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Vice-Chancellor's all staff talks: key points

Sir David Bell

It has been a turbulent summer in the media for the higher education sector. While the newspapers have been full of headlines about tuition fees, executive pay and the potential impact of Brexit, the year has also seen a record number of 18-year-olds in England entering higher education.

These issues, and other sector-wide and University developments, were the focus of Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell’s, all-staff sessions last week. The sessions at Whiteknights, Greenlands and London Road campuses were well-attended and generated a lot of questions.

Sir David Bell’s presentation covered six areas:

  • Media coverage of the higher education sector
  • Strong student recruitment and what this means for the University
  • Renewal of the Teaching and Learning Strategy
  • Our work on setting up a medical school at the University
  • Staff Survey focus group findings
  • Our work on making the University a more diverse and inclusive place in which to work and study

On the media front, the Vice-Chancellor commented on some of the speculation around reductions in tuition fees (although subsequent to these sessions, the Prime Minister announced on Sunday that the maximum level fees will be frozen at £9,250 for 2018–19, while the repayment threshold for post-2012 student loans will rise to £25,000).

The Vice-Chancellor said that such any reductions in tuition fee or other income would have serious implications for all institutions across the sector, including the University of Reading. He said that as part of this year’s planning round, we will need to model various scenarios around fees and student numbers to understand what the implications could be so that we better understand the choices we face. He also said that such planning was what all responsible institutions needed to be doing in a period of greater uncertainty.

The Vice-Chancellor also commented that universities needed to make a stronger case for the positive value they bring to contribute to wider society. That had been called into question recently and the argument had to be made again.

The Vice-Chancellor highlighted the fact that Reading continues to hold its own as a popular choice for students, with a growth of nearly 6% on 2016-17 undergraduate numbers - in line with our Schools’ student recruitment targets. This increase in student numbers means there is increased pressure on our teaching and study space. As a result, the large lecture theatre in URS had been re-opened for teaching. This means that study spaces in the building have been reduced from around 800 to 600 (fire safety rules cap the total number of people allowed in the building at any one time).

The Vice-Chancellor said that the University was working to re-instate the study spaces during the Christmas and Easter vacations, and in the summer term for the exam period.

Referring to the Teaching Excellence Framework Silver award that the University received, he said the award was a testament to the continued commitment of the staff to teach, inspire and support students.

“Eighty-four per cent of the students who participated in the National Student Survey were satisfied with the University. Students commended teaching staff for being good at explaining things and for the support offered”, he said.

The Vice-Chancellor went on to say that the University is looking to continue to build on its strengths in teaching and learning, and is working on a renewal of the Teaching and Learning Strategy. He noted, “The four pillars of our strategy are to engage students in research and enquiry in the curriculum; to develop highly employable graduates; to evolve our approaches to teaching and learning; and, to continue to recruit, develop and value well qualified, professional academic staff. I am proud of the progress we have made in delivering on these objectives and look forward to us improving further in the future”.

Sir David Bell also thanked colleagues across the University who came together and worked hard on a proposal for a Medical School. “The dedication and collaborative work that I have seen over the past year has been outstanding. It is an example of what we can do when we work together.

“While we continue to think that there is a compelling case for a medical school at Reading, the University Executive Board has taken the decision not to make a submission to bid for one this autumn as we faced a number of challenges which could not be resolved in the timescale.

“We will continue to develop our proposal for a medical school, but over a longer timeframe. I am fully aware that opening a medical school would be a major undertaking and we would only go for it if we were confident that it would work for everyone involved.”

On the staff survey, the Vice-Chancellor noted that nearly 180 staff participated in the focus groups during the summer to help understand the areas for improvement. There was a particular focus on change, wellbeing and communication.

Colleagues had articulated the need for greater involvement of staff members in the change that affects them. The Vice-Chancellor said UEB was very keen to address this and staff members will soon be invited to participate in various projects being undertaken as part of our People Strategy.

“Our work on diversity and inclusion is a great example of how we can achieve results by working together and focusing on practical things that can make a difference. We want to continue building on this spirit of collaboration to create a working environment that gets the best out of everyone who works here at the University.”

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