Making sense of 2020

.... if ever a year demands clarity and sharpness of vision, surely it is 2020!

Si Alan Langlands (Inside Track only) June 2018

At the dawn of the Spring term, I wish every member of the University good health, happiness and fulfilment in 2020 and throughout a new decade, which will inevitably be punctuated by new challenges and opportunities. 

By the end of this academic year, the University will have developed its new strategy, setting a course for the future that takes account of a changing external landscape, and supports the future development of student education, an excellent student experience and world-leading research and innovation, all reinforcing each other and promoting our international profile and ambitions. 

This month sees the introduction of a number of new Executive Deans: Professors Julia Bennell (LUBS), Karen Birch (Biological Sciences), Nora de Leeuw (Engineering and Physical Sciences), Andrew Thorpe (Arts, Humanities and Cultures) and Alastair Mullis (Social Sciences).

All five bring a clear vision for their faculties and the wider University, combined with enormous energy, and an exemplary track record of academic leadership that will be invaluable as we continue to build on strong foundations. They will all be instrumental in delivering sector-leading education and research and driving the economic, social and environmental development of the City and the world beyond.

Our considerable progress in research and innovation during recent years has, of course, been led by our Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Lisa Roberts, and it is testament to her remarkable expertise, drive and commitment that she has been appointed as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter. She will take up her new post in the next academic year and we will begin the process of appointing her successor towards the end of this term.

Turning to the new strategy, everyone in the University community will have a distinctive role in realising its aspirations. It is therefore essential that you also play an active part in its development.

During the coming weeks, we will be consulting colleagues and students on the draft strategy and how it translates into an action-oriented strategic plan for 2020-25. This will be supported by an easy-to-complete online consultation that guides you through the draft strategy and poses questions, and a number of staff and student focus groups, which will build on the considerable engagement we carried out last summer. I encourage everyone to have their say.

Of course, there are events outside of our direct control which we will have to adjust and respond to as we go along. These include Brexit and the ongoing dispute about pensions, pay and related issues.

Following the outcome of last month’s General Election, it is clear that we will be leaving the EU at the end of this month.

The legislation to enable this is currently being considered in the House of Lords and when the Withdrawal Agreement Bill receives Royal Assent, the UK will enter a transition period within the EU until the end of 2020. The transition period ensures that: 

  • EU, EEA or Swiss citizens and their family members, who are living in the UK before 31 December 2020, will be eligible to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme
  • UK universities can continue to participate in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ and receive funding for the duration of their projects; and
  • EU students starting courses in 2020/21 will remain eligible for home fee status and student support for the duration of their courses.

While it is essential that the transition period remains in place until the end of this year, the Government has set itself the task of agreeing a new trade deal with the EU by 31 December 2020 – a timetable that is widely seen as highly challenging and which means that a ‘no deal’ Brexit remains at least a possibility.

Given the continuing uncertainty, the University will do the prudent thing and continue to plan for this scenario. Professor Hai-Sui Yu, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor: International, and Jane Madeley, our Chief Financial Officer, have been leading this work and explained more about it in an Inside Track feature published in October 2019. The University also has great expertise in a number of critical areas of policy and practice that are integral to future trade agreements. These include data, agriculture, security and environment and we also stand ready to provide evidence and policy advice if requested to do so.

Perhaps most important of all, we remain firmly committed to the values of inclusivity, tolerance and diversity, and to being a truly international University. We will continue to do everything we can to support colleagues, and particularly those from EU countries, by providing ongoing practical advice on issues ranging from immigration, funding and finance, to research support and collaboration. We will also work alongside colleagues from across the sector to press for long term arrangements that provide a supportive environment for all students and staff.

Turning to industrial action, I would like to thank colleagues for their dedication and hard work in making sure that the impact of the strikes on students was minimised. I was also pleased that the four fundamental principles that are guiding the University through this difficult period have been taken on board: 

  • the right of students to receive a quality education
  • the right of employees to attend work
  • the right to participate in industrial action; and
  • the right of all people to be treated with respect and in a professional way.

The industrial action is quite clearly linked to national disputes relating to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and the national pay award and associated issues. Whilst the University cannot address these matters without reference to the legal position of USS, the Pensions Regulator and the established systems of collective bargaining, we do want all colleagues to benefit from pay, conditions and pensions that are fair, reasonable and sustainable and we do want to encourage progress in the national negotiations. 

Further strikes remain a possibility and action short of a strike continues but there are positive developments nationally. Talks continue between the University and College Union (UCU) and employers, through the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), including an examination of new ideas for joint working on gender and ethnicity pay gaps, casualisation and workload. I would also welcome local discussions on these issues. 

It is also encouraging that five dates – all in January 2020 – have been confirmed for senior representatives from UUK, UCU and USS to meet to discuss reform to the USS pension scheme. These talks will be facilitated by the chair of the USS Joint Expert Panel (JEP), Joanne Segars.

Priorities for discussion include: full consideration of the recommendations of the JEP’s second report; jointly agreeing a refreshed scheme ‘purpose and valuation principles’; reforming governance; and exploring different approaches to the valuation methodology for 2020, acknowledging the respective roles of each party in this process.

I am pleased to hear of these developments and encouraged by the strong commitment of all parties to work together in a constructive way, hopefully averting further industrial action and disruption to students.

So ... there is a great deal to get to grips with in the coming year, but I remain confident that the University will continue to build on its many successes and tackle a range of pressing issues – not least the important steps we must take to support the global transition to a low carbon future. 

As many of you know, I will step down during 2020 and the process for appointing my successor is progressing apace. I feel very privileged to be the Vice-Chancellor at Leeds – a great University in a great City – and I look forward with enthusiasm to the remainder of my time here. The rest of this academic year will certainly be very busy and I will continue to work to the best of my ability and do everything I can to ensure a smooth transition to my successor.

Sir Alan Langlands


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