It’s the beginning of a new academic year. Malcolm Bradbury’s novel, The History Man – itself a vicious satire of 1970s university life and morals – opens at the beginning of a new academic year with a few sentences which catch the sense: “Now it is the autumn again; the people are all coming back. The recess of summer is over, when holidays are taken, newspapers shrink, history itself seems momentarily to falter and stop”. There’s an apparent timelessness about it – unlike the rest of the novel which now seems very dated and remote.
Over the next few weeks, we will welcome more than 8,000 new students to the University – something like 7,000 of them new undergraduate students, embarking on what we know will be a life-shaping and, we aim, life-transforming experience. The sheer logistics of the operation required to recruit, sustain communication with, enrol, register and then teach our new students is enormous, and depends on vast coordination across the University. But starting anything new is always at least a bit threatening, and we should all remember that there will be a large population of excited, apprehensive, expectant, worried, and perhaps not a little lonely newcomers around. We welcome new staff too, throughout the University, and each of them will find the way we do things here slightly different from the way they are used to. All of the newcomers – students, staff – will find themselves depending on us in some way or another. Change at any stage of life is challenging – one of my summer pre-occupations was helping my father move into warden-monitored accommodation. It is the first time he has moved house since 1953, and the combination of logistic complexity and emotion is making for a difficult time for everyone involved.
Beyond the arrivals of the newest members of our community, this will be a year of significant change for our University. The re-shaping of the University’s leadership arrangements will become operational during the Autumn and both the Chief Operating Officer, Richard Calvert, and new Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience, Christina Hughes, arrive on 1 November. The four faculty PVCs, including Kevin Kerrigan, who arrived on 1 September, each assume a significant cross-university leadership role. The renewed statement of University strategy is being drafted and will be circulated for wider comment and development across the University following the Board of Governors’ away day at the beginning of October, with an intention that the Board signs it off at the end of November – leading to a focus on implementation in 2017.
There is significant work to be done in ‘business as usual’. Once again, the National Student Survey, published at the beginning of August, demonstrated outstanding strengths throughout the University, but also highlighted both areas of continuing challenge and the difficulties we encounter as a university in securing consistency in the student experience. The Continuous Improvement strategy led by the University’s Academic Quality and Standards Committee is designed to make rapid strides on that. We have enjoyed a highly successful Clearing and Adjustment through August and early September, but there is clear evidence from that experience that the market for undergraduate recruitment is tightening, and that international markets are changing rapidly. Across all our operations, but notably student recruitment and research, we need to push on our thinking about what a post-BREXIT world looks like for an international university with a strong regional profile. This will be a busy year!
And the world around us is changing also, in not entirely predictable ways. We have, to all intents and purposes a new government, fashioning not just a BREXIT policy but what looks like radically different industrial, regional and education policies. The Teaching Excellence Framework is just one new element in what is a complicated new landscape – the new government is pressing ahead with the Higher Education and Research Bill, which means that universities will face a new legislative and regulatory landscape this year. I have appointed a new Director of Policy and Projects to help steer our thinking through the policy landscape, and Carol Stanfield arrives to take up that post from her previous job at the UK Commission for Employment & Skills.
And, though I have said it before, the deeper changes affecting universities the world over are still at work: the continuing digital revolution; the continued rise in student expectations; and the apparently remorseless march of competition nationally and internationally. What this does, for all of us, is to make us feel, every year, and sometimes every week, just a little bit like the newcomers to the University: a little bit worried, a little bit apprehensive, but, hopefully, also, a little bit (or more than a little bit) excited. Happy New Year!