I do hope that you and your families are well and safe in these demanding times, and are feeling able to cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, I would like to pay great tribute to all those staff who have spent so many hours transferring to online teaching and assessment in recent months. This has been the result of much hard work, and I am very grateful to colleagues in academic departments, the Centre for Learning & Teaching, DDAT, the Library, professional services and others for all that you have done. I hope that the current exam and marking period goes well for you and, of course, for our students. I also wish to pay great tribute to the staff who have done so much to ensure that the campus continues to be a good place to be for the students here, and for those who have been contributing to PPE provision and COVID-19 research activities. All this activity has been greatly valued, and members of our University should rightly feel proud of, and grateful for, the commitment shown.
I recognise that many of us are thinking of the future and as a result I would like to share with you the steps that we now believe we need to take.
I want to be as open as possible with you about our ongoing thinking. One of the difficulties we face is that we won’t have all the answers, nor indeed the information we need to make comprehensive decisions at this stage. I know this can be frustrating, and I also know that we won’t get everything right as we try to navigate through circumstances which the sector has never before faced. Nevertheless, I would like to do you the courtesy of sharing the challenges we face at an early stage, as I fully recognise that our collective actions will be of the greatest benefit for our future.
Safety, wellbeing and support
The main challenge of COVID-19 is, of course, one of health, and our priority continues to be ensuring the safety of our staff and students. In addition to physical health, mental health and anxiety are real concerns as we enter a ninth week of restrictions on movement. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and I know that Professor Bernie Morley, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, has written to share information and sources of support with you all. I am also so pleased to learn of activities taking place within some departments.
I also want to acknowledge the hardship that this pandemic has caused some of our students. Our colleagues in Development & Alumni Relations have been working with Student Services to raise further monies for our hardship fund from our friends and alumni community. I am deeply grateful for their generosity, which is enabling us to offer support to those who need it.
In my last message, I highlighted the financial pressure that COVID-19 and its impacts have brought to the sector. Our University has already lost significant income across a range of activities, from cancelled summer schools and vastly reduced retail, accommodation and campus operations. This challenge also comes at a time when the Higher Education sector faces ongoing financial pressures and uncertainties, including the regulated tuition fee freeze. This, for our University, means we were already expecting to have to make an additional £3M in savings each year. Next year we also face the, as yet unknown, implications of Brexit for UK universities. Another financial factor is that our University has not grown research income in the past ten years to the same extent as some other universities.
Nonetheless, the University of Bath is in a stronger position than some other universities, at least in the short term, having maintained surpluses in recent years and also having restricted capital expenditure in the last year, which means our cash balances were high going into this crisis.
To date, we have taken immediate action to maintain finances for the current academic year 2019/2020. We have limited recruitment, restricted non-pay expenditure, closed many buildings, delayed capital projects and furloughed approximately 900 employees. The financial calculations we’ve made show that, as a result of these actions, we are likely to avoid a major deficit at the end of this financial year.
Our challenge for 2020/2021
The years 2020/2021 and beyond are our main challenge.
We face potential future risk from the impact of COVID-19 on recruitment, particularly in terms of international students, and on research income. This is true for many in the sector, and we continue to engage with Universities UK on the challenges ahead. Some universities are predicting 50% reductions in overseas student admissions next year, and given that the income from overseas fees for some Russell Group Universities is more than £200M, there is likely to be great competition for both home and international students in the future.
Therefore, the financial impact of COVID-19 could well be felt for much longer in the University sector. And, whilst the Government’s interventions, for example on temporary student number controls, may help stabilise admissions, you may have noted there is no ‘new’ money for the sector forthcoming at this stage.
We have carried out a series of scenarios to model our finances, and anticipate potentially needing to make savings of between £25M and £50M in 2020/2021.
The best way to respond to this is to ensure the maximum income for 2020/2021 possible. Given the uncertainty we face, we will need to continue to take a balanced and phased approach to cost reductions which takes into account the evolving external environment. This will involve planning round budget reductions, a review of planned projects and maintaining strict controls on staff recruitment. We are also developing a voluntary exit scheme, with any exits being mutually agreed by the University and staff member concerned. This time-limited scheme will offer good terms for staff who may wish to retire early or leave the University in the next few months. We are aiming to open this scheme in early June and as further details are established, and we discuss them with our campus trade unions, these will be made available over the coming weeks.
Our collective response
Of course, the stronger our operational response to COVID-19, the more sustainable our future will be. There have been real encouragements this year in the growth in student applications (10% at undergraduate level and 35% at graduate level). We know that advice from Government is that we should seek to be open to welcome students for the next academic year, and it is very important that we do this in the best possible way. We recognise that special measures will be needed. Because of social distancing requirements for example, we should expect that our educational offering will be blended with online teaching being needed for lectures in particular. Doing this, and engaging in our research activities, will ensure our sustainability. As a result, we should be seeking to have a strong focus on the following:
- Working together to recruit the strongest possible intake in 2020/21
- Ensuring that we’re well prepared to deliver quality learning from September, both off and online, in a way that gives the students the best possible learning experience and outcomes. It is clearly essential that we do everything we can to ensure that by the end of the year, students have received the high quality of education that they would expect at Bath.
- Ensuring that the all-round student experience is as strong as possible
- Maximising income from other areas, particularly in research
Given the additional work involved in these areas, we recognise that we may need to cut back for a while on some other activities and work more flexibly. However, although finances may be constrained, our community is not short of creativity, talent and a sense of collective endeavour. If we act well, and at pace, I am certain we can navigate the next year as a strong, sustainable and successful University.
Please be assured that my colleagues and I are doing all that we can to work hard to tackle all of these issues in as positive, thorough and detailed a manner as possible. We fully recognise the stress that all members of the University are under at present, and assure you of our commitment to you and to working through these challenges in a way which will have the best possible outcomes for the University of Bath.
We are planning some virtual ‘town hall’ meetings on Teams and will warmly welcome colleagues to attend, both with any questions you may have, as well as with any ideas you would like to contribute about working together in the months ahead. Nonetheless, please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any suggestions at any time.
With best wishes,
Ian White President and Vice-Chancellor