Court meeting: 26 April 2021
The University Court held its most recent meeting by video conference on 26th April.
We publish regular updates on matters discussed at all Court meetings, during which members consider matters of strategic importance to the University.
Meetings of the Court are held five times a year.
The Court is the University’s governing body. With a focus on strategic direction, it takes the final decisions on issues of fundamental concern to the wellbeing of the University.
Detailed information on the membership and activities of the University Court, including meeting agendas, papers and minutes, is available online.
Summary of Court meeting: 26 April 2021
The following reports are summaries of a selection of items discussed and agreed at the meeting on 26th April.
New Rector and Rector’s Assessor, Student Members
Debora Kayembe, the University’s new Rector, welcomed members and attendees to the meeting and introduced Sophia Lycouris, an academic staff member at the Edinburgh College of Art and the new Rector’s Assessor. Sophia Lycouris thanked the Rector for her introduction and spoke to Debora Kayembe’s career as a human rights lawyer and campaigner and her interest in anti-racism work at the University.
Ellen MacRae, Students’ Association President, was congratulated on her re-election to a second term of office and Rachel Irwin, Students’ Association Vice-President Activities & Services, was thanked for her service to the Students’ Association and the Court on the occasion of her last meeting and wished well for the future.
Peter Mathieson, Principal & Vice-Chancellor, welcomed the Rector and Rector’s Assessor to their first meeting, and supplemented the written report with the following points:
- As the University moves into a new phase of recovery from the pandemic, the temporary Adaptation & Renewal Team structure has been incorporated back within pre-existing management structures. Court will continue to be updated on the pandemic response;
- An all-staff virtual Town Hall meeting was held last week with over 1,400 staff attending and over 200 questions raised. A degree of caution and uncertainty over the expected return of many staff to the campus was raised given the experience of the last year, as was a perception that contributions from professional services staff during the pandemic had received less focus than that of academic staff, which had not been intended. A sense of more positivity towards the future as the University emerges from the pandemic was also evident; and,
- Preparations for the forthcoming COP26 UN Climate Change Conference. Around 60 UK universities are involved in the civil society element of the conference with Professor Dave Reay leading for the University of Edinburgh and chairing a group covering the education and skills agenda.
Members raised the following points:
- The University’s response to UK Government Official Development Assistance research funding cuts – the University as a member of the Russell Group is active in making the case that the unprecedented reductions in funding for on-going research projects will not only damage UK universities but will damage partners in developing countries and relationships with them;
- The speed of offer making to prospective undergraduates in comparison with peer institutions – this is recognised as a long-standing issue and there is an intention to address both the speed of offer making and communications around this;
- The financial effects of the recent increase in Scottish domiciled undergraduate student numbers – public funding is not sufficient to cover all costs for Scottish domiciled students so cross-subsidy from other sources is required. The aggregate level of cross-subsidy needed will increase if student numbers grow as they have done in the past year owing to the changes to school and college assessments given the pandemic; and,
- Whether public health restrictions will lead to some students repeating a year of study if their learning has been significantly impacted – the main example of this in Scotland is that all final year dentistry students will be required to repeat their final year but the University does not offer an undergraduate dental course so is unaffected by this decision.
Adaptation & Renewal Team Report
A final update on the work of the Adaptation and Renewal Team from February to March 2021 was reviewed. An Academic Year 2021/22 Planning Group has been established to plan for the new academic year in anticipation of new public health rules and guidelines for universities. The progress of the vaccination programme gives cause for some optimism for the next year, with a planning assumption that students will be present in Edinburgh to receive smaller group teaching in-person with 1 metre physical distancing, subject to guidance awaited from the Scottish Government. The Principal thanked Barry Neilson, Director of Strategic Change, for his work as co-ordinating director for the Adaptation & Renewal Team over the past 12 months in challenging circumstances.
The assumptions behind planning for 1 metre physical distancing for the next academic year were discussed and whether this is linked to the vaccine roll-out, noting that not all staff and students will be vaccinated by the start of the new academic year. Colleagues are working with Universities Scotland on a consistent set of assumptions for the sector for planning purposes while Scottish Government guidance is awaited. The assumptions include a range of public health measures including physical distancing. The UK vaccine target is to offer all adults a first vaccine by 31 July and the University will work with public health authorities to support the vaccination of students.
Link to webpage: Covid-19 information
Support for Students at Risk of Self-Harm
A briefing note on the support provided to students who are at risk of self-harm was reviewed. Demand for counselling services has grown significantly in recent years and waiting times have increased, although they remain favourable in comparison to equivalent NHS provision and a further 5 full-time equivalent staff are being recruited to join the 17 in post at the Student Counselling Service. The use of a third party provider to add additional capacity at peak times for less urgent cases is also being piloted. Points raised in discussion included:
- What factors have been identified as leading to the increase in demand in counselling services – this appears to be part of a wider change witnessed in western countries in recent years and while many factors have been posited, a consensus on the key factors has not yet emerged. What the University can do in response is to understand better where particular pressures on students exist and what can done to assist with these;
- Whether the planned changes to the personal tutor system can be prioritised for implementation – the pandemic has meant that capacity is not available to start what was planned as a major 18 month project across the University. However, some areas within the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences have felt ready to proceed on a faster timescale and will do so;
- The position relative to peer institutions – the increased level of demand is similar at peer institutions and in terms of skilled staff, the University’s Student Counselling Service is highly regarded and is fully accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy;
- Training and support offered to non-specialist staff dealing with cases – around 500 staff take in-house training each year for supporting those with mental health difficulties. One area of training that will be reviewed to help staff is guidance on escalation of cases;
- Addressing staff pressure given increased demands and workloads more generally – the review of student support and the personal tutor system recognised this as an issue and has the intention to reduce demands on academic staff in this area. Regarding provision of mental health services for staff, there is a staff counselling service, which has moved to online provision during the pandemic in addition to the Chaplaincy listening service. In recognition of the additional pressures during the pandemic respite days have been offered and advice and guidance on remote working, including encouraging breaks and using annual leave where possible, made available; and,
- Whether the planned recruitment of new counselling staff will be affected by the general pause in staff recruitment. The staff recruitment exceptions committee authorised the five new positions and four are now in post.
