Alumni update from University Court December 2020

Updated on 7 December 2020

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As a nominated member of the University Court and member of the Graduates’ Association, Dr William Boyd acts as an intermediary between graduates and the University Court.

"There was a meeting of the University Court held on 17 November 2020 – the second of the academic year, the first having been held in September. As has become normal in these pandemic times, the meeting was conducted remotely (via Microsoft Teams, the video conferencing platform used by the University). I report on the salient features which may be of interest to alumni.

"This was the final meeting of the Court for our outgoing Interim Principal, Professor David Maguire. Professor Maguire’s academic field is computer mapping and geographic information systems – and he chairs JISC, the body which supports IT in British universities – so he was therefore very well equipped to lead the University in the major transformations it had to make very swiftly during this year. It was the University’s very good fortune to appoint him to the interim role a year ago, before any of us knew anything of the forthcoming pandemic. His calm good sense has been much appreciated.

"The meeting was also attended by the incoming Principal, Professor Iain Gillespie, who will take up the post from 1 January 2021. Professor Gillespie, a native of Edinburgh, is currently Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, at the University of Leicester. Before taking his current post at Leicester in 2016, Professor Gillespie was Director of Science and Innovation at the Natural Environment Research Council, and before that, spent ten years at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, leading work on science, technology and innovation, with a particular focus on the importance of life and medical sciences to the world economy. He is already working closely with the outgoing Principal and other senior members of the University to assure us of a well-ordered transition.

"At many points during the meeting, Court heard how the Covid-19 pandemic had affected its students and staff. The President of the Students’ Association (DUSA), Scott Quinn, drew attention to several of the serious impacts on our students’ experiences: sharp reductions in part-time jobs leading to financial hardship, and mental health issues arising from reduced opportunities to develop social networks, and the demands of remote home working.

"Scott also reported on the measures that DUSA were taking to address these issues, including a very successful, though virtual, Freshers’ Fair. Professor Blair Grubb, Vice-Principal for Education, reported on the University’s arrangements for a safe and coordinated blended learning experience. The level of face-to face teaching is variable across disciplines; the University has set a minimum one hour per week threshold, and encourages the incorporation of greater elements of face-to-face teaching, as far as timetabling and social distancing constraints allow.

"The student experience of this new format of learning appears largely positive, with feedback from the Student Pulse Survey highlighting positive experiences for student satisfaction and teaching delivery. The Court acknowledged its deepest gratitude to the University’s academic and professional staff for their intense dedication throughout this singularly challenging period.

"It will be readily appreciated that, in common with all UK universities, the University has been faced with immediate and serious financial losses as a result of the pandemic. Largely, this is due to the reduction in overseas student fees in the academic year 2020/21.

"Immediate measures were taken by the University at a very early stage to address these issues: halting most capital expenditure, seeking in-year budget savings, and drawing up contingency plans for further savings, including reductions in staff salaries. It was a great relief to all members of Court that this latter, drastic, course of action proved unnecessary in the light of our actual financial performance this current academic year. We indeed have fewer overseas students than was planned before the pandemic, but we are nonetheless performing well in all the circumstances.

"Nevertheless, a longer-term financial problem remains: as we currently operate, we are in the unsustainable position of annual expenditure exceeding annual income, and the Court is determined to correct this.

"The problems arise partly due to less favourable funding for teaching from the Scottish Funding Council compared with institutions in other parts of the UK, and partly due to the losses incurred in academic research, especially in our areas of academic strength (life and medical sciences). Research is structurally underfunded by government, an issue that affects all British research-intensive universities. The University’s financial sustainability is the uppermost of the concerns of Court, and is likely to remain so for some time.

"Partly motivated by the need for long-term financial sustainability, but also by the wish to strengthen its academic standing, the University is actively considering restructuring plans, led by Professor Julian Blow, Interim Vice-Principal for Academic Planning and Performance. The proposals are currently (November 2020) at an intermediate stage.

"At the November meeting, a majority of Court members agreed that some re-structuring and rationalisation in the academic areas of life sciences and medicine should be developed further, and that the mergers of some Schools in the humanities, social sciences, education and social work be explored. Under the University’s Statutes, alterations to the organisation and management of the academic disciplines of the University require the approval of Senate, and further discussions of these issues will take place in Senate and in the wider University community.

"There are many achievements by the University in which its alumni can take some pride. The most recent of these, and one which has recently been nationally recognised, is the engagement by the University’s staff and students in many and varied ways with others outside the institution. The University recently celebrated the prestigious NCCPE Institution Gold Award for Public Engagement, a credit to the team led by Professor Nicola Stanley-Wall of Life Sciences. This is a huge achievement for the University, being one of only three UK Institutions that have reached this level, and the first in Scotland."

Corporate information category Academic governance