Taking stock

Last week, I spoke at two all staff briefings, setting out the university’s strategy and priorities as we emerge from pandemic restrictions. This week’s blog summarises my presentations, a recording or which can also be viewed by colleagues within the university.

Two years on from the arrival of Covid-19, the world has changed in ways we predicted and in ways we hadn’t. In May 2022, Covid-19 has not gone away but perhaps the pandemic phase is over. It’s increasingly clear that recovering from the last two years will take a long time and continuing effort, and our experiences mean that we each have widely different perceptions of where the focus should be.

A principal source for the sector’s – and Hallam’s – thinking has been the UPP Student Futures Commission, which set out the priorities students have identified for post-pandemic experience. The Commission identified six areas where students want universities to focus and encouraged universities to commit to a ‘student futures manifesto’, foregrounding these priorities. Sheffield Hallam is one of 20 universities to have signed up to develop a manifesto; we did so because the themes identified by the Commission chime strongly with the Hallam Model, which is designed to ensure that every student is engaged and challenged and can collaborate and thrive. Our common language for teaching, which has shaped our delivery thinking this academic year, articulates the ways in which our students will learn; our graduate outcomes are amongst the best in the sector, and our student support triangle offers a distinctive approach to guiding students through their university experience. But we know that there is more to do, not just to address aspects of student experience measured by the National Student Survey, but to re-energise the student campus experience and address the long-term challenge of post-pandemic engagement.

Our post-pandemic context is increasingly challenging. Universities, like other institutions are now operating in a high inflation economy and doing so on the basis of a long-term fixed undergraduate fee. By 2025, the undergraduate fee will have lost a third of its value since 2012. The OfS, our regulator, is increasingly flexing its regulatory muscle.  Changes to the student finance regime pose serious challenges: in my Times Higher article I said that the changes lock inter-generational inequity into higher education funding. And this government, wrongly in my view, appears to be less persuaded than its predecessors of the long-term benefits of a high participation HE sector.

On the other hand, there are emerging opportunities. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement has the potential to reshape higher education in a socially progressive way. The development of Higher Technical Qualifications opens up opportunities for partnership with further education, an area where Hallam has led thinking nationally and regionally. The Levelling Up White Paper offers opportunities to re-position universities to address regional inequalities, and our climate action work offers an exciting and apposite agenda. The government’s commitment to investing 2.4% of GDP in research and innovation is a huge opportunity, and especially for a university so embedded in real world impact and engagement.

During the pandemic we took stock of our strategic position, assessing areas of relative strengths and weaknesses, and reviewing our vision and mission. We re-asserted or Transforming Lives strategy, and looked at our strategic goals in a coherent, integrated way, exploring with greater clarity than before the relationship between our value proposition, our sustainability and the way we engage our people. From that we designed a coherent future strategy programme to take a more strategic approach to our research and teaching, enhancing quality and embedding resilience and addressing the long-term challenge of financial sustainability and with consistent surplus. We have a clear path to a more agile and responsive university, with a coherent approach across our physical and digital estate, and ensuring that this is a place where people want to work and study.

Our campus plan is a key part of this – albeit not the only part. The hoardings on Howard Street are currently enclosing a huge development project which will transform city campus – giving it the heart and identity it has never had, reshaping the city centre itself and providing exceptional environments in which to work and study, whilst being one of the largest net zero ready developments in higher education.

For all the challenges, it is an exciting time for the University. On the back of all this work, we know with clarity our priorities for 2022-3. They are to further enhance student experience, to implement the teaching and research portfolio review to ensure a strong and resilient offer to students, to build on the flexibilities we have developed over the last two years, engaging and supporting our community as we emerge from restrictions, and to transform the way we use our physical and digital estate whilst securing financial stability.

Our achievements as a university are increasingly recognised. In the last year we have added to our 2020 University of the Year for Teaching Quality award with further accolades– and the list is impressive.  We are Entrepreneurial University of the Year, we are University of the Year in both the UK Social Mobility Awards and the Educate North Awards, and our estates team won the Estates Team of the Year award. There are common themes in these awards – our success in embedding entrepreneurship and employability principles throughout our teaching, regional partnerships and research programmes, in advancing social mobility through higher education and achieving outstanding outcomes for our graduates and in our commitment to making a positive impact on our city and region.

As Vice-Chancellor, I am extremely proud of everything we’ve achieved together, and I know how much hard work, commitment, creativity and determination have gone into it all. In what is, of course, a rapidly changing environment, the university’s leadership will continue to listen, and adapt and change as necessary whilst maintaining a focus on those things – and above all our people – who have ensured our success to date.

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