Link to webpage: Student Counselling
Students’ Association and Sports Union Reports
Ellen MacRae, Students’ Association President, introduced reports from the Students’ Association and the Sports Union and updated on recent events, including the positive response to the opening of the Teviot Garden outdoor café/bar, the Match-Up Catch-Up buddy scheme and the Student Awards and Teaching Awards. Recent issues raised by students have included: difficulties amongst first year students in forming groups to seek private sector accommodation for the next academic year; requests for tuition fee refunds; concerns from international students regarding Covid-related impediments in applying for graduate visas; the delay in implementing the recommendations of the personal tutor and student support review; and, student safety on campus and gender-based violence. The following points were raised in discussion:
- The financial challenges of the pandemic for the Students’ Association and the wish to see a strong and sustainable Association emerge from this period – internal reshaping work and digital transformation work is underway and discussions are continuing with the University on ongoing financial planning;
- The impact of redundancies on service provision – redundancies have been in areas where service provision has not been possible during the pandemic (e.g. events), with student support services protected as much as possible;
- The level of student involvement in University planning for the next academic year – this has been raised as a concern and where student representatives have been involved in discussions on topics such as online examinations this has been well received and should be broadened to more topics; and,
- Effects of more Wednesday afternoon teaching on student sport – the Vice-Principal Students noted that this is a temporary measure resulting from timetabling difficulties given physical distancing restrictions and will be returned the pre-pandemic situation as soon as practicable.
Equality Reporting: EDMARC Staff and Student Reports 2020; Equality Outcomes 2021-25, and Equality Mainstreaming and Outcomes Progress Report 2017-21
Sarah Cunningham-Burley, University Lead for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion, introduced the annual Equality, Diversity Monitoring and Research Committee (EDMARC) staff and student data reports, the Equality Mainstreaming and Outcomes Progress Report 2017-21, the proposed Equality Outcomes for 2021-25 and updated Court on work to understand equality-related impacts of the pandemic on students and staff to date.
On the pandemic impacts, consideration of equality, diversity and inclusions issues has been integrated within each Adaptation & Renewal Team area. This has included equality impacts assessments for each building re-opening, creating accessible hybrid learning for students (e.g. lecture subtitling), the use of additional support from the Scottish Funding Council to help attract more early career researchers through the Chancellor’s Fellowships scheme with a particular focus on the recruitment of ethnic minority and female staff and data gathering through home working surveys. Areas of particular concern that have emerged are the interlinked issues of morale, workload and wellbeing.
Regarding the EDMARC reports it was acknowledged that while the term ‘BME’ is used within the reports for Black and Minority Ethnic students and staff, this has inadequacies and is not intended to homogenise the experiences of those included. The reports show an increase in the diversity of the student and staff population in recent years, linked to an increase in the diversity of nationalities represented. Improving the ‘declaration deficit’ of staff who are unwilling to declare ethnicity and disability data and improving data collected more generally would help the development of meaningful actions and is a priority for future work. The reports show a continuing student attainment gap by ethnicity and disability and a staff pay gap by gender, ethnicity and disability owing to lower representation in higher grades.
For the Equality Mainstreaming and Outcomes Progress Report 2017-21 and the Equality Outcomes for 2021-25, it was noted that the four proposed outcomes and accompanying actions will have more detailed local actions to accompany them, with Outcome 1 ‘Our staff and students feel confident and are supported to report harassment, hate crime and gender-based violence’ intended as a high priority.
Members welcomed the reports and thanked staff involved in their production. The ‘both/and’ approach of using specialised staff and structures while working to mainstream activity was supported. It was queried whether sufficient resources are in place to recruit more specialised staff, embed the Report & Support platform and to aggregate and evaluate findings. It was agreed that the dual approach of mainstreaming and specialist support and structures is necessary at this point, the latter being particularly needed for evaluation and monitoring. Capability is in place for evaluation and monitoring if not sufficient capacity at present. For the Report & Support platform, there is optimism that resourcing will be made available to extend its use to all forms of discrimination and harassment and this will be considered by the Student Experience Committee shortly.
The EDMARC staff and student reports, the Equality Mainstreaming and Outcomes Progress Report 2017-21 and the Equality Outcomes for 2021-25 were all approved for publication.
Link to webpages:
Gujarat Biotechnology University – Final Agreement
David Gray, Head of the School of Biological Sciences, presented an update on the finalisation of plans for a strategic partnership between the University and the Government of Gujarat for the development of the Gujarat Biotechnology University (GBU). Work has continued throughout the pandemic, including advising on the recruitment of locally employed academic staff for GBU. University of Edinburgh staff will not be based permanently on site but will visit to provide specialist advice when appropriate. Court agreed to indicate continued support for the partnership and granted approval for the University to sign a full Stage 2 binding Collaboration Agreement to govern the 10-year partnership.
Link to webpage:
The importance of cybersecurity and the University’s work in this area was discussed and a regular update from the Director of Finance was considered, along with regular reports from Court’s committees on activities being undertaken in support of Court.