For Staff

Investing in our future - October 2011

image of VC

There was good cheer on my recent visit to our Finance and Purchasing department where, during a Q&A session, someone said: "We hear you on the radio and we read your articles, but we don't know anything about you, the man. So can you tell us what you're like?"

The smiling questioner was slightly embarrassed to ask, but I launched into my answer with enthusiasm! It was an amusing moment which led to a frank discussion, reinforcing the importance of communicating openly, in line with our values. I'm looking forward to learning more about the challenges and opportunities facing colleagues at open meetings in November.

Some topics recur on these visits - student recruitment, improvements to campus, and our plans for the future. Improving student/staff ratios frequently crops up; in some parts of the University these are higher than at other Russell Group institutions - a legacy, perhaps, of our rapid expansion in student numbers in the early nineties. Lowering ratios has been an ambition for some time.

At the University Council meeting last month, we had a positive discussion about how academic units are finalising plans to do this by using some of the £12m recurrent funding which has been ring-fenced for enhancing the student experience. Some faculties plan to recruit academic staff and others will also reduce student numbers. The benefits are clear - reduced teaching loads on staff, enabling smaller group sizes and allowing enhanced feedback for students. Students' expectations will only increase with higher tuition fees, so smaller class and tutorial sizes, improved quality, and promptness of feedback will be essential.

Other investments such as refurbishment of teaching facilities, investment in teaching equipment, financial support for field trips, student research projects and student experience enhancement funds are also planned. We have one of the best academic libraries in the country and the Brotherton is a real jewel, now celebrating its 75th birthday. But we know we must ensure our provision is right for different styles of learning and research that are emerging in the digital age and our undergraduate library certainly needs attention. Watch this space.

Many colleagues will have been involved in developing plans to bring nearly 50 new academic leadership chairs to join us through the additional £9m a year Strategic Development Fund. We are looking for brilliant academic leaders who can integrate outstanding student education with world-leading research and bring benefits for each of the nine faculties and their existing staff and help us to demonstrate our commitment to academic excellence in everything we do.

These developments seem all the more remarkable when you cast your mind back over the past two years - the economy has been in turmoil, and speculation was rife about impending public spending cuts. One week, the word was that university budgets would be cut by 20%, but figures as high as 40% were also being mooted, including the prospect of 25% cuts to research funding. Even this time last year, with a new coalition government, we still had not heard the outcome of either the comprehensive spending review, or the Browne Review of Higher Education, or the government's likely response. Not to have prepared ourselves appropriately for this turbulent period would have been reckless.

As we are all aware, the government eventually opted to cut teaching budgets by 80% and capital budgets by 60%, but to replace this with a raised cap of £9,000 on undergraduate fees, funded by a graduate contribution scheme, with research funding settled at flat cash.

Strong financial management means our University remains in good shape despite ongoing cuts and changes to higher education funding. A significant factor in our strong financial position at year end has been the economies exercise. The decision to seek savings of up to £35m was a difficult one, but it was definitely the right thing to do. We eventually achieved recurrent savings of £30m a year, and after consulting with the faculties, we decided not to push on the last £5m.

If we save money in year and then choose not to spend it (because we are awaiting more certainty about the outcome of this turbulent period), it is inevitable it will appear in the bottom line. For the 2010-2011 financial year we are expecting to report, subject to audit and Council approval, a surplus of £37.8m. Any surplus we make will be reinvested in our University in future years.

I know the past two years have not been easy, but the financial stability we have achieved now gives us the confidence to invest in what really matters - the frontline of student experience. I would be amazed if we have significant problems recruiting students in the £9,000 fees environment, but we will be operating in a marketplace, and generating a surplus to cope with localised fluctuations in fortune in different academic units will be critically important.

On the subject of big investments, I'm sure that by now you will have noticed some (literally) big numbers around campus. They herald the start of a campaign to support our Carbon Management Plan. At its heart is the fact that we are a very large community of staff, students, partners and visitors and that together we really can make a difference. The University is a huge user of energy and by doing nothing our bill is set to rise simply through price increases and changes in taxation. That will give us less to spend on what we're really here to deliver - education and research.

Of course there's more to it than that. We all have a responsibility to do our bit to ease the impact of climate change and cutting our carbon emissions is part of that. Our aim is to reduce the University's output by 35% by 2020 and that is what our plan covers. This is really important for the University and when you learn more about it in the coming months, I'm sure you will support it.