Staff update from the President and Vice-Chancellor

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

Dear colleagues,

Before many of you leave Sheffield for the Christmas break, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for your hard work and dedication to teaching and research throughout this year.

In many ways, this has been a wonderful year, full of achievements. At the heart of our University is our students, and we are deeply proud that scholarship and challenge in a progressive environment continue to be the hallmark of teaching at our University.

Nationally and internationally, our University has risen in both global reputation and subject rankings. Individuals have contributed to life-changing research. Siemens chose to place its first Industry 4.0 collaborative lab - the MindSphere - in our wonderful Diamond building. And the impact of our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre has led to major companies such as Boeing and McLaren investing in production facilities in our city region, creating local economic growth and apprenticeship opportunities at our training centre. In so many inspiring ways, we have fulfilled our founding mission.

In other ways though, it has been a truly tough year. As the implications of the Brexit vote became clearer, our fears grew for its impact on our staff, students and shared research programmes. The concerns of precious EU staff who are not British nationals have been especially painful, particularly given the enormous service these colleagues and friends have given to UK universities over many years.

The Higher Education and Research Act received royal assent and the Office for Students will shortly take up its full role as a 'market regulator', in the process requiring all universities apply for registration to award degrees. For many of us, universities are now subject to a very different environment than the one we entered as teachers and researchers. We share with our own students - who we continue to see as members of our University rather than simply customers - real concerns about some of the likely consequences of this new culture, although we are of course preparing carefully for the requirements we know will come. We have also seen a growing awareness of the long-term impacts on graduates of introducing a system of student loans for tuition and maintenance.

In many ways, this has been a wonderful year, full of achievements.

Professor Sir keith burnett

Now, of course, universities also face challenges around the USS pensions. I know that there is continuing debate about changes to the USS and that our University is attempting to provide honest answers and to engage with our unions on this.

However, I've also been asked by a number of staff for my view and I recognise the deep concerns of staff about the proposed changes. As a Vice-Chancellor I also see the particular impact this issue is having on the UK's leading research-intensive universities, such as Sheffield, whose teachers and researchers are disproportionately represented in the scheme.

Unlike the former polytechnic universities where the majority of staff are members of a government-backed pension scheme which offers defined benefits, research intensive universities - so crucial to the UK's global competitive position and future prosperity - are facing significantly higher commitments on staff pensions.

In the regulated market in which we now find ourselves, this effectively represents government support of pension benefits to one part of higher education and its staff not available to others. This is not only unfair, it is a bias which weighs heavily against those institutions and their students being asked to make investments which are then unavailable for teaching and research. Given the state support of one part of higher education for historic reasons, in my view this cannot be a question for universities alone but rather demands that the government also considers how it might address this imbalance.

Yet despite our many challenges, I hope we can still focus on the core aims of our University. These have been a continuous strand since 1905 when we received our charter - a determination to be a university 'for the people', one which put education within the reach of students who may not have been born into affluent families, whose research would benefit the health and prosperity of our own city and the wider world.

So as you prepare to take a break and, in many cases, enjoy times with friends and family, I'd like to personally thank you for the support you have given to our students, to me and to one another. It is deeply appreciated.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS
President and Vice-Chancellor