Inside Track - 31 July 2017 - Sir Alan Langlands
Looking backwards and forwards at one and the same time
Above all, on this, the last day of the 2016/17 academic year, I want to thank all students and staff for the countless contributions you have made to the success of the University over the past twelve months. Your commitment to the University and your sheer hard work is greatly appreciated and much admired.
For thousands of our outstanding graduates of 2017, the familiar world of home, school and University has given way to a world of unknown opportunity and challenge; and on 17 August, we will recruit around 7,000 excellent new students to take their place, maintaining the cycle of renewal and welcoming the next surge of energy, innovation and creativity from the i-Generation.
At graduation, we also said a fond goodbye to Melvyn Bragg (Lord Bragg of Wigton), our Chancellor for seventeen years. He cares deeply about the University and speaks with authority and compassion in the House of Lords on a wide range of social issues, including higher education. Melvyn understands, more than anyone, that the contribution of universities extends beyond the immediate needs of the economy, and underpins the culture of open and informed debate essential to any civilised, democratic society. We will miss him.
2016/17 has been another successful year for the University. Student recruitment was strong in 2016, and the title of University of the Year, TEF Gold and the highest number of student applications in our history, gives us confidence that we will have a successful recruitment round in 2017. Recent academic investments are also bearing fruit, with strong growth in research awards year on year, and our capital programme is slowly but surely transforming the campus, the student experience and our research infrastructure. We will finish the year with a small financial surplus and a strong cash position.
That said, the challenge of maintaining academic and financial sustainability is likely to be a whole lot tougher over the next three to five years, and is likely to take place in an environment of political, policy and economic uncertainty. The scale of student debt, the demographic pinch in the teenage population, and the development of attractive alternatives to university, will all have a bearing on the numbers of home undergraduate applicants from 2018 onwards; Brexit might lead to an additional squeeze in student numbers and research income; and new cost pressures on services and pensions could well have an effect on our flexibility to invest. It is some time since the scale and immediacy of the risks facing higher education have been so great, and I fear we have a government that doesn’t always recognise the intrinsic value of universities.
In shaping the financial forecasts for the next five years, the University Executive Group and the Council, whilst still supporting a plan for growth and development, have recognised that we might have to move quickly to mitigate any risks which crystallise in the short and medium term. There is also an expectation that we will continue to enrich the academic activity on campus by shifting the balance of home and international students and continuing to boost our postgraduate activity. The very high dependence we currently have on the recruitment of home undergraduate students is unlikely to be sustainable into the future. We will also be examining the opportunities for streamlining our programme portfolio and continuing to develop our digital offer to ensure that we maintain the highest standards of education, whilst achieving manageable workloads for staff and students.
2017/18 will also see a strong focus on the quality and impact of our research as we prepare for REF 2021 and wider engagement with other institutions, companies and NGOs – nationally and internationally – with the aim of boosting research citations and positioning the University at the forefront of the Global Challenges Research Fund and the government’s emergent industrial strategy. There will also be a strong emphasis on streamlining our processes, systems and IT infrastructure to improve the student experience and reduce the burden of administration on academic staff.
The students and staff of the University achieved a great deal in 2016/17, and, with strong foundations, we are in a good position to face much more challenging times over the next few years. If we can hold fast to the principle of academic excellence and maintain our focus on investing in knowledge and opportunity with all the energy and professionalism we can muster, I have no doubt that we will continue to go from strength to strength.
In the meantime, I hope that those of you taking a summer break will have a restful and restorative time with your friends and family. To those of you continuing to support and prepare for next term, thank you. I look forward to the next academic year with a real sense of pride and enthusiasm for a great University.
31 July 2017