Alumni update from University Court March 2021

Updated on 19 March 2021

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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

“University Court met on Tuesday, 23 February 2021, the first Court meeting at which our new Principal, Professor Iain Gillespie, was present as a member.  Professor Gillespie joined us from the University of Leicester, where he was Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Enterprise.

“As is now customary at Court, the meeting was preceded by a presentation on an aspect of one University’s activities.  At this meeting, Court was briefed on the recently-secured Tay Cities Deal, part of long-term funding by the UK and Scottish Governments across the regions of the UK.  The University is involved in two projects: the ‘JustTech’ project, with initial funding of £15M, which will create an Institute of Innovation for Forensic Science; and the ‘Growing the Tay Cities Biomedical Cluster’ project, with initial funding of £25M, which will create a new Innovation Hub where academic and entrepreneurial expertise will come together to provide new treatments and technologies for medicine and life sciences.  The former project is scheduled some years into the future with the construction of a Tay Cities Regional Innovation Hub due to commence later this year.  The projects play to the University’s research strengths - in forensic science, and medical and life sciences; the University is a world leader in both fields, and it is intended by us and our partners that they will create new economic activity in the local area.  The University also anticipates that the influence of these projects will be felt across the globe, for example in providing advances in healthcare by developing new drugs, treatments and medical innovations.

“Much of the discussion at Court concerned the University’s ‘Academic Excellence and Structure’ initiative.  Alumni may recall that this has been under consideration now for some months and has been subject of wide consultation at Court, Senate and the wider University community.  Its twin aims are achieving academic excellence and financial sustainability: and these are regarded as strongly intertwined by senior academic staff.  As things currently stand, the particular proposals are to merge the three Schools of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education & Social Work into a single School, and to rationalise research activity in Life Sciences and Medicine.  Further developments will emerge in due course.  In response to the expressed views of members of the University at large, and to the practicalities of the extended lockdown, it has been accepted by the Principal and the University Executive Group that the pace of change should be moderated.  However, it was the universal view of members of Court that the University’s financial problems must be addressed, and that strong action would be required over several years.

“Much of the discussion at Court concerned the effects of the pandemic, whether these effects were direct or indirect.  The direct effects include

the transformation in the way in which our students are being taught.  An enormous effort on the part of the University’s academic staff over the previous months has helped it prepare and transform its current offerings into a blended format ready for semester two. As it stands, the majority of teaching remains online except for exceptional circumstances, where courses are either time-critical or assessments cannot be postponed.  The Scottish Government has been somewhat cautious and uncertain in its guidance to universities.  This was perhaps advisable or even necessary, but has added materially to the stresses and difficulties faced by staff. 

“Less obvious, but no less important, are the indirect effects of the pandemic.  As judged by this observer, these are perhaps most keenly felt by the University’s students.  A striking example was given to Court by the Independent Student Member of Court, Gigi Gan Jia Hui.  Final year dental students in Scotland (so also at Aberdeen and Glasgow) are unable to graduate this year because of their lack of clinical experience and will have to repeat their final year.  While the Scottish Government has made some funds available for these students, it will not cover all their additional costs, and certainly not that of overseas students, with their high tuition fees and travel costs; moreover, these students will forfeit a year’s loss of earnings.  The President of the Students’ Association, Scott Quinn, drew attention to the issue of student housing, early in January, Scottish Government released new guidance that stated students who travelled home for the winter break should not return to their term time accommodation unless deemed essential. This presented the situation where students were paying for accommodation that they could no longer access, creating more financial strain.  Again, this has been partly addressed by the creation of a hardship fund, but it must be acknowledged that students currently have a diminished academic and social experience, with much uncertainty and significant stress.  The University is well aware of the many issues facing both its students and its staff and is addressing these as best it can.

“It has become apparent to Court in recent months that the University appears to have been treated relatively unfavourably in the yearly financial settlements from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), in comparison with other Scottish universities.  This has extended over the best part of a decade, and now amounts perhaps to a relative loss of funding of some £5M-£10M which, given the tight margins under which universities must operate, has been a substantial detriment to the University.  There is no suggestion that this has been in any way deliberate, rather it is the cumulative effect of individual small policy shifts which have disadvantaged us, despite our being very closely aligned with the stated aims of the SFC (as demonstrated by the annual Outcome Agreements).  The Chair of Court and the Principal have written to the SFC to express their concern about this discrepancy.  It was therefore with considerable pleasure that Court received the very good news that, under its recently announced Financial Transactions scheme, SFC is minded to award the University a substantial loan at very low interest for designated capital expenditure.  This will be of immediate help to the University in financing the capital costs of establishing the Tay Cities Biomedical Cluster in its initial stages.”

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