Reflections from the Chair
25 Jul 2022
Our Chair of the Board of Governors, Edward Astle is to step down after six years in the role – here he reflects on that time
After six years as Chair of the Board of Governors, Edward Astle, will step down from that role at the end of August. We asked Edward to give us his reflections on his time as Chair and view on the changing face of the University over what has been a time of remarkable challenge and no little success.
Q: What are the main changes that you have seen across the University since joining the Board to now?
Edward Astle: So many things have changed it is hard to know where to start. But I would particularly highlight the leap forward in blended learning and our ability to enhance the high-quality face to face teaching that we do, enhancing our students’ experience.
The continued steady growth of our research base with some stellar successes such as at NGI and Royce and the ongoing evolution of our estate, not least, but not only MECD – creating ever better environments for learning and research, are both important positive changes.
I’d also highlight the progress of our innovation agenda whether GEIC, Northern Gritstone plus progress of the Innovation Factory – to name but three.
At the same time, some things have stayed the same. I’m glad to say these include strong student demand (home and international) to come to the University, the ongoing strength of our institutional ambition, and our deep-seated commitment to social responsibility and the environment.
Q: What are you most proud of in terms of the achievements of the University in your time as Chair?
Edward Astle: Above all the way the whole University community responded to the challenges of the pandemic – which were immense. The pandemic demanded a seismic shift to online learning and remote working for both staff and students. We sustained key research under Covid conditions while suspending other programmes. The way in which PS and Academic staff looked after essential on-campus activities, the front-line work of our medical students, the ingenuity in creating the Covid Research Rapid Response Group and resulting health and social benefits, together with the design production and testing of PPE – are all sources of pride.
Undoubtedly, we had some uncomfortable bumps along the way, and the impact on staff and student well-being will be with us for some time, but overall, we have emerged from a time of genuine crisis in surprisingly good shape.
Q: Aside from the pandemic, what are the major challenges that the University has faced (those that we’re successfully overcoming and those that still need work)?
Edward Astle: Improving all aspects of our students’ experience – and understanding and reflecting how student expectations are rapidly changing – are proving the hardest challenges to crack. Despite determined efforts across all faculties and the entire institution, measures such as our recent NSS outcome remain disappointing, in the lower quartile. We also know that there is more to do with the quality of our student residences and the delayed roll-out of SEP hasn’t helped matters, though it is encouraging that these issues are being addressed head-on in the next five-year strategic plan.
Financial sustainability in the light of fixed tuition fees and underfunded research is another major challenge for us and all research-intensive universities. Here the short-term picture is encouraging, thanks to higher student numbers and management action on costs. In the longer term, I believe we need to continue to further diversify our international student recruitment and there will be some tough decisions to be made while we wait for any government reform of the sector model.
Underpinning everything is the need to improve staff and student well-being post Covid – a key focus for both the Executive and the Board as the new People strategy is launched.
Q: How has the Board changed in your time as Chair, your major achievements?
Edward Astle: I am particularly proud of two things. First, we have increased the diversity of the Board over the past six years, in terms of depth and variety of experience. With leaders from charity and third sector as well as corporates, we’ve also seen a gender shift where women chair three of the five Board committees, and a quarter of Board members are from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Such experience and diversity on the Board is key to ensuring that we really can hold Nancy and the executive to account and keep our governance well ahead of the growth and ambition of the University.
Secondly, feedback suggests that we have an open and inclusive culture around the board table where everyone feels able to contribute, and where there can be real challenge as well as support of the executive. I am delighted to have facilitated that culture.
It is also great to have increased student representation on the board while slightly reducing its overall size; improved performance management of chair, board members and executive, and initiated our annual informal sessions with a cross-section of staff and students, which provide invaluable insights for us all.
Q: What makes this University special in your view?
Edward Astle: I think the way the University manages to excel at being global, national and local - embedded in the City and local communities – all at the same time – is remarkable. The scale of our ambition, our commitment to social responsibility and the way ‘Manchesterness’ runs through our DNA also set us apart
Q: As you step down as Chair and from the Board, what is next for you, what are you focusing upon?
Edward Astle: I will continue to serve on two other very interesting boards as an NED of Openreach and Chair of the award-winning social mobility charity, upReach. I also aim to take on another role to fill at least part of the very large gap which the University will leave and hope that there will be a way to continue to support the University’s social mobility agenda in the region, potentially linked to a future philanthropic campaign.
Q: And finally…..?
Edward Astle: It has been a huge privilege to work so closely with Nancy and other members of the Senior Leadership Team, to get to know so many staff and understand so many different facets of the University, to attend so many wonderful events, from Foundation Day to the Making a Difference Awards, Venture Further and most recently the opening of the amazing First Light Pavilion at Jodrell Bank. Undoubtedly, there have been major challenges and difficult moments along the way, but the overall experience has been a hugely positive and rewarding one for me.