Reflections: One Year On

It is almost 12 months since I started as Vice-Chancellor here at the University and I wanted to take the opportunity of writing this blog to say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone for the welcome and support I have received throughout the year. My initial impressions of Kent as a successful, collegial university have been borne out. There are talented and dedicated staff working across the whole of the University and we have a vibrant and talented student community. We have national and international recognition – our research is changing lives and last November’s Times Higher Award for our Student Success project  was much deserved recognition of an initiative which has had considerable impact on the University as well as being recognised as a leader in the sector. I attended my first Student Awards Night in June and was privileged to meet some outstanding individuals. In May I also moved house again and we now have our own space in Canterbury which makes it feel like home.

As I said in my first blog last September, my initial priority was to get to know as many University staff and students as possible and to hear what you think about the challenges facing the University, and the sector. I think I have just about got round most of the University, whether through open forums or school and department meetings, with a few more to go. Building on these conversations I have been working with colleagues to refresh the University Plan, so that we can look forward with confidence to our 60th anniversary in 2025.

I set out the emerging conclusions from that work in a consultation document which was circulated to all staff. We want to make our education and student experience among the best in the country and to concentrate on a number of key areas and themes in order to strengthen our reputation as a leading research university. We want a renewed focus on Kent’s role in the community. The strategy refresh consultation prompted a large number of thoughtful and reflective responses. You broadly agreed with the revised direction of travel but raised a number of pertinent issues, including your wish for change in our processes, structures, decision-making, leadership communication and engagement. I am now reflecting on your many helpful questions and comments, with the aim of agreeing a short document at the Council meeting in October which brings these issues together as a refreshed set of ambitions and actions to be taken forward collectively over the next few years.

Life does not stop while we develop a refreshed strategy. So we are already working to get in even better shape for the future – ensuring the best possible fit between our programmes, modules and staff profile with the needs of our students as well as working to enhance our research capacity and capability. Denise Everitt’s blog last week explained that we are wrapping up the aspects of ‘Simplifying Kent’ that relate to organisational aspects of the University into a single work stream and are now looking actively at how we are organised.  To give us headroom while we consider how our organisation can be made more effective, EG has agreed that each new vacancy that arises will be rigorously reviewed. This will also make a contribution to the financial savings we need to identify for next year. The sector has effectively had six years where our income has been static while costs have been rising and we need a range of actions to address this – not just savings but also looking at areas where we can grow our income to support our research and our teaching activity.

The USS industrial action this spring was difficult all round and I would like to acknowledge the work that has gone into mitigating the impact of the industrial action and supporting both students and colleagues during this difficult time.  There is no doubt the sector is facing some difficult decisions and differences of views will be inevitable but I hope that, going forward, here at Kent we will continue to treat each other well and listen to and respect these differences of opinion.

We have faced an unwelcome development this year with our falls in both the Complete University Guide and the Guardian league tables. An element of the drop reflects that we have had to make changes in the way we report our teaching staff numbers. But there are other factors at work, including the introduction of new questions in the National Student Survey relating to student voice and engagement which we did not do as well as we might have hoped and is an area we will be working on with student representatives and Kent Union.

This brings me back to the strategy refresh. We now have some real opportunities to do things differently and ensure the University of Kent is in a great position now and into the future. We have not stopped investing and will continue to do this to ensure future sustainability and success. I was particularly pleased with the positive outcome of our bid with Canterbury Christ Church University to create a new medical school for Kent and Medway. This will make a real difference to both universities – but, as important, will help our regional NHS to tackle some serious and long-standing workforce and health issues across the county. We have also launched two new research ‘supercentres’ – in Bioscience and Molecular Medicine and Cybersecurity – and will be setting up an institute focussing on the creative and cultural Industries. This institute, combined with our earlier initiatives with KMTV and the Centre for Higher and Degree Apprenticeships will have an impact in Medway and the wider region beyond the university itself.

The Higher Education sector as a whole is going through a difficult time. But we have a great platform from which to respond. I look forward to working with you throughout the next academic year to build on these foundations and to bring all our ambitions to life.

Professor Karen Cox

Vice-Chancellor and President