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Message from the Vice-Chancellor for staff - 22 October 2020

Dear Colleagues,

Thanks so much to everyone who was able to join my all staff talk today. I know this is such a challenging and complex time for us all and I thank you once again for everything you are doing.

I thought it may be helpful just to summarise my key points today, especially for those who could not attend the talk online. You can watch the full talk again on Microsoft Teams.

I would encourage you to particularly look at the section “supporting colleagues and our staff community”, which includes new measures such as the gift of two additional closure days on 23rd and 24th December, an email and meeting ‘lite’ week from 26th October, a ‘Bonfire of Bureaucracy’ and also a staff wellbeing survey in November where we want to hear from you on what more we can do to support you.

Please do send any feedback on the talk or our overall approach to

With best wishes,


Professor Lisa Roberts
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Exeter

Start of term

  • We have welcomed over 11,000 new students to our campuses or accepted them to study remotely.
  • The start of term has been very challenging for us all and the wider community, but with careful planning and preparation of the campus and the new teaching materials, and working with students and Public Health England, we are now in a stable and decreasing position in terms of the numbers of positive COVID cases on our campuses and we have not seen any significant onward transmission into the community.
  • Throughout this we have not only continued to support students with their education but also worked rapidly and with huge dedication to support them being at university in the middle of a global pandemic.
  • Many people, right across the University have enabled our students to study in those first three weeks, delivering over 3000 hours of teaching on campus and about 9000 hours online – just think what has been achieved and the amount of work that has gone into this and I very proud of everyone and I hope you know how very much it’s appreciated.
  • I also want to thank all staff and students for getting the outbreaks under control, working in close partnership with Public Health England, the Police and local authorities, Students’ Guild, Students’ Union and trades unions.
  • Thank you also for the huge efforts keeping our research activities going, and starting new research programmes in very constrained environments.

Why the blended approach to teaching is so important and the support for our students

  • The Government has made it clear that universities should remain open and that a blended approach to education should be taking place.
  • Schools, colleges and universities seen as essential, even in Very High Risk areas.  Exeter, Falmouth and Truro are currently at the lowest risk. 
  • If we had moved our teaching wholly online it would likely have seriously affected the educational experience of our students, and would be likely to impact on their mental health and wellbeing. A report this week has indicated that there has been an approximate 33% increase in clinical mental illness conditions since March in children and young people. There are serious concerns about loneliness in our student population that are being raised by the Guild and Students Union. It is not right to expect students to stay in their rooms and not access campus and have the opportunity to meet their lecturers and student cohorts. These students have faced a year of disruption and disadvantage and we are keen that our actions should not further disadvantage them.  This is a moral imperative.
  • You will be well aware that we have all worked together to put in place a number of measures to make campus, and teaching spaces, covid-secure and we have been extremely responsive.  The Director of Public Health for Devon, Dr Virginia Pearson, publically stated her thanks and endorsement for all we have done.
  • Importantly, there is no evidence of transmission of infection in a teaching setting.
  • Our testing data shows that we are managing the transmission, and case numbers are coming down dramatically.  Thanks to the efforts of all of our staff and students.
  • Our students are asking us to provide more face to face teaching.  The recent pulse survey of student attitudes shows that 68% want more in-person on campus teaching. The Pulse survey gives us valuable insights into the challenges students are facing and, there are many comments around motivation and social isolation. In person teaching has a key role to play in fostering social connectedness of students, especially 1st years, and the motivation and other benefits that come with that.
  • So thank you for delivering Project Enhance and Restart work and I am so pleased to see the ways you have been supporting our students so far.

Supporting colleagues and our staff community

  • Covid-19 is affecting every one of us in different ways, highlighting mental health and wellbeing issues, increasing work challenges and demands on us and affecting many non-work aspects of our lives.  We have got a significant amount of support available to you, please do check the Covid-19 pages on our website.
  • In case you are not aware, the Positive Working Environment (PWE) Board has a work stream entitled Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing, chaired by Professor Barney Dunn, Research Clinical Psychologist, which has been working for some time to develop mental health and wellbeing resources in response to the Employee Engagement Survey 2018.  Since March 2020 this work has been refocused to support the University Covid-19 Response Programme via the ‘Experience & Wellbeing’ Core Business Response Group (Chaired by Professor Janice Kay, Provost).
  • Some of the new support coming soon includes: 250 Mental Health First Aiders who have completed their training; a Mental Health Staff Network; and a Mental Health toolkit.
  • But, we have also been listening to the feedback from staff that you just need a break, as everyone has been running at full speed for so long now. So we also wanted to find some immediate ways of trying to respond right now, and try and give some time back to staff and also to say thank you. So we are going to: 
  • Gift all staff two additional festive closure days on 23rd and 24th December (if not possible for everyone these can be taken at another time)
  • Commitment to an E-Mail & meeting ‘lite’ week (best time to be decided locally) but from 26th October onwards and I have already cancelled some of my staff meetings next week
  • With staff input we have developed E-mail and online meeting charters to lessen email traffic and the times of emails and given guidance on online meetings
  • Investing in more wellbeing support with ‘Fika Mental Fitness’ app once pilot complete
  • We will also be seeking further views from colleagues via a very short (wellbeing focused) staff survey mid-November
  • We have also triggered a ‘Bonfire of Bureaucracy’ initiative to bring forward things that are taking up time, causing inefficiency and stopping us being agile.


  • I want to finish by saying that the world may feel as uncertain now as it did 7 months ago, and we continue to see many changes to our lives.
  • The reality is that we will likely be responding to and living with this pandemic for many months to come. And we won’t be going back to exactly what was before, in society or as a university.
  • But I want us to reflect on how far we have come as a university community. We have shown real strength of togetherness and so much has been achieved with such great pace and innovation and team working.
  • That gives me, and hopefully you, great confidence in us getting through this in a strong position.  And great confidence that we can achieve whatever we want to when we all pull together. 
  • But, working like this forever isn’t sustainable, we can’t keep working more and working harder, which is why our new strategy needs to think not only about what we do but how we do things, and also explore some choices about what we don’t do.  Let’s keep pulling together, and at the same time let’s come together to develop an exciting and ambitious strategy for the next 10 years.