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Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff and students - 30th April 2020

Dear Colleagues and Students,

Many thanks for the positive feedback we have been receiving about our communications and approach to the Covid-19 crisis in recent weeks. I read every response and I appreciate the honest views from colleagues and students about the concerns they have and areas where they need more support. We are listening and acting on the feedback we receive. We are aware that we will not get everything right, but with your advice and support we will make better decisions.

I am very proud of the teamwork and collaboration across our University to benefit the whole community and I genuinely believe that we can come through this crisis to create stronger, more caring communities and a better, more sustainable way of life; but at times the suffering and emotional toll across the country has been almost too much to bear.

This week’s message is focussed on the financial situation, and it is not an easy one to write. We are clearly in uncharted territory and some of the serious financial implications for our sector are only now becoming clear. I want to tell you everything we know, and to outline our options as we see them, but please understand that there is a lot that we are not yet sure of, and so our view at this point is by definition an incomplete one.

One major strand of our work has been to support Universities UUK’s approach to government for financial support. In order to enable our University to continue to be a force for good at this difficult time we have been working alongside our partners regionally and nationally to make the case to government about the investment universities need to maintain and enhance high quality education and research. We believe this support is fundamental to the recovery of the nation as a whole, because universities in general, and research universities in particular, are central to the future of our country. The discussions have been positive in recent days but we do not yet know the outcome or approach the government will take.  Their decisions will obviously affect the financial position we have to deal with.

Having said which, we are in a better financial position when compared to many universities around the country because of the decisions and strategy we have followed in recent years and of course due to the hard work of our colleagues. Despite this, like all universities, we face an uncertain 12 to 18 months at least and will still need to take difficult financial decisions and be clear about our spending priorities. Much like the virus response, the actions we take early will benefit everyone in the long term. We can reduce the risk of a potentially difficult autumn and new financial year if we act decisively now.

As part of reducing that risk the senior management team have already spoken to budget holders to ensure we minimise all current spend and only invest where absolutely essential. It is vital that we all play our part in this and continue to work as one team in the way we have been doing so far. We all need to be flexible and innovative in the way we work and manage costs but not lose sight of what matters - the highest quality education and exceptional research.

I said in my message last week that cost and budget reductions will start at the top and the Remuneration Committee has agreed this week that all members of the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group (VCEG), will reduce their remuneration by 20% for the next four months, at which point there will be a further review.

We are also working through with our Senior Management Group (SMG) a series of other options that could reduce the risk facing the institution. Over 115 of us met yesterday for the first of a series of meetings that will enable us to canvass every part of the University and the Students’ Guild and Students’ Union. There are a series of further discussions scheduled. We will discuss the options that emerge with the unions and with Senate. These may include reducing non-pay spend budgets, further reducing or delaying capital spend on buildings and equipment taking into account any impact on education or research, utilising the government job retention scheme (furloughing), halting recruitment and a series of other ways of reducing staffing costs (£264M this year).

We are taking these steps now as we want to do everything we possibly can to protect jobs and that is at the forefront of our decision making.

As I said to our Senior Management Group this week, the savings we make now will protect jobs, our world-class student experience, our world-class research and enable us to bounce back from the Covid-19 crisis as a community united around our ambition to be one of the best universities in the world playing its part in rebuilding the nation.

We will continue to keep you updated and involved in the weeks and months ahead on all our decision-making and continue to explain how we can work together for the benefit of everyone in our University community.

I also want to reassure you that at such a difficult time we are particularly prioritising support to our students suffering hardships. I want to thank everyone who has been involved, including alumni donors, in establishing our Emergency Assistance Fund for students which received close to 150 applications in the first week. We have also set up an IT Emergency Loan scheme to help with studies at home.

The University of Exeter is committed to supporting our community now and forever. I have been particularly struck by messages from students and reports in the media about the concerns people have right now about job prospects after university. I believe our career support is second to none and we have continued to help people gain work placements and job opportunities at this challenging time. We will always support our students and we take our responsibility for graduate employment very seriously, adapting our approach to the changing world of work. I urge our students to talk to our excellent careers team about the help they can provide. We currently have hundreds of jobs live on our vacancy system, 400 virtual mentoring opportunities, and will host over 100 careers and employability webinar events between now and the end of term. 

Our emotional and wellbeing support is equally important right now and I want to thank our support services for all their hard work at this challenging time in ensuring a safe and caring environment for staff and students. I want to make special mention of the Students’ Guild and Students’ Union at this point. The online support has been exemplary and campaigns such as #IsolationNotIsolated, support for ‘Societies in Isolation’, student support on accommodation and the collaboration to provide virtual coffee mornings for estranged students and care leavers is a credit to everyone involved.

Every day there is a story about how colleagues or students have gone above and beyond for the community and we should all be so proud. The story that particularly moved me this week was one of our Chinese postgraduate researchers and teaching assistants donating 3000 facemasks to Hospiscare to support compassionate end of life care. Thank you to everyone who made this possible and for all your acts of kindness every day.

I want to finish my message today by turning to the exams that are now taking place for so many of our students. First of all I want to thank all colleagues who have been involved in the transformation to online exams and assessments this year - we are all so very grateful. And finally, I want to wish all our students the very best of luck. Your hard work will pay off and we will support you every step of the way whether you are returning to studies next year or moving on to a new stage of your life and career.

Take care and keep in touch with any feedback or details of support we can provide.       

With best wishes

Steve

Professor Sir Steve Smith
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive