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Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff and students - 14th May 2020

Dear Colleagues and Students,

I hope this message finds you and your friends and family well. The main focus of my work at present is thinking about how to move beyond the lockdown phase. I want to be absolutely clear at the outset that every decision we take will be based on how to ensure the safety of our students and staff. But we have to start planning how to return to our campuses and how we are going to teach and research next academic year. We now have a critical few months ahead of us where the actions and decisions we take as a university community will help us to set the right course for the future.

I know that many students and colleagues will be focused on exams and that is of course the absolute priority so that all our students achieve their very best and we support you to make the vital next steps in your future career and lives. We are so very proud of all our students and the way you have responded to the challenges this year: sincerely, thank you.

Crisis, uncertainty and complexity are prevalent throughout human history and every individual life, and what matters is how you and we respond. I hope we can learn and reflect together on the past few months and make positive changes for the future as individuals, as a community and as a university. Our commitment as the senior team of the university is to try to make our decisions in as transparent a way as possible, and collaboratively with our staff and our students, working closely with unions and our Students’ Guild and Students’ Union.

We have put in place a number of expert groups who are bringing together ideas and actions for how we restart work and education on campus; how we enhance our teaching and learning - knowing that digital will be a vital part of future education regardless of social distancing measures; and how we improve the experience and wellbeing of all our students and colleagues to take into account equality, diversity and inclusion. There is no doubt that the Covid-19 crisis has brought a sharper focus to all these issues and we must now be bolder about making the necessary improvements to benefit people and the environment.

The operational return to campus is starting with those who most need to work on site such as colleagues who need access to research laboratories or facilities, key workers and of course later in the year teaching spaces. We are keeping a close eye on government guidance and the restrictions that remain in place and we ask that no-one returns to campus unless specifically authorised to do so. As I mentioned above, the number one priority is the safety of our students, colleagues and community. Please work with us and be patient while we adapt and ensure you continue to read and take your lead from the guidance contained within the weekly Registrar’s update - accepting that it may well be many months before some colleagues return to campus to work and even then your time spent on campus could be reduced.

For students, we are working on the basis that most UK undergraduates will join us from mid-September but international students may need to arrive later. Of course, some postgraduate students may not be able to start until January and we are looking at an autumn and January start for them. These are all just possibilities at the moment and we are planning on the basis of a number of different scenarios, working closely with colleagues in colleges, our student unions, and with the government, partners and the education sector to get this right. We want to create the safest and most welcoming start for our students as we can. I promise to be honest and open with you throughout the process of making these decisions so that we will work with you to find the right solutions.

Student and staff wellbeing will be at the heart of all this work. Janice Kay as Provost is leading the work to ensure equality, diversity and inclusion are central to the decisions we make. We are listening to personal accounts and considering wider evidence on homeworking, online learning and social distancing measures. Covid-19 has accentuated differences and inequalities, and there are powerful stories from people who have disabilities, difficult home circumstances, caring responsibilities and who live in different cultures and communities around the world for whom we must act to ensure everyone has the same opportunity to thrive at our university.

If you have ideas on how we take this moment to improve student and staff wellbeing for the long term then please get in touch with the Students and Staff Experience Welfare Group I also urge all our managers to listen to their colleagues about what has worked over the past few months and what has not. Every manager has a responsibility to live and convey our values to support colleagues through these challenging times. The same goes for personal tutors and their support for students. I am so thankful for the engagement from the senior management team, and we commit to continue full and transparent communications and practice at all times. Ultimately, it is not our words that make a difference but the actions we take.

I want to finish my message this week again on the positive progress we are making together. I know there is concern about the months ahead, about government guidance and support and what the autumn will bring. We will all miss the graduation celebrations on campus but the most important issue is that we are supporting our graduates into employment and the next steps in their career. For students returning to study in the autumn we will be ready to provide an exceptional education that will support your success and fulfilment in the years ahead. For students starting fresh in the autumn our work will ensure the experience is exciting and transformative in the way all university education should be. Of course, our new Vice-Chancellor also starts in September, and it is important to let you know just how closely she and I are working together to ensure a smooth transition and the best possible start to the new academic year.

Despite the recent challenges and uncertainty, the engagement we have had from people who want to study at the University of Exeter has been extraordinary. In most areas applications, acceptances and interest from potential students are significantly up on last year. I want to thank everyone who is involved in attracting and recruiting new students to our university. The online events we have established and Discover University programme with talks and digital content have been a huge success and are, again, innovations we can take into the future. Our own and sector wide research shows that around 85% of UK and EU students are unlikely to change their plans and this is true for around 50% of international students. The decisions, actions and the values we demonstrate in the coming weeks will help determine our success in the months and years ahead.

Next week, I am going to use the Microsoft Teams technology to talk to staff directly and answer questions online. We continue to listen and act on your feedback. The staff talk next week will be at 1pm on Tuesday 19 May and we have emailed you a link to take part.

Until then take care and good luck to everyone taking exams.

With best wishes,


Professor Sir Steve Smith
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive