My Week - 13 October 2014 - the year ahead

Vice-Chancellor Sir Alan Langlands

Alan Langlands

The University is taking a bold step by investing in 250 new academic fellows, boosting research and high quality student education, enabling us to combine new talent with existing expertise to strengthen disciplines and address questions of global significance in relation to health, energy, food, water, culture, high value engineering, and cities and sustainable societies.

A great deal of work has been done over the summer to articulate our distinctive strengths in each of these areas and to position us to take advantage of new external funding opportunities as they arise. The recruitment of the new academic fellows and the recent expansion of the number of PhD studentships are clear signals of intent that we want to remain in the top flight of research intensive universities, providing exciting development opportunities for staff and outstanding education for students.

Other key elements of the strategic plan – which was agreed by Council in July – will be given equal attention in 2014-15, delivering on the Student Education Service; agreeing a new approach to educational innovation; promoting effective partnership working across the City Region; laying the foundations for the new innovation and enterprise centre; and ensuring that the University is positioned to extend its international reach. The redevelopment and renewal of the campus will continue apace with projected expenditure of more than £300m over the next five years.

Progress in each of these areas will be played out against the uncertainty of a General Election and understandable concerns amongst many staff about changes to the USS pension scheme.

The main political parties have said very little about higher education policy during the conference season and I do not envisage any major change in direction until 2017 at the earliest. The crucial issue in the meantime will be to ensure that universities remain unscathed in the forthcoming autumn statement and in the comprehensive spending review which will follow quickly on the heels of the election. In the short term, we await the outcome of the REF and need to be alert to any effects this may have on research income for 2015-16: alongside UUK and the Russell Group, we will continue to argue for a sustainable student funding model for undergraduate and postgraduate education; a determined effort to close the gap between the UK’s investment in research and that of its major competitors; and a more considered approach to international students and immigration.

Alongside more than 60 other universities, we face the prospect of national reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). The USS is no longer affordable in its current form and Trustees of the scheme are legally responsible for making sure that there is enough money in the fund to pay members’ benefits, both past and future. The deficit is expected to be around £8 billion calculated as at March 2014 and the Trustees are required to put a plan in place to fund the deficit over a reasonable period, ensuring a scheme that is affordable for the long term.

Universities have made it clear through their work with UUK and UCEA that they are committed to working with the UCU and USS Trustees Board to consider what reforms are necessary and envisage a combination of measures affecting contributions, benefits and the USS investment strategy. As I understand it, there are regular informal discussions between employer representatives and UCU and the USS Joint Negotiating Committee – comprising five Universities UK representatives, five UCU representatives and one independent member who acts as a chair. They are in fact meeting later this month and in November with the aim of reaching agreement on an affordable and sustainable way forward. Any such agreement will be considered by the USS Trustee Board which then has a responsibility to trigger a formal consultation with all affected employees and their representative bodies in the early part of 2015. The current estimated date for implementing any changes to the USS is April 2016, subject of course to negotiations.

This is a complex issue which requires careful consideration by all concerned. It is a national issue and our responsibility is to keep the University community fully appraised of progress through clear and impartial communications. It is not an issue that lends itself to sound bites – the aim should be to reach a balanced agreement that is fair to employees and employers and ensures the long term affordability and sustainability of the scheme. I hope that all staff – whilst understandably concerned – will allow national negotiations and consultation to develop before taking a fixed position on this matter. This is not an issue that should divide or weaken us as we concentrate on ensuring that we deliver outstanding student education and top flight research.

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