Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – February 2016

Colin Riordan

Dear colleague

The big news this month has been the announcement that an in-out referendum on European Union membership will be held on 23 June. You may have seen that I was one of 103 vice-chancellors to sign a letter in support of continued membership that was published in the Sunday Times on 21 February. There is a rare unanimity amongst university leaders throughout the UK that the scale and diversity that the EU offers is of inestimable value to students and staff and, indeed, that the future of the UK’s knowledge economy will be more secure if we are in and able to influence than if we are out. Our lobbying in Brussels and representation of the interests of research and the free movement of staff and students has won some notable advantages for scientific excellence and educational achievement; defending Horizon 2020 and expanding the scope of Erasmus exchanges as well as our strong support for the Marie Curie-Skłodowska programme have all been of great benefit and examples of our ability to influence for the better. There is no doubt that UK universities compete very successfully for research funding from the European Commission. The UK’s share of eligible applications to Horizon 2020 so far is greater than that of any other European country, and we have secured 15.5% of the funding to date against our population share of 12.6%. But much more important than this is the opportunity to be part of a very large common research and education area that has well-functioning and well-funded systems of funding and free movement of people, drawing from a pool of 508 million citizens. We can recruit the best students and employ the best staff without having to worry about visas or residence permits. Our open, competitive system gives us a big advantage versus the other giants in terms of research and education; notably the USA and China. Strong universities are key to the knowledge economy of the present and, critically, of the future. That is why university leaders throughout the UK are strongly of the view that we should remain part of the European Union.

Closer to home, as I said in my October 2015 email we are now nearing the end of The Way Forward planning period (2012-17), so it makes sense to start thinking about our strategy post-2017. We do still need to focus on the key performance indicators in The Way Forward, because those are the criteria by which our success will be judged, but let’s take the opportunity to spend more time considering the future given the extensive changes in higher education that face us. Taking more time over strategy development also permits us to consult widely and allow as many stakeholders as possible to feed in their thoughts and ideas. To that end (as we announced before Christmas) we have organized a series of workshops on key themes.

The first one, entitled ‘A values-led strategy?’ was held on 5 February. Around 80 people attended, consisting of a mixture of academic, professional and support staff, students and Council members. The aim of the day was to explore what values actually are, how important they are and whether it is possible to have a values-led strategy. We used digital straw polling to see what people felt about the idea of a values-led strategy at the beginning and end of the day, and also to create a word-cloud to see what the general feeling was concerning which values we should espouse. Peter Sedgwick and Simon Robertson from our School of English, Communication and Philosophy gave a presentation and led a discussion of some of the fundamental questions we would have to consider, while Robin Alfred from the Findhorn Foundation talked about the experience of putting values at the heart of their organisation. In the afternoon we divided into groups to discuss various hypothetical case studies which outlined scenarios in which a decision would need to be taken involving an ethical dilemma or value judgment. Examples included how to handle controversial research, what to do in the event of an offer of a substantial donation from a doubtful source, whether actively to discourage alcohol consumption in order to improve the health of students and staff, how to ensure parity of esteem between teaching and research and other similar cases.

You can see a summary of the day here, but some of the insights that struck me as useful and memorable included the exploration of what we mean by values, conducted by the two philosophers. Amongst other things they drew a distinction between what we value and what is valuable by using the parallel of desire and desirable. That is, we might desire something that is not desirable. Similarly we might value something that is not valuable; in other words (and these are my words and interpretation), we need genuinely to think through what is important to the University, its future and the interests of those who work and study here. Those should be the matters that we value and prioritise. What is important might be something quite abstract — such as freedom of expression — and might be a condition rather than an end in itself. We also need to consider the question of what lies in the interest of the individual versus that of the institution. The complexity of these issues should not hold us back from thinking them through as best we can. Robin Alfred talked about how to make a values-led strategy a reality rather than lip-service. That relies on the creation of a strong feedback culture where giving and receiving feedback in a positive and constructive manner reinforces the values as well as the behaviours arising from them. This seems to me to be something worth pursuing even if we opt for an approach where our values are embedded in the strategy rather than highlighted. I’ve often thought that receiving feedback is more difficult than giving it, and more difficult to learn. Accepting a compliment gracefully is hard enough for most people, and so practising receiving feedback – from below as well as horizontally or from above – in a manner that is not defensive but is characterized by curiosity and openness to learning is a real challenge. Those that can do this already are fortunate, but anybody who does overcome their inhibitions in this matter will, I think, find the results extremely rewarding.

We have several more strategy workshops planned; you can see the timetable here. The next away day is on St David’s Day, March 1, which I hope is auspicious. We will be discussing education in the morning and research in the afternoon and if there are places still available you can register here. At the strategy day I particularly appreciated the fact that we were doing what people at a university should be doing: thinking through some quite abstract and complex problems that will affect our lives in the future and taking the time to debate and discuss ideas. I’m looking forward in due course to re-reading all the materials that have been generated from this process (including from the Council away day and the Senior Staff Conference that I mentioned in October) and discussing them with UEB colleagues and members of Council. I think we will be able to develop a strategy that is based on rich material informed by useful evidence and thoughtful consultation. The process itself is extremely valuable, but I’m also sure that the final outcome will be the better for the time and care we have taken to bring it to its conclusion.

Best wishes

Colin Riordan