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President's weekly update

19 November 2020

As I have said many times, our students are the lifeblood of our University and we know that young people have been particularly affected by the pandemic over recent months. Our staff have worked really hard to support our students, though we recognise that we haven’t always been able to deliver the experience that students want and that our staff want to deliver, and as you will have seen from recent media and social media coverage that we haven’t got everything right.  Indeed, I’ve done a number of challenging media interviews this week to answer some tough, but fair, questions about recent events, such as this one with the Manchester Evening News.

I hope that many of you will have seen our new Accommodation Pledge , which is our response to the exceptional circumstances faced by students in our residences this semester and which has been endorsed by our Students’ Union officers. This includes paying back two weeks rent for those in our residences and a number of other pledges about accommodation contracts, repairs, anti-social behaviour and study and meeting spaces.

The Pledge results from recent meetings between senior colleagues and elected student representatives, in particular at a meeting last Sunday with students who are standing for election as representatives in our Fallowfield residences. The purpose of the meeting was to hear views and concerns. All of our discussions have been extremely constructive and engaged, and recognised the challenges of the current pandemic. There was a real focus on the need to improve communications, particularly via social media, and the need to improve even further welfare and wellbeing support. In response to this agenda, we have just launched a new 24/7 mental health line.

You will probably be aware of a claim of ‘racial profiling’ against some of our staff by one of our students and of our response. We have launched an investigation and been in contact with the student to offer support.  It is timely to remind staff of our position on racism and discrimination as set out in a Race Matters report.  I want to reiterate our commitment to our zero tolerance for any forms of racism, aggression or intimidation as well as all other forms of discrimination. We will be stepping up the current actions we have in place in this area which include  providing mentoring, training, support, reporting and unconscious bias training and  will be doing  even more  to ensure that there’s no place for racism and discrimination in our University. We will be communicating further about this shortly. I particularly welcome our strong partnership with our Students’ Union on tackling discrimination of any type.

We had an extended Board of Governors’ briefing on teaching, learning and students to hear about the great progress on blended and flexible learning and wellbeing support for students. The Board heard from several students who were very honest about aspects of their teaching that haven’t worked well but also had some very positive comments. All said that online teaching had been going well but wanted more in-person teaching and more direct contact from their staff. We heard about the support available to students for their wellbeing and mental health, then heard quite remarkable stories from two students who had suffered from what one described as ‘mental illness’, the support they had received and suggestions for where we could do better.

A significant focus of our work is to enable students to travel home safely for Christmas. After a huge amount of work by many staff we now have a clear plan for offering COVID-19 tests to students and the details of this will be communicated very soon. This is a major undertaking which is likely to include us offering tests to up to 20,000 students.

At a meeting with about 70 University senior leaders, we discussed the offering of testing to students, in-person teaching in Semester 2, student numbers which as I have reported, are strong though somewhat varied across the University, but in some subjects we are oversubscribed, and the budget for the current year and finances over the next five years.

I attended video meetings with our Global Leadership Board and North American Foundation, both of which support us in fundraising and also great support for many of our projects. We were joined by colleagues from as far as California and Hong Kong.

Our Board Remuneration Committee met to consider the ethnicity and gender pay gaps, both of which reflect differences in the percentage of minorities in more senior roles, but are still of concern and require further actions. They heard that we had advised staff who have taken a voluntary pay cut that this should now be reversed as the financial position is not as serious as we had feared (though still with many uncertainties).

I attended a great meeting of the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre, Neuroscience domain, led from Salford Royal Foundation Trust. A new neuroscience centre has been formed called the Geoffrey Jefferson Centre - he studied at Manchester Grammar then The University of Manchester, he became the UK’s first professor of neurosurgery, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and worked with Alan Turing - clearly a justified naming to recognise a remarkable individual.

Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor