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President's weekly update

17 September 2020

We held the first joint meeting of the academic year between the officers of our Students’ Union, senior colleagues and me. This year, most unusually, all the officers are international students. The main topic of discussion was reopening the campus and provision of both online and, where safe and feasible, face-to-face teaching. Information on this was communicated earlier in the week, together with risk assessments, though of course we are continually reviewing the situation. We also discussed how we provide safe facilities for events and the wider student experience and communications to students.

At one of the regular meetings with leaders from across the University, safe working was again a key feature. I reported that the signs that international students are intending to come to study with us are somewhat more encouraging as indicated by accommodation bookings and visa applications, but of course this may still depend on infection rates which are increasing in many countries including the UK and on travel restrictions.

We discussed concerns about timetabling. This is always a complicated undertaking at this time of year, particularly when there are many last minute changes in requests for times and different rooms. This is greatly exacerbated this year with social distancing, extra home undergraduates in some areas and much less certainty over PGT and international student numbers. We should all be appreciative of the hard work that staff are doing on timetabling, make only exceptional and absolutely essential changes and be flexible on the timing of teaching. Many academic and professional services staff are working extremely hard to prepare for what will be a very unusual start of term.

The government is asking for staff who are qualified in biological and health laboratory techniques to join the national Covid-19 testing labs as they are extremely short staffed. Quite a number of our research staff and students helped at the regional Nightingale Centre at Alderley Park when our labs were closed, but have now returned to their research. The testing centres will pay any staff who are able to help and if they are funded on external research grants we would be able to extend the grant for any period of volunteering. If you are considering volunteering, you should first discuss this with your line manager.

I met the leaders of GCHQ activities in Manchester to discuss our collaborations in teaching and research, particularly in digital and cybersecurity. We are also working with the universities of Salford, Lancaster and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in these areas and are supporting a bid to the Strength in Places Fund from MMU on creative digital.

We have been working on both the University and GM bids to the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review for investment into innovation in our region, which are due to be submitted next week. Innovation, and research and development, which are the main features of our bid, also feature strongly in the GM submission. We are also supporting bids from the N8 northern research intensive universities and the Northern Health Science Alliance.

I chaired a meeting of the Russell Group of universities where we shared experiences and plans on undergraduate recruitment and expectations for international students, who we hope will be joining us soon.  We also discussed measures being undertaken regarding safety on campus and face-to-face teaching.  Each reported slightly different approaches to study abroad in countries where the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel. We welcomed recent announcements from the Department for Education with a number of significant changes to reduce bureaucracy and reporting. The latter is most welcome as it should reduce our workload significantly. It was also suggested that the National Student Survey may be abolished, though we would want some measure of students’ satisfaction with their university experience and would not want to rely solely on graduate earnings as a measure of students’ university experience and the value of higher education.

All Russell Group member universities are offering a blended learning experience of face-to-face and online. They are all slightly more positive than they were about the prospect of international students coming to study in the UK and are facing increased numbers of home/EU undergraduates as a result of the change in A level grades, with a number of students offered places deferred to next year.

I was interviewed by the THE (Times Higher Education) about the impact of the pandemic on research intensive universities, safety on campus, recruitment of international students, sustainability of research funding and the role of the Russell Group.

At the Planning and Resources Committee we updated on the current situation on student recruitment, return to campus, the significant increase in cyber-attacks on universities over recent weeks and our latest financial position. 

Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor