Court meeting: 30 November 2020
The University Court held its most recent meeting by video conference on 30 November.
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: 30 November 2020
The following reports are summaries of a selection of items discussed and agreed at the meeting on 30 November.
Court noted the contents of the report and additional information on:
- Brexit: UK-EU negotiations are continuing and it is hoped that agreement can be reached before 31 December. The UK position is to seek continued access to EU research funding programmes but alternative arrangements including a ‘Discovery Fund’ are being considered if continued access is not secured. A UK alternative to the Erasmus+ student and staff mobility programme is also being considered;
- Covid-19 cases and testing: current case numbers in the University community are lower than in the wider population within the region. Asymptomatic testing for students intending to travel over the Christmas vacation begins today, with capacity in place for all those who opt to be tested;
- Covid-19 wider impact: the implementation of new finance and payroll elements within the People & Money system may be delayed and any revised ‘go-live’ date will avoid peak periods such as the finance year-end. More broadly, while priorities and timescales of some projects may shift as a result of the pandemic, the University’s Strategy 2030 remains fit-for-purpose, including projections for the future student population;
- Covid-19 points of reflection: the world is learning to control and defeat a novel virus and the University is making an important contribution to this. The speed of adaptation to the new circumstances by the University community has been admirable. The present period has shown that internationalisation without physical travel is possible. The pace of change has accelerated and there is an opportunity to choose which changes to keep permanently and which to discard and a light has been shone on pre-existing inequalities and universities have a role in addressing these as tools of social mobility.
Members discussed the following points:
- Media coverage of student Covid transmission has been greatly disproportionate to the actual number of cases and should be countered by the data and the government;
- Staff workload and preparations for the second semester – additional respite days over the Christmas period have been granted in recognition of the unique challenges of this year. A staggered restart of teaching and arrival dates have been agreed between the four universities in Edinburgh to aid with a safe resumption in January;
- Potential additional costs for some students who may need to pay for Covid testing if they wish to return to their home country over the winter vacation given requirements in some countries or any new immigration costs for affected students by the end of the EU transitional period on 31 December. More international students are expected to stay in Edinburgh over the winter vacation than usual given travel restrictions and for those who do wish to travel free lateral flow testing is in place but any requirements for other forms of testing will need to be met by private provision. Government advice is being sought on any new immigration costs related to the end of the EU transitional period.
Adaptation & Renewal Report
An update on the work of the Adaptation and Renewal Team from mid-September to November was reviewed. Current efforts are focused on: asymptomatic testing for students intending to travel over the Christmas vacation, with over 14,000 tests booked to date (with two bookings per student as two tests are taken); access to services for those remaining in Edinburgh over the winter vacation; and, preparations for the second semester. Government advice for the beginning of the second semester is awaited but is expected to include testing and a staggered return. Longer term planning within the reshaping workstream is considering reshaping within the context of Strategy 2030, with an initial discussion later this week at a University Executive virtual ‘away day’. Members discussed the provision of temporary student villages that increase the amount of physically distanced indoor space for students and the level of staff consultation planned for the reshaping workstream and accounting for greater staff workloads with hybrid teaching. It was noted that the reshaping workstream is still at an early stage but consultation and engagement will be central to its development and will include an opportunity to consider the longer term implications of hybrid teaching and teaching and research careers more broadly.
Student Experience Update
A regular update on student experience activities and a presentation on curriculum transformation was reviewed. Reflecting on the current semester, there has been a greater emphasis on engagement with students in halls of residence, including regular ‘Town Hall’ meetings, but there has been an undoubted negative impact on student experience from public health restrictions on social interactions outside of households.
