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President's weekly update

10 June 2021

We held our annual Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture, named in honour of Sir John Cockcroft, one of our alumni, and Lord Ernest Rutherford, a former member of our staff, who were both Nobel Prize winners. This is a major alumni event and while we had to hold it online rather than in-person, this did mean that people could join from wherever they are and it did attract attendees from over 70 countries, which has never been possible in-person. This year’s lecturer was Professor David Olusoga OBE, who holds a chair in public history with us. He spoke about ‘the new history war’ and discussed ‘why has history, particularly the histories of empire and slavery, become so controversial and political, and how are historians to navigate the new history wars?’ He took many questions from the audience and you can watch the whole event.

At a meeting with senior staff, we discussed the content for our Board annual strategy day in early July. We have spent a great deal of time considering the delivery of our strategic plan, what is affordable and what is not. This is particularly against a backdrop of the financial unsustainability of research-intensive universities such as ours due to rising costs, but with a real terms decline in our major income streams and a much less certain external environment. We also discussed the importance of staff and student wellbeing and workloads and the risks of the pandemic impacting on our core mission and our strategic plans and ambitions.

I met Professor Thomas Schmidt, who is taking over as Head of the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures. Thomas has worked in the School previously. I also met Matthew Moth, our new Director of Communications, to consider the major communications challenges we are likely to face over coming months.

On behalf of the Russell Group I met Lord Wharton, the new chair of the Office for Students to discuss the Government’s Freedom of Speech bill, and in particular how we avoid unintended consequences of the bill and how it will operate assuming that it is passed by Parliament. I also chaired a full board meeting of Russell Group Vice-Chancellors which included an extended session on USS pensions. The results of the Universities UK (UUK) consultation with all employers in USS are not yet published but it seems that there is very close alignment in wishing to retain a hybrid pension scheme (defined benefit and defined contributions) but recognising that the proposed contribution rates to maintain the existing benefits from USS are not affordable for employers or employees. We expect to hear soon about how USS has costed the revised proposals put forward by UUK.

I attended several meetings to discuss Innovation Greater Manchester, including one with representatives from Government to consider proposals to further develop innovation, jobs and growth in the city region and the role that the University will play in this.

The launch of our partnership with Bruntwood SciTech - a 50:50 joint venture between Bruntwood and Legal & General - to develop Innovation District Manchester (IDM) on our North Campus has received extensive press coverage including in the Financial Times and on Forbes. I had a call with our local MP, Lucy Powell, to update her on our plans for IDM with the aim to create 10,000 new jobs and to tell her about our work across the five Greater Manchester universities to develop a civic university agreement and to work with our nine further education colleges.

You will have seen that COVID infection rates continue to rise in our region, which is obviously a concern and the UK Government has issued new guidance for areas with high incidence. It is essential that we all, staff and students, strictly observe COVID-secure measures on the campus and carry out regular COVID asymptomatic self-testing or get tested at the University and isolate if the test is positive.  It is also very important that we urge students to take a test before they travel home at the end of the semester to keep their families and friends safe. Additionally, the Government has advised everyone to minimise travel in and out of our area.

At our Planning and Resources Committee, in addition to standard reports and tuition fee setting for 2022 entry, we discussed bringing forward and reducing the work associated with our Annual Performance Reviews. These are important in telling us and our Board how we are performing in all our core areas, but have become very labour intensive. One aspect of this is our position in world university rankings. We have remained at 27th position globally in the QS World Rankings.

A pilot of hybrid working has been launched focusing initially on Professional Services as we believe they are the teams that will experience the most change from moving to hybrid working arrangements. The aim is to create more flexibility as we know this has many benefits where it is not essential for staff to be in the University.

Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor