For Staff

Safeguarding the future - November 2009

image of VC

A great deal is expected of a Vice-Chancellor, and rightly too. Nothing, however, is more important than protecting the University, for the sake of our staff and our students as well as future generations.

Global recession and the ever-burgeoning national debt pose an enormous, unprecedented threat to us. With the full involvement and support of the senior team, we have analysed that threat carefully, and we are charting out a course of action to
meet it.

A great deal of information about our response has been shared with you all; at the leadership forum of heads of schools and services, in debate at Senate, with trade unions, through extensive postings on our website and through discussions by managers and their teams. Ours is a large, diverse, organisation with a great talent for complexity. Communicating effectively is a considerable challenge, but I hope people feel they are being kept informed.

We will continue to be open and transparent about our response, our plans and our decisions, because those are our values, and that is my style. This approach is not without risk. It means we will be sharing thinking and plans as they develop without always knowing the detail of them.

It is the detail, of course, that people are most concerned about because it is the detail that often impacts them most directly. I appreciate that concern, and I appreciate that many people are worried about their jobs, and what the future might bring, so let me be clear.

We cannot make our problem - the recession - disappear and we cannot put our heads in the sand and hope it will go away. We can, and must, do everything in our power to prepare now for the fallout. If we wait until the funding axe falls, as it inevitably will, it will be too late. We would be forced into emergency steps to cut costs quickly - including compulsory redundancies.

If, on the other hand, we take strategic action now to make our University as efficient, joined up and focused as possible, when the inevitable cuts in funding hit us, we will be able to absorb them without being forced into crisis measures and thrown off course. We need to reduce staffing levels now to reduce our cost base, by voluntary means if at all possible, but the economies exercise is ultimately about protecting the University and protecting jobs.

Those who ask if all this is really necessary, or if other universities are doing likewise, are missing the point. In the current economic climate, the risks inherent in pursuing a strategy of 'wait and see what others do' are not ones we should to take - not least because this is not a strategy.

Do take a look at the information on our website; if they haven't already, managers
and heads of schools and services will be discussing with staff what this means for you, and how you will be involved. Some of the most fundamental changes we need to make to reduce administrative duplication and inefficiency are under the umbrella of the 'One University' project led by Deputy-Vice- Chancellor John Fisher.

The University is 105 years old, and it seems sometimes that it has a similar number of different ways of doing the same thing - whether it's recruiting students or managing student support. I'd be the first to hold my hand up here - in my previous life as head of a faculty of medicine, I supported the development of a bespoke IT system when what was on offer from the central services was less than ideal. That's a luxury we can no longer afford.

We have proved that good, fit-for-purpose University-wide processes and systems can save academic time and costs and provide a better experience for our students. The virtual learning environment (VLE), the student portal, the new research support system and Leeds for Life are bringing huge, demonstrable, benefits. A unified (IT) information technology is underway, and we will now tackle the bigger challenges of the administration of learning and teaching and student support.

In my last column, I said that while we had to prepare for the worst, we would continue to make the case to government about the importance of investing in universities to safeguard our nation's future and protect our international competitiveness.

Since then (as chair of the Russell Group) I have been quizzed by John Humphrys on the Today programme about why research universities need more support, and stated our case to both Lord Mandelson (Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills) and shadow secretary, David Willetts. While I have no doubt they understand our predicament, and the importance of higher education to the nation, both are firmly on record as saying they will not protect universities from public expenditure cuts.

As the column went to press, publication of the Higher Education Framework gave us cause for optimism. It was pleasing that both Access to Leeds and Leeds for Life were cited as case studies of best practice, and it appears our message about concentrating funding on world class research has been heard.

The Framework stated: "In a more challenging climate for research, with tighter
fiscal constraints and increased competition from other countries, we will need to carefully protect the excellence of our research base. This will require a greater focus on worldclass research and greater recognition of the potential benefits of research concentration in key areas." I couldn't have put it better myself.