Universities are complex organisations. Sheffield Hallam – 4500 staff and 32000 students – is the size of a small town. That remains true even if, over the past few months, the town has become a series of connected hamlets as we have all become used to working in radically different ways. Our core purposes may be teaching and research, but, as we all know, those activities depend on the co-ordination of a vast range of underlying services. The success of the University depends as much on the effectiveness of those services as it does on anything else. It’s often difficult to remember that: we all tend to think of the University, much as we think of anything else in our lives, through the perspective we each have on the world. There’s an excellent, haunting poem by the northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon which comes to mind on this. It’s called Wind and Tree’ and begins “In the way that most of the wind/Happens where there are trees,/Most of the world is centred/About ourselves.” Muldoon’s poem goes on to suggest, in simple language, why the world isn’t like that.
The connections and the services on which this University depends have perhaps been more clearly apparent over the last eight months. We have all depended on the University’s digital technology services and they have been remarkably resilient and effective. That’s not an accident, and it has not been true in every University. It’s a result of sustained investment in technology over the past couple of years, consequent on early decisions in Transforming Lives. But it is also a result of dedicated and persistent work by the Digital Technology Services Team, who have work to ensure the resilience of our networks and systems, to equip staff and students with the equipment they need and to maintain vigilance on the daily torrent of cyber threats to this and every other large organisation.
About half of our 32000 students are term-time residents in Sheffield, and about half commute. The University is not, itself an accommodation provider, but we work closely with accommodation providers – large organisations and private landlords – to ensure the safety and security of our students. Throughout the past term, the commitment and hard work of our accommodation services teams, often working late and unsocial hours has been remarkable: challenges have been met, at very short notice, and reports and statistics have been drawn together at pace for a wide range of audiences.
Our CHOC team – Covid Help Outbound Calling team – was established just seven weeks ago starting from a clean slate. Working through new systems and procedures, it has achieved over 500 Food Box deliveries and queries, over 300 outbound calls to support isolating students, sent 2700 emails to students support engagement with courses and paved the way for booking into our asymptomatic testing.
I spoke in last week’s all staff video about the extra-ordinary achievement of members of our Technical Operations and Resources Service in transforming Hallam Hall into an asymptomatic testing centre in not much more than ten days of frenetic, but precise work. I was also able, just a couple of weeks ago, to visit the University’s new Creative Media Centre: space in the Harmer Building has been transformed over the summer to create a fabulous loan and support facility for students right across the University to make use of high specification kit to support their learning. I spent an afternoon, rather like a small child in a toy shop, talking to the team, exploring the shelves and looking into our stunning range of dark room and processing facilities.
And then last week one of our more innovative projects was – rightly – the winner of a Guardian University award for the most impressive innovation in supporting student experience. The Listening Rooms project has deployed qualitative research expertise to develop a genuinely innovative way of capturing student experiences and perceptions by establishing exploratory conversations around aspects of student experience amongst small groups of students, work which has already enabled us to re-design elements of induction and delivery around what students want, in ways that will work.
This has, of course, been a difficult blog to write because I could go on. There are areas of the University to which I’ve not done justice: I could have written about our employability team, our finance team, our human resources team, our estates team – and even had I done so I could have then also written about our catering teams, our security team, our planning teams, our recruitment teams – and so on and so on. The University has depended on the interlocking and sequencing of activities all of which have had to be re-designed at speed. As vice-chancellor, I probably get to see more of the results of that than most others, but it is still easy to overlook.
Muldoon’s poem begins by talking about the solitary tree but it’s really poem about connections and interdependence. One of the most important things we have learnt over the last eight months is the power of connections – to support each other and to realise our goals.