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Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff and students - 7th May 2020

Dear Colleagues and Students,

Many of you will have seen this week that the government has started to set out specific support measures for universities. These include bringing forward tuition fee payments to help cash flow and the ability to recruit full-time undergraduate UK and EU students for 2020-21 up to a temporary set level - based on forecasts for the next academic year, plus an additional 5 per cent. In addition, £100 million of quality-related research funding will be brought forward into the current academic year as immediate help to ensure research activities can continue during the crisis.

This is part way towards the package we have been pushing for as a higher education sector, but it is important to note that none of the money is additional or new – it involves bringing forward by several months money scheduled to be spread over the next 12 months.

To put it clearly, the government’s package helps our cash flow by paying us earlier, it does not help our financial sustainability. So, while it will help with short-term stabilisation it does not yet address the longer-term issues we face as a sector. We remain concerned about research funding, where we are not paid the full economic cost of our research and thus have to cross-subsidise it. In recent decades this has been by using international student fees, and it is not clear how many international students will want to travel in 2020. Our view is that high quality research is vital to the quality of education in the UK, and indeed the economy and recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. Our main priority now is therefore to continue to push for a properly funded research system, and that is the focus of my own work at present.

At Exeter, I am proud of the way we are addressing the education, research and financial challenges we face. The senior leadership team have set up a number of working groups to focus on high quality teaching and student experience, research priorities and a safe return to campus that considers some of the benefits of online study, home-working and particularly the impact on the environment.

We expect the government in the coming days to announce details of the exit strategy from the lockdown and perhaps details of what this will mean for universities. I want you to know that we will take a safety first approach to any re-opening to ensure the health and wellbeing of colleagues, students and our community.

It is likely that for the start of the new academic year we will need to continue to provide a blend of online learning and on campus teaching with perhaps smaller physical groups or gatherings. Learning together on campus has big benefits but we also want to make sure that we adapt, make best use of technological innovations and listen to staff and student views about the pros and cons of online learning to create an even better education experience. Accessibility, inclusion, and exceptional degrees that work for everyone will be our shared goal and is one that I ask everyone to contribute to.

We also take very seriously our role as a leading university on the environment and climate emergency. We want to ensure that we take this moment to change our working and travelling practices to radically reduce our carbon emissions and protect the natural environment. There are clearly benefits in home-working and using technology to reduce the amount of travel we undertake to improve our carbon footprint for example.

We have established a team to focus on future working practices and it is taking into consideration our carbon footprint, economic impact, equality and diversity and issues such as disability, people for whom home is not a safe space, people for whom working at home significantly impacts their ability to work at full capacity as well as those who find they can be more productive. Most importantly, our approach will ensure that we continue to provide outstanding education and produce world-class research. If you have ideas about the positive changes we can make to the way we work and study then do get in touch.

I know that my last couple of messages have focused heavily on the financial challenges we face and the potential impact on our operations but I do also want to reassure you that we have been working on substantial plans to mitigate the risks. There may even be benefits to students, colleagues and the community if we make the right decisions now for the longer term. We are working hard together as one team to get through the current crisis. Indeed, I know that many are continuing to work very long hours to ensure success and I thank you all for your endeavours. But please continue to look after your own mental health. We know that everyone is absolutely doing their very best in extraordinary circumstances, but please only work the hours you can and prioritise essential tasks to ensure your workload is sustainable. This includes both study and work. Your health and wellbeing must be your, and our, top priority.

I want to finish again just by highlighting some of the positive work going on within our university community. I want to thank everyone involved in supporting our students who have remained on campus, mainly international students, who we have supported emotionally and practically with items such as food parcels or safety measures. I want to thank all our extraordinary academics and students who are doing so much to support our communities through the Covid-19 crisis, who continue to publish-life-changing research and those in the College of Medicine and Health who continue to work alongside health professionals and speak up for improvements. There are too many to mention but I recommend you read our news pages and website dedicated to our Covid-19 response.

Remember when our main worry was the impact of Brexit? Well, I also want to thank the team who have worked on the campaign this week to promote our European partnerships, research and education. I recommend you read a blog by Professor Sally Faulkner, Assistant Deputy Vice Chancellor (Europe) who reminds us of the need to continue to look outwards at a time when it would be easy to become insular. It is the 75th anniversary of VE Day on Friday 8 May, a time of reflection and remembrance, and perhaps a moment to look to the future and know that we are at our best when we work together and for each other.

Have a great bank holiday weekend and take care.

With best wishes,

Steve

Professor Sir Steve Smith
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive