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Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff and students - 8th April 2020

Dear Colleagues and Students,

On Sunday evening we sat and watched as the Queen gave a rare address to the nation and the Commonwealth, only the fifth of her reign. By the following evening the Prime Minister had been admitted to an intensive care unit in London after his condition worsened. It should now be absolutely clear to all of us that Coronavirus can affect anyone, regardless of who they are and our thoughts go out to Boris Johnson and all those who are suffering from the effects of Coronavirus, including the loved ones of the thousands who have now lost their lives. We are left once more to reflect on the speed and scale of the changes this pandemic has brought, and to wonder how and when the tide will begin to turn.

Some experts suggest that we may reach the peak in terms of new daily cases within the next two to three weeks. This would of course be desperately welcome, and yet as those who are familiar with the merciless acceleration of an exponential curve know, this would also suggest that we may soon be at the worst period of the crisis.

It pains me to begin my message to you in such stark terms, but these are critical days for all of us, and there is one simple thing that we can all do to support each other and hasten the conclusion of this emergency: Stay At Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.

Tomorrow I will have the honour of presiding over an online graduation celebration for more than 90 of our final year students in Medicine and Medical Imaging. These students have chosen to graduate three months early in order immediately to take up their posts as junior doctors and diagnostic radiographers, and so to join the NHS in the fight against Coronavirus in communities across the country. They join many of our clinically trained colleagues who have returned to practice in many different settings.

I am humbled and inspired by their selflessness. Over recent years students have been stereotyped and derided as the ‘snowflake generation’, utterly unfairly, and often by those who themselves speak longingly of the ‘Blitz spirit’ of long ago. Now, in the time of our greatest national and global crisis since the Second World War, we see the young people of this country and of our University standing up to be counted and making huge personal sacrifices.

Tomorrow I will watch as they read the Hippocratic Oath, pledging to serve humanity, to care for the sick, to alleviate pain and suffering and to care for all patients equally and without prejudice. I hope you will join me and watch their statements which will be made available online in the days that follow. Then at 8pm, like millions of others, I will step outside to join the ‘Clap For Carers’, applauding all those who are stepping forward to tackle this pandemic. In my 18 years as Vice-Chancellor, I can think of few prouder days.

Elsewhere the University is supporting the national effort by donating vital equipment and supplies to be used on the frontline. Hundreds of boxes of gloves, facemasks, visors and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) have been donated to the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust, Devon County Council and the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust.

We are also providing vital lab equipment such as centrifuges, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines and other top-of-the-range apparatus to be used in testing and combatting the virus. I am deeply grateful to those teams who have halted their own work and made their equipment available in the national interest.

Many of our researchers are directly involved in work to develop new understanding of the virus and means by which to combat it, including vital work to analyse the genetic code of COVID-19 to understand how it mutates and spreads. Elsewhere colleagues have produced advice for those adapting to life during lockdown, and rapid surveys which are being used to inform policy makers in real time. The role of universities has never been so vital and, once again, I am enormously grateful for the incredible efforts being made by everyone to ensure we can continue this work when we are needed most.

We have been working closely with Devon and Cornwall Police to ensure the right support is in place for members of our community who have, regrettably, suffered discrimination and harassment whilst shopping or exercising. This is never acceptable and we will do whatever we can both to support our students and to combat this behaviour wherever it is found. We ask you to report any harassment or discrimination that you encounter, either to the Police or via our own Speak Out website www.exeter.ac.uk/speakout.

Across the sector the hard work continues to ensure that Further and Higher Education can adapt to meet the challenge of the immediate crisis, and the aftershocks that will follow. We now know that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 has been postponed until further notice. In recruitment, a recent QS survey found that 55% of international students planning to study in Britain from September have now changed their plans. A further 32% are yet to make up their minds. This in turn has thrown concerns over sector finances into the spotlight. I am pleased to say that our position is sound, but many others are facing very difficult decisions indeed.

Crucially, at Exeter we are making decisions and developing policy in partnership with our students. The recent announcements on examinations, assessment, awarding and progression, including the ‘no detriment’ policy, have been the result of exceptionally hard and complex work, undertaken in partnership by our academic leadership, our professional services teams and our student representatives in the Students’ Guild and Students’ Union. This process has embodied our values of Challenge, Collaboration, Community and Rigour and the result is a set of provisions with compassion and fairness at their heart. I commend all those involved in this critical piece of work.

The challenges come thick and fast. We continue to support students who found themselves unable to leave our campuses, and those who were overseas undertaking field work and have been unable to return. We will soon be holding our first online Offer Holder Visit Days, and all across the University colleagues and students are adapting to our new, unsettling situation.

Finally, I was delighted that we were able to offer staff a further two ‘closure’ days next week, meaning that many will hopefully be able to step away from work and try to relax. I know this is difficult, and that not everyone will be able to stop working, but for some it will hopefully be possible to focus on the things that are important and, most of all, to connect with loved ones, even if we are unable to extend the simplest handshake or exchange an embrace.

This is the challenge of our lifetimes, and the following days will be hard for us all, but I was moved by the Queen’s simple words on Sunday, and I wanted to close with them here. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return… We will meet again.

With best wishes,

Steve

Professor Sir Steve Smith
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive