Communication from VC to All Staff November 2008
This is the first of what I intend to be a regular update to everyone at the University.
In the light of the profound recent changes in the economy both of the UK and much of the world, I have repeatedly been asked in my visits to departments what this means for the University. For this reason, I have decided to focus this first update on the economic challenges we face in the short to medium term, and how we in Sheffield can best face them together.
The higher education sector and the University face challenging times, as do our peers and of course almost every other business and charity in the country. The global financial situation will no doubt have an impact on our operations – though we do not yet know precisely what form this will take. We do however already know that it is getting harder to win research funding. This reflects both restricted pots of available funding and increasing competition. Recent student recruitment to the University has been strong – but an economic squeeze may well affect attitude to debt for home students, and investment decisions for sponsors of international students. This is on top of increasing competition from other providers of HE, and demographic changes that may affect our pool of applicants.
We have to face up to these difficulties and make sure we are best able to overcome them.
But there is also good news, and central to this is the fact that we start from a strong base. Over the past year I have deepened my knowledge and understanding of this University and the people who make it what it is – a highly successful university with a broad base of disciplinary and interdisciplinary activity, excellent support services, and a strong sense of community. I believe that the key to our future lies in us all working together to overcome the barriers to achieving our academic ambitions.
Our new structure, with Faculties represented directly on the University Executive Board, will enable us to respond more rapidly to opportunities as well as threats. Crucially, it should also see more decisions made at faculty level with greater input from those responsible for the daily operation of the University. Greater openness and transparency about information and decision-making is underway and is, I am sure, essential to our success.
There is no question that achieving financial sustainability for the University as a whole is a real challenge, and the factors mentioned above may mean greater variability in our income streams in years to come. We are certainly not alone in this – but we do have to work together to come up with our own solutions.
I am pleased to say that good financial management in departments in 2007/08 has meant we start the financial year 2008/09 in a stronger position than forecast – and I am well aware of the enormous efforts made by all to bring this about.
I also see in Sheffield a steely determination to work hard to maintain high quality and increase income from all our activities. This is a crucial strength.
But modest income growth alone cannot solve our problems. The surplus achieved by the University last year will help, with £5.7M ploughed back into academic departments (over two years) and some helping to defray our anticipated significantly higher pensions costs. However, we know that staffing costs will rise significantly in the years ahead, owing partly to pay increases already awarded, as will other costs such as utilities. We will need to manage these increased costs and at the same time build up the University´s reserves in order to invest to stay at the leading edge of research and teaching.
What is being done
Everywhere I go in the University I meet committed people already working hard to help achieve our aspirations. We have much of which to be proud: outstanding research looking at many important global problems; departments´ strong recruitment of overseas students this year; and our performance in the latest National Student Survey.
So what more can we do? I believe we should think about ways in which we could work together to do things differently, and share more information so we have a better understanding of the problems we each face in our daily working lives – and so pull together through challenging times.
I personally, with the University Executive Board (UEB), have a responsibility not only to set the strategic direction for the University, but to assess and prepare for the risks we face, and to work at removing barriers that stand in the way of our academic ambitions. I would like to let you know about two immediate courses of action that have been discussed by UEB to help ensure we
are prepared for the coming challenges:
1. UEB has agreed that management of staff costs will be undertaken locally (at Faculty and departmental level), with different strategies to suit local circumstances. Heads of Department will be consulting colleagues and agreeing a planned approach to managing their staffing budgets, with their Faculty PVC, the Registrar and Secretary or Director of Finance. This will, of course, all be within our University-wide HR frameworks.
2. A sub-group of UEB, chaired by Pro-Vice-Chancellor Paul White, is looking at possible scenarios that could result in a significant decrease in the University´s income, and how we might best handle any such rapid changes. We hope that such a scenario is unlikely, but I think you will agree that it is prudent to develop our plans for such an eventuality.
Above all, I will continue to work closely with my senior colleagues to discuss and support Faculty endeavours, to pursue opportunities for the University, and to assess and seek to mitigate the challenges we face. Together with careful planning, and innovation in departments and faculties, this will ensure we are in the strongest possible position to weather difficult economic times and to emerge from them fitter and more focused on our core strengths as a top UK university with a global reputation.
Last of all, I would like to thank all of you for your contributions to the success of the University. It is a fact that Sheffield´s hallmark of quality is built on the capabilities of its people, and that this is as true in the University as it was of the master cutlers who also gave this city its international reputation.
Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor
If you would like more information, or to tell me your views, please contact me
at VC@shef and I or one of my senior colleagues will respond.