Latest update from the Principal: 2 July 2020
A staff update from the Principal on the current position of the University following the Covid-19 outbreak.
I feel it is timely to give you a status update as we enter July, the fourth month in which the University’s operations have been substantially impacted by Covid-19. The first and most important point that I want to make is to recognise the extraordinary efforts made by so many people across our university community to adapt to the rapidly changing and often deeply worrying external circumstances. We already knew that we had a lot of talent and dedication at the University of Edinburgh, we knew that we had excellent capability in digital communications and online learning, we knew that we had huge numbers of colleagues prepared to go the extra mile in the pursuit of excellence. What we didn’t know was whether or not we would be able to respond as quickly and comprehensively as we did; whether we could maintain standards, keep our essential services going effectively and safely; whether we could communicate effectively internally and externally nor whether we could do all this whilst colleagues needed to juggle caring and other responsibilities, personal concerns about their own welfare or that of their loved ones and abide by rapidly changing public health advice and government guidelines. The fact that we have done so is a superb tribute to the University of Edinburgh community and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart on behalf of myself, the senior leadership team and all of our students, staff, alumni and friends.
There will be some important learning from this period. We have made changes that perhaps we should have made anyway. We have made some mistakes. We have listened to input from our students, our staff and various other interested parties and we have changed tack in response to some of these inputs. We have asked for extra flexibility from colleagues, we have applied highly ambitious timelines. We recognise that colleagues will be exhausted, uncertain about the future. We have encouraged the taking of leave and the creation of ‘meetings-free’ or ‘emergency e-mail only’ periods. We know that our returning students and those that are planning to join us for the first time will be greatly concerned about the prospects of a new academic year that is different from the last and might never be the same again. We have tried to give as much certainty as we reasonably can whilst accepting that there is much that we cannot know yet. We plan to be open and ready to receive new and returning students at the start of the next semester. We are determined to give them as much of an on-campus and in-city experience as is possible. Large gatherings are unlikely to be advisable for some time to come, so that large lecture groups, graduation ceremonies or other major gatherings in places like McEwan Hall, crowded attendance at sporting cultural events and many other aspects of previous social interactions will be impossible for the time being. Nevertheless the University of Edinburgh, and the magnificent capital city in which we work and study, have so much to offer despite these constrained times.
Our research, on which so much of the University’s reputation is built, has never stopped and indeed we have made many significant contributions to the understanding and management of the pandemic itself. We are gearing up for a return to full research activity in this and other subject areas. Our applications for research funding, and our success in those applications, has been maintained through this difficult period: very well done for that. We have received some welcome one-off funding from Scottish Government to support Covid-19-related research and to provide some support for PhD students and early career researchers. The UK Government announced a package of measures last weekend which is aimed at addressing the hit on the cross-subsidy (from international student tuition fees and from accommodation, catering and events) on which our research depends and providing some continuity to UKRI-funded research which is approaching its end. These new funding streams are welcome but are short-term: I and others are continuing to campaign for more fundamental reform of research funding, administration and governance to address the sustainability of the UK’s, and Scotland’s, research excellence.
That brings me to the short-, medium- and longer-term future. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, we knew that we were facing some serious challenges and that without change, the University would struggle to maintain its position. Brexit will alter our access to EU funding and sadly now also looks likely to threaten our continued participation in Erasmus. The unresolved pensions issues; some aspects of global geo-politics; the fact that our costs have been rising faster than our income; our collective desire to deliver Strategy 2030, addressing global issues including those defined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and to focus on our strengths all combined to create a set of existential challenges. We knew that to make the necessary changes to deliver on Strategy 2030 in this context would involve some tough prioritisation choices and some potentially unpopular decisions.
Covid-19 has added to those challenges, not least by the creation of even greater uncertainty. One thing that is not uncertain is that there will now be a major economic recession. What Covid-19 has done is expose the fragility of some of our assumptions: that we could count on student numbers including international students to continue to be buoyant; that our accommodation, catering and events would continue to provide surplus for reinvestment in our future; that our research excellence would guarantee our future etc.
In my message of 5th May I made the point that we need £90million per month to pay the bills. The University’s surplus in recent years has been inadequately small. Improving this is the only way we can invest in our future and support some of the new initiatives that we wish to take (including for example our zero carbon by 2040 pledge, our commitments to improving student and staff experience and our investments in student accommodation and other improved facilities). So, how do we respond? We propose some short-term measures to address the immediate financial uncertainty. In addition to the immediate suspension of our capital building programme, which we undertook at a very early stage, and a range of proposals to address non-staffing operating costs, we must also look at reducing our staffing costs. We are aiming to protect as many jobs as possible and will only contemplate compulsory redundancies as a last resort. The proposals were approved by the University Executive on 16th June and are the subject of consultation with the campus trade unions. They include suspension of promotions, increments and contribution awards next year, a likely pay freeze (which is being negotiated nationally by UCEA) and consideration of a voluntary severance scheme. Obviously, we are keeping the evolving financial situation under very close review through the academic and financial year but, at present, we consider it prudent to plan for the worst. None of these measures are strategic or based around a detailed understanding of the optimal size and shape of the university of the future: they are simply the only levers that we can pull to achieve rapid change. We continue to work on the detail in relation to the staff-related savings proposals and will circulate more information via Human Resources just as soon as we have it.
We must urgently plan, and consult upon, the type of university that we want to be in the future. This was the case pre-Covid-19, is still the case during it and will continue to be the case after it. Form must follow function, so that we cannot decide about our capital building priorities, and our staffing size and shape to go with it, until we have better defined this. The work has started: we envisage streamlining of some of our educational offerings; focus of our research on our strengths (alone or in collaboration with others); promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion in all that we do; an ever-increasing focus on widening participation, on social and civic responsibility, on our links with industry and commerce locally and internationally; our desire to work with Africa, Asia and Latin America more effectively than before; and on addressing the world’s major problems. We are interested in the views of our community on our future, and very soon we will make available ways of providing feedback.
It will be a bumpy road and a complicated process, but we start from as good a place as any university, and we have superb assets to call upon, particularly our people. Let’s make it happen.
All the best, stay safe, take care, and thank you again.
Professor Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor