Facing realities and defining our future
17 October 2011
As students and staff settle into a new academic year, University life takes on what is to many of us a familiar cycle. Students from around the world make Sheffield their home, teaching is well underway, and research continues to both inspire international respect and to change lives. All this is wonderful and a valid reason to be proud of our University and the work we do.
Yet the stark fact is we do not live and work in normal times.
At the end of 2011 we are entering a new world in higher education in the UK, and not only in relation to headline-grabbing increases in tuition fees. Fundamental and rapid changes in government policy herald a more market-based approach to universities. Behind all this is the long-term trend for a real-terms decrease in state funding for scholarship, with many of you already feeling the impact of reduced grant funding on the work of your own departments.
Government interventions on student numbers and on our regulatory framework, and the opening up of the sector to private providers, will all impact on our work. Over the coming months these policy changes will begin to take effect, and I am determined that the University centrally must work closer than ever with departments and faculties in the interests of students and research. I will be leading this personally, talking with every Head of Department during the course of the year.
A failure to understand the scale of the challenges facing us would be a serious mistake. What do they mean for our University, for individual careers, for students? What course must we steer now to secure a future to which we aspire, rather than drifting towards unintended consequences?
I believe the steps we have taken so far are the right ones for our times. Faced with a time of undoubted transition, we needed to remind ourselves and others what a University is for – who benefits from our work, our research and excellence in teaching? What does it actually mean to be an agent for good in the wider world? Thinking about these questions led us to reaffirm our values and vision.
We then responded to changes in tuition fees with a wide-ranging and principled review of what we offer our students. Through Project 2012 we talked not only with our own staff but also 1700 current and prospective students and 300 alumni about what they most valued in a University of Sheffield education. We consulted heads, principals and teachers from more than 450 primary and secondary schools, further education and sixth form colleges on our proposals. This rigorous process is already resulting in real changes and improvements to teaching spaces, for example, which will benefit students over coming years.
Yet while we navigate the changes of the coming months – and no doubt some of these will be frustrating and time-consuming – we must also look past our immediate context to the longer term. We need to ensure that the process of looking ahead is just as rigorous and collaborative. Having worked out our response to the rise in tuition fees, we now need not only to plan for 2012, but to have a vision for ten years from now. To help us to do this, I am leading a programme called `2022 Futures´ to explore the question: how will we remain an internationally competitive university in the longer term? The University Executive Board and I will be working with colleagues across the University so that together we ensure that we are firmly on track towards the future we have chosen, rather than finding ourselves heading towards a destination we neither desire nor intend.
2022 Futures will require us all to think about the changes higher education faces now and in the years ahead, and how we can chart our own course towards achieving our ambitions. While we will not be able to swim entirely against the tide of external events, I am confident that we will, working together, develop a sound plan that enables us to maintain our position into the future as a world-leader in research with an outstanding reputation for scholarship. We will need to look carefully at what we mean by research excellence, and how this links with both our internationalisation strategies and our role as a civic university.
As Vice-Chancellor I am repeatedly inspired by the talent and commitment of our staff and students. Despite the great challenges we face, I also sense that a determination exists to turn change, wherever possible, into opportunity and advantage, and to seek creative ways to do good in the world.
Sheffield´s strength has been, and will remain, to make individual scholarship, research, teaching, innovation, and outreach have the greatest impact in our city, nation and beyond. We have set ourselves the ambitious task to `be the change we want to see in the world´. I look forward to working with all of you as we step up to this challenge, and thank you once again for your commitment to our University and all it represents.
Professor Keith Burnett