In last year’s Foreward I noted that we were planning for an external environment which remained extremely unpredictable – and so it proved, although not for the reasons anticipated at that time. So it seems only right to begin by paying tribute to all our staff, led by our Vice-Chancellor and the leadership team, who have worked so hard to respond to the challenge of COVID19, switching rapidly to online teaching and supporting our students, particularly those anxious about their final year arrangements. As ever, in this we benefited from the insight and perspective of our Student Sabbatical Officers who also worked hard to support the student community through lockdown.
The dire financial situation which the Higher Education sector faced in March: refunded student accommodation fees, loss of summer commercial income and massive uncertainty around the 2020/21 student intake (and thus fees) was mitigated in part by Government support but principally by the University taking decisive action to reduce its cost base. The scenario planning which we had begun last year stood us in good stead but it is important to stress that while the financial outcome for this year is better than we originally feared, the longer term challenge to our ability to continue to deliver our core mission of teaching and research to the high standard we would wish is undiminished.
The continued COVID19 impact on overseas student numbers, the Augar Review of student fees, rising pension costs, the national underfunding of research work and our need to respond appropriately to the reality of climate change all have a bearing on the economic environment in which we will be operating going forward. Consequently, we will continue to take such steps as may be necessary to respond to these challenges.
As we strive for excellence it is pleasing to see this recognised in our strong performance in the national league tables and other accolades which are mentioned elsewhere in this report. However, we are not complacent and in other areas of our work such as Diversity and Inclusion and Widening Participation we are working hard to ensure that there are no hidden barriers to success that would hinder staff or students from reaching their potential.
Finally, as every cloud has a silver lining, I would highlight two positives from the impact of COVID19. Firstly, the University has demonstrated that when it needs to be flexible, creative and move at pace it is more than capable of doing so. Secondly, it has brought into sharp focus the clear benefits of partnership working – whether with elected officials, other Higher Education/Further Education providers or major contributors to the economy here in the South West. These are attributes to be built on going forward.
Pamela Chesters CBE
Chair of Council