Almost as surprising as the dramatic changes wrought by COVID-19 have been the ways in which many aspects of academic life have proceeded as they would in any other year, albeit by different means and sometimes in a different form. Undergraduate assessment is complete, exam boards have been held and degrees awarded. As I write we are even holding virtual degree ceremonies (to which I will return in a future email when they are complete), although every 2020 graduate will be given the opportunity to attend in person when it becomes possible to hold large events once more. Back in March, the prospect of achieving all this seemed to be a mountain to climb, and indeed so it was. I am aware of the huge efforts that went into making all this possible and would like to thank everybody concerned for their commitment, hard work and resourcefulness. In previous emails I have observed the magnificent way in which people have come together in the face of this crisis, and the need to work together to find common solutions to the common problems we face. Pooling resources and recognising that we need to help each other out will remain critical. I recognise the strain that everybody has been under and am immensely appreciative of the mutually supportive approach that people have been taking.
Even with that common purpose, I know how difficult it is to fit everything in, given the requirement to prioritise teaching and learning in this new environment. It’s very important that colleagues take a proper rest and take annual leave, because it won’t be long before we are embarking on a new academic year under unfamiliar conditions with limited in-person contact with most students and much of our normal activity continuing to take place remotely. Many academic colleagues will be awaiting further guidance on how to deliver digital content. This is under development and being worked on intensively, with a view to making it available before the end of July. These circumstances do mean that there may well be extra work involved in delivering teaching during 2020/21, until it is possible to resume in-person activities without restriction, which is likely to be some time away. For this period it will be important to ensure that sufficient time is available for teaching, and that could mean giving less priority to research that is not part of a grant or contract, or immediately REF-related. This is not ideal, but it is vital to manage workload in such a way that we give our students the best education and experience possible under these difficult conditions, whilst protecting the wellbeing of staff. We may therefore have to accept that some research activity will need to be deferred for the time being. I want to stress that nobody will be disadvantaged by taking such steps. Citizenship, commitment to teaching and learning and other aspects of our response to the crisis will be fully recognized in probation and promotion processes, and the usual expectations in relation to research will be seen in the light of the present priorities. Nobody can be expected to make the adjustments required whilst keeping all balls in the air.
That said, and to return to my opening point, it’s pleasing to see the many ways in which we are able to continue our work as a University, recognising that while some changes are needed, we cannot and must not put important matters on hold. In this case I am referring to our commitment to widening participation and supporting disadvantaged young people by helping them to participate in higher education. One of the key ways of doing this has been to organise summer schools for low-participation groups, including those with special needs and/or from a disadvantaged background. Clearly, our normal events are not possible this year, and so our widening participation team has initiated a two-week digital summer festival, Gwyl eCampws Festival. The team have been very much guided by the young people who will be taking part, and who were able to play a key role in designing the festival around their own needs and interests. The result includes a project for young people with autistic spectrum conditions, a project in partnership with the Sutton Trust to encourage those from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to study medicine, a project to support young carers from South East Wales to participate in higher education as well as work with our members of our own core Step-Up programme and with Welsh applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to develop their presentation and team-working skills. It has become increasingly apparent that coronavirus has had a disproportionate effect on those with the least advantages and so this kind of activity is more important than ever.
On the broader stage we recently received welcome news in terms of the government’s support for international students, as a recently published document on the new points-based immigration system shows. The previous policy of making it increasingly difficult and expensive for students to obtain visas has now been abandoned, and it is clear that the UK intends to encourage and welcome students to come here from all over the world via the new Student Route visa. The application process is being made much smoother, and applicants will have six months instead of three in advance of the start of their studies to apply. We will have greater freedom to assess English-language ability and academic qualifications. Existing students will no longer need to return to their country of origin in order to apply for another type of visa, nor will they be required to show that they have sufficient funds to live here, having already done so in their original application. Although from January 2021 citizens of EU countries will need to go through this process as well, they will benefit from reduced documentation requirements, as will citizens of other countries considered low risk. As a sponsor we will be required to monitor students’ engagement in their studies rather than their attendance. The re-introduction of the two-year post-study work visa (the Graduate Route visa, with three years for PhD graduates) will be very much welcomed and will help make the UK more attractive to prospective students. Against the background of the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and escalating international tensions these developments are hugely helpful and mark the end of a very difficult period that began in 2010. A sense of what the future priorities and plans might include can be gleaned by a report that has just been published by the King’s College Policy Institute in collaboration with Harvard University, entitled Universities Open to the World. Ordinarily one might not look to a report of this nature for clues to government thinking, but the author of this paper (and it is very well informed and readable) is Jo Johnson, former Minister for Universities and Science and brother of the Prime Minister.
You may be aware that last year’s staff survey made it apparent that some of you have concerns about the way University Executive Board engages and communicates with staff. We have taken this to heart and have put considerable effort into putting that right, especially since the crisis broke. As part of our commitment it would be helpful to take the temperature at this stage to see if we are on the right track. If you would like to make your views known, please click here, and it should only take a few minutes of your time.
As I have said before, I have been writing an email to staff at least monthly since I started as a Vice-Chancellor back in 2007 (much more often during the crisis), but I have never sent one in August, given the nature of the academic year. This year I will make an exception because we expect that confirmation and clearing will give us some vital information on undergraduate student recruitment and potential trends in international applicant behaviour. I will reflect then a little more on plans for the next academic year, but in the meantime I hope as many of you as possible will be able to enjoy a relaxing break.
With best wishes,