VC’s week – 22 April - Our students, postgraduate funding, philanthropy, the HEFCE conference, and Healthy Week

A regular update from Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Arthur.

Professor Michael Arthur

Spring finally arrived on campus last week and it was great to see our students back on campus, bringing a real buzz back against the backdrop of clear blue skies and much needed sunshine. My week was punctuated with student interaction and I was reminded of their talents and enthusiasm.

I learnt that our student leaders (Leeds University Union executive) had been active and effective at the National Union of Students conference taking the lead on a motion to call for government funding of postgraduate taught education.  Their legitimate concern is that improved social mobility, linked to enhanced employment prospects after postgraduate study, is linked more to ability to pay, than ability to learn. Their request is for a government-funded postgraduate loan scheme, particularly to help graduates from low income families.  I know that HEFCE are working on this very issue but are finding it hard to make progress against the backdrop of fiscal austerity in Whitehall. Although government funding would clearly help, it could also be problematic if there isn’t new money. Finding the cash from within BIS or HEFCE budgets would inevitably threaten other funding streams such as the undergraduate fees loans and maintenance support package, widening participation monies, remaining teaching funding for science and clinical subjects or quality of research funding (QR). Government loans for postgraduate study would inevitably come with other caveats, such as student number controls and fee caps.  We should support our students in their quest to keep this issue prominent in government (and opposition) thinking as a solution would benefit us all, but it is going to need a lot more work, some innovative thinking and, most likely, other sources of funding if we are to make significant progress.

Our students also featured prominently in a visit of an alumnus and major donor, Irvine Laidlaw, to the campus. Five students in receipt of Undergraduate Research Leadership Scholarships associated with the Culture, Society and Innovation Hub, were incredibly articulate in explaining how they were gaining the confidence and skills to not only tackle tough research questions, but also to embark on the road to becoming leaders of the future. It was the most enjoyable experience watching our strategy to integrate research and education really come alive in this discussion. This was followed by a meeting with some 20 or so first year students, all of whom were in receipt of Laidlaw scholarships to help them through their first year of the new £9k fees system.  Based on a combination of academic excellence and financial need, the Laidlaw scholarship and the standard university bursary scheme have together  meant that over 130 of our first year students are in receipt of a full £9K of financial support in their first year. These students were also fantastic in explaining just how much difference this had made to them coming to University and being able to stay focussed on their studies without having to worry about money and we are grateful to Lord Laidlaw for his continued generosity.

The future of all the UK’s universities and colleges was on the agenda at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)) conference, which I also attended last week. The theme was Shaping the future: the social and economic contribution of higher education,  and speakers included Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti and Sir Alan Langlands, HEFCE’s current Chief Executive and, of course, the next Vice-Chancellor of our  University.  Sir Alan spoke about the need for sustained public investment and warned of the potential for ‘demand –side’ instability and that government would need to carefully monitor the higher education market to ensure that its policies kept in step with such changes. It was an excellent speech and for me it reinforced just what a good choice the University of Leeds has made for its future. The conference itself was extremely varied and stimulating – if you’re interested in further information it can be found on the HEFCE website.

With Spring finally in the air, it seems a particularly appropriate time for our annual Healthy Week to take place and I’d urge everyone to take a look at the Healthy Week website and get involved.


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