Regarding curriculum transformation, the intention is to build a consensus around improving the current complex offering, including the transition to the University and generating a lifelong affiliation after study. The following points were raised in discussion:
- Building a better understanding of current strengths and weaknesses from an external perspective and testing any changes with prospective students and other stakeholders;
- The current level of academic staff engagement with curriculum transformation – feedback has indicated a clear appetite for reforming the current curriculum, recognising that it is overly complex;
- Considering whether a new curriculum needs improved models of contracts for teaching staff to deliver this;
- Ensuring that a new curriculum is based on the University’s values; and,
- Potential for community gardens or allotments to help with social interaction and mental health.
EUSA President’s Report
The Students’ Association President reported on activities since the last meeting, including greater use of Association venues as the semester has progressed and encouraging levels of participation in intramural sports. It was noted that public health measures have made the transition to university life more difficult for many new students. The experience to date has been markedly different to expectations for many students and as such there is a desire from many students for financial recognition for this. The importance of active outreach and communication with students remaining in Edinburgh over the winter vacation period was emphasised and the provision of asymptomatic testing for those returning to home addresses welcomed, although students may choose to travel outside of the recommended period and may not opt-in for testing. On behalf of Court, the Rector thanked the student sabbatical officers for their work on behalf of the student community.
Annual Report and Accounts 2019/20
Following scrutiny by the Audit & Risk Committee and the Policy & Resources Committee, the draft Annual Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 July 2020 were presented for approval. It was noted that while the operating surplus reported is a positive result given the impact of the early stages of the pandemic from March to July 2020, this has been bolstered by City Deal funding and two significant philanthropic donations, with the underlying operating performance not including restricted income in a deficit position. The distortion in the total comprehensive income figure resulting from large non-cash movements in pension provisions was discussed and the need for accompanying communications to explain the results for stakeholders unfamiliar with the accounting conventions used, with a Frequently Asked Questions document suggested. It was confirmed that lenders with covenants in place are familiar with the UK accounting conventions used in respect of non-cash movements such as pension provisions and are content. The importance of maintaining an operating surplus to allow for reinvestment was noted and the Annual Report and Accounts 2019/20 approved.
4D Cellular Medicine at the Institute of Genetics & Molecular Medicine
A request for capital funding to accommodate a 4D cellular medicine hub for the Medical Research Council (MRC) Human Genetics Unit at the Western General Hospital site was reviewed. The MRC’s agreement to match fund the project cost conditional on specific assurances was welcomed. It was noted that the unit is a flagship centre of research excellence but is constrained by the quantity and quality of its accommodation, which this project will help address. Members discussed liability in the event of any over-spending on the build, noting that a net underspend has been achieved for estates capital projects in recent years and discussed conditions in the MRC grant award. Court agreed to approve funding to complete the project.
Integrating Climate Emergency and Strategy 2030 commitments in University Committee papers
The inclusion of a new section and accompanying guidance in Court and committee paper templates to integrate consideration of the Climate Emergency, United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Strategy 2030 outcomes was approved.
Enterprise IT Investment
A proposed investment in Enterprise Infrastructure to provide a consolidated platform for central on-premises IT services aside from high performance research computing was approved.
DiRAC3 High Performance Computer Purchase
The purchase of a high performance computing facility for particle physics theory researchers across the UK, to be hosted at the University and funded by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, was reviewed. The funding award was welcomed and the impact of high performance computing on the ‘zero by 2040’ carbon target discussed. It was noted that the facility is relatively small in size and will be located alongside other high performance computers at the Advanced Computing Facility, where specialised cooling measures are taken to reduce energy usage. Further innovative carbon reducing ideas are being explored for the Advanced Computing Facility, although carbon offsetting will also be required to meet the zero by 2040 target. It was requested that sustainability analysis be included in future high performance computing proposals similar to that included within estates capital project proposals. The purchase of the facility was approved and signing authority delegated to Professor Dave Robertson, Head of College of Science & Engineering.
A regular update from the Director of Finance was considered, along with an update on student number planning and the planning round timetable for 2021-22. Regular reports from Court’s committees on activities being undertaken in support of Court were also considered. Further information on the remit and work of Court and its Committees can be found online.