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President's weekly update

5 December 2019

I am sure you will all have been shocked and greatly saddened to hear of the dreadful terrorist attack in London. This was targeted at an academic conference aimed at helping the rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. Two innocent people supporting the conference were tragically killed. One of these was Jack Merritt who graduated from our University in 2016, then went on to study at Cambridge and was a course organiser for the Learning Together Programme.  Two of our staff and three further alumni were also present at the conference but thankfully were not injured in the attack. Our deepest condolences go to the families, friends and colleagues of those who died and our wishes for a speedy recovery to those injured. I have been in contact with the Vice-Chancellor of The University of Cambridge which organised the event at which two of their former students lost their lives and several of their staff were injured.  A short statement can be found on StaffNet.

After eight days of strikes by members of the University and College Union (UCU), the employers, represented by Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association in connection with the pension and pay disputes respectively, are still in discussions with the UCU to try and find a resolution. We will not know for a while how many staff were on strike at our University because they report after the event. UCU members are still taking action short of a strike, but we expect that our staff will prioritise helping students who may have missed teaching in achieving their intended learning outcomes – this can be done in a number of ways.

I have received many emails from students about the current strike. I am very concerned that some wrote that most of our staff are on fixed-term (described as ‘precarious’) contracts. This is not the case.  It is true that our PhD students are now on staff contracts (as opposed to being treated as casual staff) which we and the unions see as a benefit. PhD students are always on a defined length of contract for the duration of their PhD. Apart from PhD students, virtually all other staff on fixed-term contracts are research staff whose work is externally funded and of finite duration.

This week we reviewed the outcomes of our Annual Performance Reviews for the three Faculties and Professional Services. These in-depth reviews considered all aspects of our performance over the past academic year and will be reported to the Board of Governors which will spend time with senior staff considering our achievements and where further efforts are required. Some common features arose during the discussions, notably external uncertainties, financial pressures, meeting student expectations and the need for change and more agility. All areas expressed concern about staff workloads as we face evermore pressures. We discussed means through which these workloads could be alleviated, although many would involve quite significant changes in the way we do things and change was also identified as adding to difficulties.  Addressing real concerns about our gender and ethnicity pay gaps was identified as an area of priority and further actions.

I gave the annual Stephen Paget Memorial lecture in London organised by Understanding Animal Research. My talk: ‘A stroke of bad luck’ was about our research from the laboratory through to ongoing clinical trials in stroke and brain haemorrhage.

While in London I met a number of our alumni who have been generous donors to, and supporters of, the University to update them on our recent activities and future plans.

I welcomed scientists who visited from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot and who were taking part in a scientific symposium with our staff on collaborations between our institutions. Dr Chaim Weizmann was a prominent figure who, amongst other things, had been a Reader at the Victoria University of Manchester before he left to found the Weizmann Institute. I also welcomed and thanked supporters of the partnership who attended the event at the end of the conference.

Our University’s Financial Statements for 2018-19 are now published along with a summary highlighting our income and expenditure.  These show a rise in income both from tuition fees and research, which is important because it enables us to invest in our people, infrastructure and environmental sustainability. We reported an operating surplus of 3.7% of our income which is slightly better than last year (2.3%) but still below the 5-7% level which we and our Board believe is essential for financial sustainability. Whilst we have improved our operating performance, our total comprehensive income has decreased from £102.2m surplus to a deficit of £110.5m.  This position is due to pensions accounting, including one-off charges of £143.3m.

Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor