Publication of the coalition government's guidance on fair access* and next year's funding announcement mean we can finally plan our future with confidence.
Draconian government cuts to higher education are now a reality and the first of these - a loss of some £3.5m in teaching funding - has been announced. Thankfully, our budgets have provided for cuts of this magnitude. News on research (QR) funding is as good as we could have hoped for; the University will receive just over £49m in 2011/12, down £650,000 on this year's grant, with funding maintained at similar levels up to 2015 (we'll have precise figures in a fortnight or so).
We also know, broadly, what the Office for Fair Access expects from universities wishing to charge undergraduate fees above £6,000. While we will be able to set our own benchmarks and targets for widening participation, we will not be able to fail in our obligation to do better, and nor would we wish to. Extending opportunity is at the heart of our strategy, and we will devise a workable and fair admissions system under the new rules to complement whatever fee we set.
There is less government rhetoric about the proportion of undergraduates from state or private schools going to leading universities and more emphasis on extending opportunity to people from poorer backgrounds, which is to be welcomed. Just to put that into context, around 4,100 of our 25,000 undergraduates are from families with an income of less than £25,000. We are already committed to improving our performance in this area; our target is to recruit a quarter of our intake from lower socio-economic groups.
Our new education engagement strategy, led by Viv Jones and Ceri Nursaw, will come to the next Senate. It builds on our existing commitment to a consistent approach in our use of 'contextual data' about applicants in our selection processes in order to identify and recruit bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have successfully recruited more than 600 such students through Access to Leeds; many of their stories are truly inspirational, such as the second year medic Suliat Ogunyinka, recently featured in the Guardian, who came from a school with only 20 students in the sixth form**.
It's clear we will have to double - at least - the £9m we spend every year on a whole range of measures aimed at providing opportunity and fairer access to our university, including outreach, bursaries and scholarships. Interesting discussions are taking place across the campus about the relative effectiveness of the options open to us.
The government is keen on offering tuition fee waivers to disadvantaged students because (under the new funding arrangements) they reduce the call on the public purse. My personal view is that less well-off students would rather have help with living and accommodation costs; so we might perhaps consider a flexible option, where students can choose the best support mechanism for them.
Some remaining uncertainty around student numbers and new visa regulations will need addressing in due course, but by the end of next month we should have decided on an undergraduate fee and have an access plan to meet our own principles and aspirations as well as the government's requirements for 'sustained and meaningful progress towards a more balanced and representative student body, reflected year on year in its own benchmarks, measures and targets'.
Over in biological sciences, I received the sad news of Pfizer pulling out of Kent from a former employee of theirs, Lesley Wilson, who is now working on ion channels as mechanisms and potential drug targets in colon cancer. Her story, also, is inspirational; having hit a 'glass ceiling' at work she persuaded the company to sponsor her first degree at Greenwich, and came to Leeds for her PhD with support from the BBSRC and Astra-Zeneca.
Her colleague Richard Young is doing similar work - the formation of blood vessels in tumours - on the liver, supported by Cancer Research UK. A Leeds graduate, he is already a qualified doctor and specialist registrar in liver surgery, who is taking time out of his clinical life to follow a research passion.
Last month I compared the transformation of higher education to a 'tectonic shift'; colleagues in earth and environment kindly invited me to a virtual experience; a 3D trip around one of the world's most incredible geological events.
The desert floor in the Afar Rift of northeast Africa is quaking and splitting open, volcanoes are boiling over, and seawaters are encroaching upon the land at a rate rarely seen before***. In the north part of this valley, small hills some 80 feet high are the only thing holding back the Red Sea; the Afar Rift consortium principal investigator Tim Wright reckons the hills could sink 'in a matter of days'.
This is a fantastic project and thanks to some very clever computing, undergraduates are able to experience world-class research themselves, with a special pair of 3D goggles enabling you to fly along, above and even beneath a visual depiction of the rift as it splits apart, updated with real time information from the site itself.
It was also very pleasing to see a poster campaign on feedback and assessment organised by learning and teaching project officer Graham McLeod, with information targeted at both staff and students in a lively and impactful way. A student newsletter, written by and for students, and research tours of the building for undergraduates were further evidence of the school's commitment to student engagement and a world-class education.