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Summer term VC briefings

Robert Van de Noort

Dear colleagues,

Thank you to those who were able to attend the online briefings sessions this week. These are strange times and I would have much preferred to speak to you in person, but I’m at least glad that we have the tools to meet remotely.

For those who were unable to attend, there is a recording available below (accessible to University colleagues only), but I will also summarise the main points here. There were quite a number of questions around five main themes: furloughing, our plans for phased return, the process for considering both short and longer term financial challenges, student recruitment, and how COVID-19 might affect the new academic year. Given that these are all big topics, rather than trying to deal with them all here, UEB colleagues will share updates with you on all of these topics on the Staff Portal next week. So please keep an eye out for those.

 

Internet Explorer/Edge browser users can access the video on Microsoft Stream.


 

As I reflected in the sessions, I am immensely proud of the way our University community has responded to COVID-19. A huge number of people have been involved in our formal response through the Major Incident process, but all colleagues have shown a real sense of compassion and camaraderie, getting behind University and local community efforts to support others.

While these are challenging times, we can learn from our experiences to shape what our ‘new normal’ will look like – building on and improving the ways of working that we are currently discovering. This includes better embedding flexible and digital working to the benefit of our health and wellbeing, the environment, our finances and our campus infrastructure. We can also build on new ideas about what ‘community’ is and how we can engage more online.

I want to be very open, though, about the immense financial challenges raised by COVID-19. These compound the financial issues we were already facing and which I have spoken about before. There are immediate issues, like lost income of around £15 million from closing on-campus activities such as catering, the hotel, conference facilities and the like. But the problems will continue beyond the immediate threat of the virus itself. You may be aware of a report commissioned by UCU on the effect on undergraduate recruitment and the proposal from Universities UK (UUK) requesting government support for the sector, which takes account of the impact on international and postgraduate recruitment.

Using the scenarios set out in these, we estimate the possible loss to us here at Reading at around £40 million, from an annual turnover of £300 million. This goes up to £60 million if we were unable to operate at full capacity until January 2021 due to any ongoing social distancing and travel restrictions. Bear in mind that the recruitment impact is not one-off – if we do not recruit a first year, that financial gap remains for what would be their second and third year as well – and so the estimated loss over the next three years could be in the region of £100 million.

These are significant numbers and amount to one of the biggest financial challenges that the University has faced in its long history. Although Reading is better placed to weather the storm than many other institutions, we must take action now. The scale of the impact will depend on any government support package, which is currently being resisted by Treasury. It would probably amount to no more than £20m, based on the UUK proposal of increased research-related funding and a soft student number cap – significant but not enough to offset the full losses.

So there is clearly a high priority on doing everything we can to ensure our student recruitment numbers are as strong as possible, and I’m grateful to all colleagues involved in this critical work.

We are also working closely with Leadership Group to look at various options for income generation and cost saving. This includes specific controls on staff recruitment, with a senior group established to review all staffing requests on a weekly basis. We will make use of the government’s furloughing scheme, and UEB has also decided to pause many of our major capital investment projects for now to protect our cash flow. We are also asking Heads of Schools and Functions, as major budget holders, to closely scrutinise all upcoming expenditure to ensure we are focusing on the most critical activity. All this work is still at an early stage, with no decisions made, but we will have to move quickly and I am open to all creative and innovative ideas for cost savings.

I cannot guarantee that redundancies will not be necessary at some point if these other steps are not sufficient, but we will consider all possible measures to avoid or minimise this. I also want to provide you with absolute reassurance that there is no link between the current furloughing arrangements and redundancy. Furloughing is not a reflection on the necessity of a role or the performance of individuals. It solely reflects a temporary change in work patterns resulting from COVID-19 and it is an important way that we can make immediate savings.

Throughout the process of addressing these financial issues, our new University Strategy must provide the framework for our decision-making. In sharpening our focus on financial sustainability, I am adamant that we do not lose sight of our other principles. Any changes or difficult decisions we make must be done in a way that prioritises respect and fairness to our community. With environmental sustainability an important part of our distinctiveness and identity, we cannot simply shelve it as a ‘nice to have’. Maintaining an open and honest flow of communication will be more important than ever and I remain completely committed to that. And throughout, we will fully engage with partners, particularly the UCU and the Staff Forum.

As I noted in the briefing sessions, this is concerning news in already troubling times. I want to highlight the many wellbeing resources that are available to you. The Wellbeing webpages are being regularly updated with additional resources related to COVID-19 as well as further additional resources. There are new training resources in UoRLearn on working and managing remotely. And our Peer Support Network continues to remain available if you would value an information discussion with someone. So I encourage you to find out more about what is on offer.

I went into all these issues in more detail in the sessions, so I would encourage you to watch the recording if you were not able to attend. My UEB colleagues Julian Park, Parveen Yaqoob and Samantha Foley also talked about the positive work of the Major Incident Team, our support for the NHS and our ambitious longer term commercial development plans. All of these demonstrate that the University remains a vital and positive force locally and nationally with a strong future and an even stronger sense of community.

Given the positive attendance and engagement at the sessions, I plan to run more online briefings in the coming weeks to keep you fully informed and to hear your ideas and concerns.

In the meantime, please do stay safe and well, and be sure to take leave as and when you can to refresh yourself. All I can ask of any of you is that you do what you can. This is a trying period and it is important that we are kind to ourselves as well as each other. Resilience and commitment lie at the heart of our University community, and it is a community of which I remain proud and grateful to be a part.

Kind regards,

Robert

Robert Van de Noort

Vice-Chancellor

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