New Year Update to Staff

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

Dear colleagues,

As we begin a new year of teaching and research, we know that we are also entering a new chapter for UK universities. As the new Office for Students (OfS) takes effect, it is clear that we can expect a very different environment for higher education - one which overtly thinks of universities as a marketplace in which students are customers and 'value' is measured in ways which often feel alien to the world of academia.

How should we think about this new world?

Like many of you, the holidays have allowed me some precious time to reflect on the work we do and what really matters. These thoughts were triggered even more by seeing a video recording of a Christmas in Wales 30 years ago. My dear father, long gone, is holding in his arms a Sheffield-trained architect-to-be, my daughter Elizabeth. I am also caught on film as a younger Keith, then an Oxford University lecturer, finding it a challenge to be a good scientist and even harder to get the funds to buy the equipment to do the work.

Looking back, I could see my younger self doing a good deal of science and meeting the most remarkable people on the way. I felt a modest sense of achievement remembering those times, but much more a sense of blessing for a career that has been full of things I thought were worth doing and a deep gratitude for the wonderful students I got to teach.

My research and teaching took place in Boulder in the US, in London and Oxford. But this last part of my career at Sheffield has given me an opportunity to move beyond science to consider how education and knowledge should serve society and what I believe a university should be. I am very grateful to have been able to do this thinking in our University, where I have led an institution committed from its founding to putting education at the service of the public good. And what wonderful colleagues and students we have, who share this dedication to knowledge which can and does change lives, which is so much more than an investment to be measured in purely financial terms.

It may be that this perspective on universities was born in another age but I will not describe myself as a dinosaur, as I do not like to use that name as a denigration. After all, dinosaurs lasted longer than we have and did a lot less damage to the planet! There are times, though, that it is right to be strengthened by voices from our past, by the wisdom of our literal or academic forebears and teachers.

In the things we are doing at Sheffield, we are keeping our University true to the mission it was given in 1905 - a founding vision as fresh and relevant as it ever was. Thankfully our students also embrace this for themselves, courageously thinking about what education should mean for the next generation - not simply as customers but as members of our University.

So I urge you to have confidence in the year ahead. We do know what our students and communities need and we must not let others tell us that we don't. They need a university able to command an international position while serving the people it was established to serve. They need a university which is still 'for the people'.

In the things we are doing at Sheffield, we are keeping our University true to the mission it was given in 1905 - a founding vision as fresh and relevant as it ever was.

Professor sir keith burnett

We will, of course, have to understand and respect the new regulatory framework set up by the government for higher education. There is no avoiding the need for a detailed awareness of the new requirements which will be placed upon us. So I have asked our colleagues to do the most thorough job they can in examining and, where necessary, modifying our governance to ensure we are fully compliant.

This is a good deal of work and will take effort by many of you to make sure this works well. Our duty though remains to preserve the education and scholarship which have been the hallmark of our University for more than a century. It is my hope that we shall respond completely to this new regime while keeping as much as possible to the vocation of our 1905 charter.

But let's not in any way lose sight of what matters. We should continue to take real pride in the work that we undertake as a global University rooted in our local community, and which I have tried to describe in the media without fear or apology.

Our students will continue to need our diligent efforts as teachers. Society both locally and globally will benefit from the insights of our scholarship. I will continue in the year ahead to do everything in my power to build our reputation both in the UK and internationally, securing global partnerships and ensuring your work is known around the world, as I have been tasked as your President and Vice-Chancellor by our University Council.

The challenge is great but I am confident that we have the people needed to thrive even in this new era. We will, I believe, continue to grow in reputation not by seeking accolades but through gaining understanding and sharing it in ways which make a difference. Our society needs our expertise, even if some are wary of experts.

Colleagues helping to manage necessary change will need all of our encouragement and support in the transition period as the OfS takes up its new statutory powers. We will not deny our new environment, but will seek to fulfil our mission in this changed regulatory context. I would like to thank you for your commitment and hard work to scholarship and its preservation in the hearts and minds of our students - it is this which should remain our vocation in the year ahead.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FLSW
President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield.