Denise Holt: University Council meets online and approves progress on infrastructure plans
By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Thursday, 26 March 2020
The University’s Council (governing body) met online this week for the first time ever. All 25 members, including staff and student representatives, were connected. This was all thanks to the tremendous support from IT colleagues. The meeting went well, but it is fair to say that we all have to learn new ways of working online - like you, our staff and students.
As you would expect, the meeting focused on the University’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Vice-Chancellor, Adam Tickell, briefed us on the speed and high level of co-operation received from both professional services and academic staff in moving our teaching online in the space of just a week. I have to say the Council was impressed, and sent a vote of thanks to everyone at the University who played a hand in making this happen - and also to our students for their understanding and patience.
Council was also supportive of the decision, which I signed off just beforehand, to waive the rental fees for students living in campus residences. This means students will not have to pay for the third term if they are no longer using their rooms. As I write, there are about 1,800 students who remain in residences, and who the University will continue to support throughout this very trying Covid-19 period. The rental waiver is absolutely the right thing to do, but it will leave a substantial hole in the University’s budget.
One of the most important roles of Council is to ensure the University finances are stable. Unlike some older universities, Sussex doesn’t have deep pockets, so even a relatively modest loss of income can - and probably will - impact our ability to continue to maintain and invest in the campus to the benefit of all those who work, study and live there. In our virtual meeting, we took a first look at financial forecasts for the year ahead, and agreed to return to them and to our business continuity plans as often as necessary in the coming months.
In the meantime, Council was able to approve a budget to initiate work on the business case for the IT network project, something which we recognise is critical to the experience of students and staff. We also approved the business case for the new Student Centre, and to release the remainder of the budget, previously agreed to fit out and conclude work on the Centre.
Council also approved the Estates and IT roadmap in terms of the direction of travel for investment to 2025. The focus, at this financially uncertain time, is that essential work for infrastructure and maintenance can go ahead, as well as projects that will be progressed as finances allow. Council noted that any new projects would be approved individually in line with normal governance arrangements.
Alongside the March Council meeting, we usually hold a strategy day. This year, the intention was to take a long, hard look at the future direction of the University, and to consider what we need to do to ensure that Sussex regains its rightful place amongst its peers. Preparatory work from leaders at the University has been outstanding. However, at the Council meeting, we agreed that now was not the time to dig into the papers and that we will return to them, Covid-19 permitting, in July. However, the strategic insights provided by the University’s Executive Group (UEG) and other leaders will guide us as we confront what will no doubt be some very difficult decisions in the coming weeks.
This message is already long, but another important item on our agenda was the reappointment of Adam Tickell as our Vice-Chancellor. Council supported this unanimously, expressing very strong appreciation for Adam’s clear thinking and courageous integrity in the face of some tough (and occasionally unpleasant) challenges.
Much less importantly, Council also kindly agreed to my own reappointment for a second three-year term. In present circumstances, this is a sobering responsibility, and I am conscious that it may not be possible to satisfy all, or even most, reasonable requests for some time to come. Our absolute priority will be to protect our students’ and our future students’ studies and their qualifications.
I would like to repeat Council’s warm thanks to all of you, and express the hope that you, your families and your friends remain safe and well.
Chair of Council