NSS will continue to go down?

All roles at the University are graded and our salaries are benchmarked and comparable with other higher education institutions.

After significant improvements in most but not all areas, will the leadership team be revisiting the bullying / dignity at work theme?

Yes, we have established a working group under the leadership of Liz James to lead on this critical area. Its first objective will be to launch a new Dignity and Respect Policy, which represents current good practice. 

Liz is working with HR and Comms to look at innovative ways of engaging staff across the University to shape that policy and the interventions that will make it a reality.

As we all know, it is how you implement policies that matter. Many of those ideas will come from you as well as the University leadership team.

We have introduced new training programmes to help develop behaviours that build on an inclusive culture, as well as personal development and effectiveness courses, so that you can take control of difficult situations.

What percentage of Sussex-employed staff are already at the top of their pay grades and so won’t be getting a salary increment this October?

The percentage of staff at the top of their grade is 28%. It is important to remember that all staff do receive the annual cost of living allowance. 

You mentioned in your recent communication that 'we will need to consider carefully our approach to staffing vacancies' and that this could mean 'prioritising some areas over others'. Obviously, this will be quite concerning for some staff, especially when this is in consideration to budgets and spending. Can you be more specific about what these considerations might entail?

The current financial climate means that we have to apply a high degree of rigour to how we commit to any spending, including staffing costs.

Staff costs at this University represent about 54% of our expenditure. So any decisions we make have to be considered ones.

It is difficult to generalise, because these decisions are, by their very nature, very specific to the actual circumstances that we are dealing with.

One example might be that greater investment may need to go into how we support our student activities, because this is such an important area of activity for the University.

Equally, there may be a regulatory reason as to why we have to invest in certain posts, e.g. with the uncertainty of Brexit, we may need more staff to work on UKVI.

This is critical to both staff and student recruitment. With finite resources, these are the difficult decisions that we may have to make. 


The Falmer Sports centre has not had working showers for a number of years. Can the VC outline his vision for sports at the University?

The history is that we have not had in place an estates strategy and roadmap. As part of the strategy being prepared this will be considered in detail against other estates priorities. On the specifics of the showers, I have asked our Director of Estates, Simon Neale, who line manages Sussexsport to look into this immediately.

What is the proposed timetable for the roll out of the new systems being developed as part of the SAAT?

While our aim is to go live in time for 2019 admissions, the situation is under review as negotiations continue with our supplier, TechOne.

Does the University have any policies to guarantee that workload allocation for lecturers is even? And if so, how does the VC (or anyone), check whether those policies are being enacted?

Eleven Sussex Schools are now involved in the pilot of the Planning Academic Workload at Sussex (PAWS) – with the sole exception of BSMS whose Dean has expressed an interest in taking part.

The first phase of the pilot was completed earlier in 2018 and involved five schools: the Business School, LPS, HAHP, Psychology, and Global Studies

We are continuing to work through the second phase with 11 schools and aim to complete this by July 2019.

Student Experience

In view of the recent well-covered National debate on universities not providing sufficient services for the adequate support of rising numbers of all categories of disabled students at university - and to fulfil the university’s role under the Equality Act - can the VC reassure professional and teaching staff that more resources will be strategically targeted in order to provide adequate provision in this area?

Both in terms of an increase in staff numbers in the services directly involved and also adequate room space to allow for the personal support of these students to take place.

As an example of the former, the Student Support Unit has been without an established Head of service for approximately two years now which strongly suggests that the University is not fully committed to its responsibilities in this critical area of student support.

We recognise that there are excellent teams working to support students with disabilities and long term medical conditions.

I know how valuable this work is and how much commitment from colleagues this takes.

I have talked previously about budgetary constraints and increasing staff numbers is not something that we can commit to at this time.

However, I know that Jayne Aldridge and Debora Green are seeking ways of increasing efficiencies and ensuring we are maximising our work in this area.

Also the work Claire Annesley is undertaking with Accessible Sussex is crucial and directly feds into this area.

I am delighted that we have Kelly Coate on board as our new PVC for Education and Students. Her passion for inclusive teaching will benefit many students with SpLDs and disabilities/disabling conditions, meaning fewer individual adjustments need to be made.

The vacant SSU manager post came about at a time of massive change in structures and management. The way forward on this is part of the restructure that Jayne is carrying out.


For this Brexit year, what has been the impact on student numbers?

The Government announced in April 2017 that those EU students starting at university in September 2018 would still eligible to home fees/support and in July 2018 made a similar commitment for 2019 entry.

Registration for the University is still ongoing so our final numbers are not yet fixed.

But on a national scale, UCAS data for the 2018 admissions cycle has shown that undergraduate applications from within the rest of the EU have actually risen for Sussex - ahead of a small national increase.

As a result, it’s probably the case that the true impact of Brexit on admissions hasn’t been felt yet.

Can we improve the PAC process so that student target numbers, particularly at PGT level, actually reflect average course numbers, which is regularly below 15 (our MA target number)?

In constructing our PGT intake targets we do take into account the model class size for that specific programme. 

Where we grow programmes we aim to do that in multiples of the model class size to optimise both teaching resource and student experience. 

Recruitment is not an exact science and from time to time intakes vary from the ideal. 

If demand exists for a programme then there should be no barrier in recruiting up to that model class size - you indicate 15 in your question. However if demand is not sufficient then we might need to run programmes with smaller numbers, particularly when offers to the programme have already been made to ensure CMA compliance. 

Where a programme consistently under-recruits then we should be discussing either how we might attract the requisite number of students or alternatively the ongoing viability of that programme.

According to statements made by the VC last year, the era of ever-expanding student numbers is over. Yet I heard recently from a senior figure that the number of students at Sussex will rise to 23,000 over the next few years - an increase of over 25%. Is this correct?

We are considering whether and how much we may grow student numbers but have not yet made any formal decisions on student number targets for 2019/20 and beyond. Proposed student numbers will be considered by the end of this calendar year.

Sussex 2025

How do you intend to personally advocate some of the values expressed in the core pillars of the new strategic framework?

Our staff and students told us that the values of kindness, integrity, inclusion, collaboration and courage were important to them.

It is the responsibility of everyone at Sussex - me included - to try to integrate these values into their everyday working life and deliver on becoming a better university for a better world.

There will be many times when our ability to stand by our values will be tested and, of course, we have to test what such values actually mean. There will also be moments when these ideals may rub against each other.

We must recognise the personal courage of the many individuals who come up against abuse or unacceptable behaviour - just because they are being themselves.

Correspondingly, we must also be kind to those people who are brave enough to share their own views – and respect the courage they have for doing so.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m perfect. Nobody is. That’s why I think it’s important to give colleagues the opportunity to hold me to account for my behaviour through events like the termly open staff forums and the monthly staff drop-in sessions.

In line with the 2025 strategy, how can we ensure that the core values will apply to SEF and Catering?

In all senses we expect our partners to work with us and our community to extend the values that the University has established in the Strategic Framework across all our activities.

Video: The VC's Year Ahead Address 

Presentation: The VC's Year Ahead Address

VC's Year Ahead Address - 27 September 2018 [PDF 9.75MB]

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