Welcome to the new academic year

If you have taken a break in the summer period, I hope you had a restful time wherever you were and enjoyed being with family and friends and are now looking forward to the year ahead. In recent weeks I know many colleagues have been dealing with confirmation and clearing and hosting our numerous visitors attending conferences, summer schools and other residential activities, a big thank you to you all for your hard work on those fronts.

I want to start the academic year with a brief overview of what we might expect over the coming year and what this means for Kent.

I have just returned from the annual meeting of university Vice-Chancellors in Sheffield. In her speech to the conference, UUK President, Professor Dame Janet Beer, set out three priorities for the sector: creating the right conditions for international students; stability and sustainability of university funding; and continued opportunities for staff and students post-Brexit.

The annual speech from the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, at the same conference, was positive and supportive of higher education but, unlike previous years, offered little in the way of new policy initiatives. That was perhaps just as well: there is already a great deal for us to focus on including:

  • Brexit – We are now less than 200 days away from March 29th 2019, when the UK will leave the European Union. We must continue to hope that there will be a deal of some kind. The ‘no deal guidance’, published last month, gave some hope that at least on Horizon 2020 and other EU-funded programmes, nuclear research, clinical trials, and Erasmus+, pragmatism would hold the day.
  • International students – Universities UK has called for a new visa to allow international students to gain work experience in the UK for up to two years after graduation.
  • Funding – The sector is waiting for the outcome of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. The chair, Philip Augar, gave nothing substantive away when he spoke in Sheffield last week, but there is a widespread expectation that recommendations for change will have the effect of reducing the amount of money flowing to higher education.
  • Pensions – A central feature of last spring’s dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) was its valuation; the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) set up to examine this is expected to publish its findings later this month. We are all hoping for a positive outcome.  As it is unlikely though that any new agreement can be put in place by the statutory deadline for responding to the valuation of 1 April, those of you in the USS scheme or eligible to join are currently being consulted on additional contributions required from both employers and employees to maintain the current scheme structure. All the parties anticipate that this will be an interim arrangement.
  • REF/TEF/KEF – Final REF guidance and criteria are set to be published at the end of this term and the shape of subject level TEF is beginning to emerge. In addition, I expect more detail at some point about the KEF (Knowledge Excellence Framework) and we will keep you updated as this emerges.

Against this backdrop there is much to be excited about but we also know there are challenges ahead. We have, as you know been refreshing the University plan setting out renewed ambitions and priorities, providing us with the framework for our activity and investments over the next few years and is being discussed at Senate this week and then at Council on the 5th Oct. One big challenge we are all conscious of, and have been discussing as part of the refresh, is the question of finance and how we balance increasing costs with flattening income.  We have already been squeezed by, in effect, six years of growing costs with only one inflation-linked increase in fees. Our outcome from last year (currently draft subject to audit and approval)  is that we have a small surplus of around £4m (as expected) and the budget for the coming year has been set once again with a very small surplus. We need to now understand the outcome of this current student recruitment round on our financial position for this year and the impact on our budget.  We will continue to keep you updated on this issue via blogs and sharing information on our new staff guide web pages which I hope you will find useful as the go to place for information.

I do not, however, want to be pessimistic. We have great assets – not least our staff and students and of course our new generation of students who will be joining us from next weekend! I am looking forward very much to welcoming them to our community.

Finally, as I am now in year two here at Kent I wanted to say how much I have enjoyed getting to know colleagues as I made my way round open forums, school and departmental meetings and found out more about the work we do across all our campuses, academic areas and professional services. This coming year I will continue with open forums and visiting schools and departments but will focus these discussions on areas of work that you want me to know more about. I have some meetings scheduled already with colleagues and teams that want to share research activity, teaching innovations and development projects for example, that are distinctive to the University, so please do let me know if you would like to meet in this way. I will come to you!

I am looking forward to the coming year and to continued working with you all.

Professor Karen Cox

Vice-Chancellor and President