20 January 2012
Happy new year to the University of the Year
As a new calendar year gets underway, it seems a good time to write to staff to share something of my thoughts about the year ahead, and to consider whether we have cause for optimism or reason for concern.
Over recent months we have worked closely with departments and with students to prepare for 2012 and a new era in undergraduate funding and many other new government policies. What will this mean for the University of Sheffield now these changes are upon us, what further changes are in the pipeline, and what of our own ambitions?
As it happens, we have begun the year in an auspicious way. As you will all be aware, the Times Higher Education (THE) chose to name us their University of the Year. This is of course a judgement call to some extent, but based on solid achievements.
Judges who visited us saw for themselves, I believe, something of the spirit of Sheffield. They did not watch formal presentations in imposing settings – instead we wanted them to see the real passion of our own staff and students to make a difference to the world around us.
Like senior civil servants from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who visited the University this week, the THE judges visited the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, based just off the M1 on the former Orgreave Colliery site. There they heard from local companies and an 18 year-old apprentice of the profound impact we are having on the region´s manufacturing strength and ambitions.
Later they met a donor who has motor neurone disease at SITraN (the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience) who told them about life-changing research in this area. And they met our students, united with the University in wanting to meld a top-rated education which would be recognised around the world with a belief that we can make our local region – and our world – a better place in the process.
The judges were moved because they could see that the commitment of those involved ran deeper than presentation – it reflected 'grit and determination' which was special, and worthy of their award.
As I meet with staff in all parts of the University, I know that such commitment is found across the institution, and so I have real cause for optimism. This year I am meeting with Heads of Department and am already hearing important insights from the talented people who are leading our departments. They're telling me about the research we are carrying out as we prepare for the REF, and the education we offer. This year I know you will all be working hard to deliver on our proposition to students, to carry out outstanding research, to maximise the impact of our intellectual strengths and to support intellectual quality within a global academic community.
I am glad to see this kind of strength across the board, because certainly we need it.
We need to be realistic about the times in which we live and the challenges for Higher Education. Persistent reductions in public funding and new possibilities for alternative and private provision of Higher Education are changing our landscape. There are new pressures on research councils and increasingly we are having to demonstrate 'value for money'.
But we are right to be confident.
So my message to staff is simple. We should hold our nerve. Things will be difficult and we may even have to change some of the things we cherish most. But we should be confident in our ambitions because fundamentally we are a class act, and are rightly seen this way across the UK and the world.
We have important things to do - that we know are important without having to be nagged about them by policy makers. Our own values need to be our steer. The thought "to thine own self be true" has never been more timely.
Our identity is not important simply as a matter of ranking, or even when it leads to awards – although of course we enjoy those. It is important because we are focused on important work. We are international, and that means that we aspire to be part of a global community of scholars grappling with profound challenges. We are also rooted in our city and region, and aim to be active citizens – believing that there is no contradiction between international excellence and applying our expertise for the benefit and inspiration of our own communities. We believe that to be Civic we do not have to be parochial, but active citizens who make our home, our country and our world a better place.
These are bold ambitions, but we work in a University founded by people who aspired to achieve the best. They were not daunted by hard times or obstacles, and we will also rise to the challenge.
Last week we held the January graduations. Around the concourse were quotes that reminded our new graduates of the possibilities they have to instigate change. 'You can go anywhere.' 'You can change anything.'
Of course, they will not be able to succeed without facing challenges. Nor will we. But that spirit of confidence in a cause worth embracing is vital to all our futures.
Professor Keith Burnett
Further reflections on the year ahead from Faculty and cross-cutting Pro-Vice-Chancellors appear in the latest edition of Overview: