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Message from the Vice-Chancellor for staff and students on our response to the coronavirus pandemic - 25th March 2020

Dear Colleagues and Students,

Kindness and seeing the world through other people’s eyes are at the heart of my message this week.

I don’t think any of us will have lived through a crisis quite like this and there are now fundamental changes to our daily lives – including the way we communicate, socialise, work and support loved ones. I could not be prouder of the way colleagues and students have adapted in a very short space of time. But I also know many of us are struggling most days to get the balance right, to change the way we live and work as well as take in the extraordinary daily news.

Please understand that the wellbeing and safety of our staff, students and community will always come first, and from that perspective we know that everyone will be doing their very best to work and study when they can. We know that for parents and carers you may not be able to work in the same way. If there is more we can do to support you then please let us know.

Thank you to everyone who has been involved in the move to online teaching this week and to our students for their patience and heeding the advice and information over recent days. I know not everything will have gone smoothly but please be kind in your feedback and know that everyone will be doing their very best to ensure we provide an excellent learning experience in the days and weeks ahead.  

By the end of this week we will have further information for everyone on how we will operate in the weeks after Easter – including online exams, living arrangements, graduation and ongoing support. Over the last couple of weeks we have been listening to the wide range of perspectives and guidance to find fair solutions that will ensure success and progression for all of our students around the world. If you have concerns or queries then please just get in touch.

We will need a bit more time to confirm details for education from September, placements for those going abroad or working in other organisations and accommodation arrangements for the academic year 2020/2021. We are committed to welcoming new students and returning students later this year.

I know that alongside education and health issues, people will have concerns about employment and contracts. I said in my message last week that as an organisation we are in a strong financial position to support our staff and students and we will do everything in our power to support you and the people connected to our university.

Our research community is an absolutely fundamental part of what we do and we are lobbying hard, on a daily basis, government, UKRI and other research funders through the Russell Group and ourselves to ensure that those of you on short or fixed-term contracts do not see those contracts ending as a result of Coronavirus.  We are receiving very positive signals in return and will update you as soon as we can. 

At the start of my message I emphasised the importance of seeing the world through other people’s eyes and that’s what we are aiming to do in every decision we make. I think most people in recent weeks have reflected on the world we currently live in and the world we want to create when we emerge from this crisis. We must not through restricted movement limit our horizons or narrow our world view. We should continue to look outward and know that international connections and communities are as important as the local communities we now find ourselves rooted to in a different way.

I was heartened this week to receive a letter from the Chinese Embassy in the UK to express solidarity with the University of Exeter during the pandemic and to thank us for our support and care for Chinese students and staff, for taking a stand against racism and to give their commitment to work with us to emerge stronger from this crisis. The Principal Adviser for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Advance HE also praised this week our local partnership approach to tackling hate crime and clear institutional commitments to ensuring a safe and inclusive environment for all.

We know that we have a long way to go to prevent racism and division but the actions I have seen from students and staff in recent weeks give me hope that we can learn from this crisis and create a more respectful, compassionate and inclusive society.

I want the University of Exeter to be at the forefront of shaping new local, national and global systems for change. We are already showing our mettle in supporting the NHS and South-West community, contributing to the national genomics programme to unlock the secrets of COVID-19 to help combat the virus, and I want us to be unrelenting in pushing our expertise and values in the world.

This crisis will change us in ways we can only begin to imagine at this point. There will be horrors to face; there will be institutional challenges on a scale we have never known, but there will also be innovations and new ideas which bring positive benefits in the future. And, however difficult it may be, the time will come when we need to start thinking about the recovery phase.

Initially our focus is to support our staff and students to deliver our major education and research priorities, second to manage the logistical issues concerning the campuses and facilities and third working with regional NHS to provide vitally needed staff, equipment, facilities, volunteering and research.

And then beyond that, we need to be part of getting the UK back on its feet as part of an economically important sector, and as communities which can play a vital role in bringing people back together. If this crisis has shown one thing it is that experts and expertise matter. The University of Exeter with our outstanding staff and students are going to have a very important role to play in national recovery and will be in the vanguard as we build our post-coronavirus society and economy. And, the changes we are making to the ways in which we work may well make it a lot easier to move even more quickly towards carbon neutrality as we replace face-to-face meetings with on-line communication, and as we move our teaching far more online, for the simple reason that many of our students, particularly international students, may not be able to travel to the UK to study.

In this new normal world, the education and research systems that prosper will be those that are international in focus, producing research that combines the talents and insights of leading researchers in more than one knowledge economy, and supporting and educating students in an increasingly, maybe totally, digital way in the kinds of multi-cultural environments that resemble the world of work into which they will want to progress. And, to reiterate, this will require us to make significant changes in the ways in which we operate, so as to become much more flexible in how we teach, research and administer the university.

So, despite the dark days that we face, I am very confident that the things that have made Exeter prosper in recent years will remain key strengths in the future. So, when the crisis passes, and it will pass, I think we are exceptionally well-placed to succeed in the future.

Thanks once again for all the work you have put in to support students, colleagues, and our regional health system. Please whatever you do take of yourselves and your families in the weeks ahead, please resist the tendency and the pressures to see increased flexibility in working as a reason to over-work, but do understand that the way we have responded to this crisis bodes so well for the future of this excellent university, and, most importantly, its students and staff.

With best wishes,


Professor Sir Steve Smith
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive