Staff update from the Vice-Chancellor

Professor Sir Keith Burnett outlines his thoughts on the challenges we face as an institution and thanks colleagues for their help in ensuring we can protect and build our University even in the face of adverse conditions.

Dear Colleagues

Since I last wrote we have seen some truly momentous and, for some, utterly tragic events in the UK. The uncertainties ahead for our University are also now beyond those we could have expected even a few months ago, from national policy to the implications of the EU referendum.

I am still telling everyone in positions of influence or power, whether they are inclined to listen or not, that my first concern is for staff and families left uncertain of their status in the UK after Brexit. I know this is a worry and offence to many of our colleagues, and I fervently hope this has the speediest of resolutions once negotiations with the EU actually start.

The true nature of our international universities here in the UK continues to be under threat. We have yet to see whether those parts of the Conservative party manifesto make it through the maw of the negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and following that the vagaries of a hung parliament, but we have to be ready.

In particular, if the manifesto commitment on immigration numbers were to be implemented to the letter, the impact on UK higher education would be devastating. That is why a good part of my efforts are aimed at redoubling our work to lobby and support those in government who oppose this absurd proposal. We are also deeply concerned about the impact of ‘hard Brexit’ on our research collaborations and the mobility of talent. We shall work for the best, and think about how we might handle the worst.

I am sure you will not be surprised that I am thinking a great deal about how we can make the best of the difficulties that may face us. And please don’t worry that I would be tricked into sharing that absurd notion that we can simply morph every crisis into an opportunity. We do have opportunities of course, but they are going to be tougher to pursue with money getting tighter, and we shall have to be damned careful in choosing where to invest when current activities are being challenged. We are looking at some strategic directions for developing our research and teaching but we shall “dream with our eyes open” and use precious resources prudently.

First though, let's understand the challenges we face.

The reason times are tougher at present is not that hard to see. Over recent years, public funding of research and teaching has decreased in real terms. Across the UK, research funding in many areas simply does not cover costs. Public money for our buildings has almost disappeared.

We have worked hard despite this and our University has continued to grow its income helped by an increase in international students; however, our income has not grown as fast as our costs. That is something we have to face and do our best to rectify.

As I explained last time I wrote, I have been considering how best to work together in these more challenging times. I am convinced there is much we can do, if we implement sensible measures across the board, to avoid the need for any drastic actions. We must not overreact to possible changes, but we would be neglecting our duty if we did not prepare for further challenges in every part of our world. A key consideration in this is how we run the University, always bearing in mind that this must serve our core purpose of how we do the best for the teaching and care of our students, along with the research and innovation we pursue. Any structure must have, as its primary aim, the need to preserve and defend the scholarship that makes this such an important place of learning.

So what should we change in the way we do things, and what should we retain?

As part of the broader discussion with colleagues across the University, I have heard a great deal of support for the departmental structure along with the faculty system we brought in just after I arrived in Sheffield. I am pleased to hear that, as I am proud of the work our faculties have done; they have achieved a great deal.

However, there are concerns around how we draw closer together as times get tougher; how we collaborate more in key areas; how we make sure our strengths are supported and defended; how we make clear the values we hold dear and the contributions we make to a broader community yet more obvious.

I welcome this feedback and it coincides with my own view that somewhat greater coherence in our operation across the University would be warranted in trickier times. The key issue will be to seek a balance which allows us to act with common purpose without removing local flexibility and responsibility.

Without being tempted to pursue the Roman route of dictator I see it will be essential that we keep the strengths of the devolved authority that faculties need to be effective, while acting decisively to preserve our common goals. I am also mindful that changes at the senior level will increasingly warrant direct guidance as we look and plan ahead.

This does not mean we will be insular in our approach - far from it. The latest QS Global Rankings saw our University rise in the international tables, due in significant part to our international reputation. This success is key for our future, so I shall continue to champion your work overseas and seek opportunities for our University both nationally and internationally. I will also do my best to shape government policy in our interests, but I know challenging times will necessitate a strong-er central direction at times.

This means I shall be working more closely with colleagues in the months ahead. I have total confidence in their capabilities and see it as my role to support this senior team as the seas get rough. I will be asking teams of staff to work across disciplines in key areas such as our approach to research and innovation, teaching and new technologies, developing ideas with our Senate and University Council.

And in this common endeavour, I also include my determination that we work with staff and students to ensure that our community of scholarship remains united, speaking wherever possible with a common voice and drawing on the insights of the whole University “to make our own history, even in times not of our own choosing.”

There will be times when we shall need to rethink our approach and structures, develop new collaborations and be willing to challenge our assumptions. There will be other occasions when we should preserve continuity, battening down the hatches as we, in all likelihood, face a storm.

Knowing which approach to apply in which circumstance will take judgement and care. I thank you though, for your support in doing what we can to secure the research and teaching of which we are rightly proud, and for your help in ensuring we can protect and build our University even in the face of adverse conditions.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS
President and Vice-Chancellor