Tuesday 28 April 2020

All staff email

Covid-19 update Tuesday 28 April 2020 - moving forwards

Dear colleague

We have lived with rapid change over the last few weeks, in response to the biggest crisis most of us will have seen in our lifetime. The challenges resulting from the Covid 19 crisis for the University of York, the higher education sector, and society more generally are both immense and still to take shape fully.

My email today gives me the chance to outline a bit more how we might face these challenges as a university that stays true to its values and principles, positioned to make a real difference in the world as it recovers from the pandemic.

1. Where we are now

We have achieved a lot already. We have transformed our ways of working to adapt to social distancing and we have made some difficult cost-cutting decisions.

We have done this while reacting to a very fast-changing situation as we moved into lockdown, responding rapidly to the new needs of our staff and students at a time of crisis. I am very proud and grateful to all of you who have worked tirelessly, and often in difficult circumstances, to ensure our summer term started on time. What we have achieved in such a short space of time is incredible.

With term underway, we can now shift from being reactive to being adaptive, and begin to identify the challenges we are likely to face as we look ahead to the next academic year and beyond, and how we will adapt to them. Though we are now in a very different situation the conversations we were having before lockdown to develop a new University Strategy give us a good orientation as the impact of this crisis becomes apparent. We focused in that conversation on enduring principles that mark out this University as distinctive and special. We now need to reflect carefully how those enduring principles - being a University for public good - apply in this new situation.

So we will pick up on that work and renew some of the working groups we had set up - on research, teaching, learning and student experience, civic commitment, international engagement, and environmental sustainability. Others will reform or be set up from new, to look at how we can (and now need all the more to) become a more agile organisation. This work will help us navigate both the short-term implications of the crisis, as well as establishing the best ways to make our mark in the medium to longer term.

2. Challenges

The sector is facing a number of challenges which will impact deeply on the University over the next months. Three stand out:

    • Financial impacts

It is now clear that the University will see a significant shortfall of income within this academic year as a consequence of loss in income from accommodation, conferences, catering, and the closure of commercial operations including the Sport Village.

Next year it will be even more difficult. All universities are now modelling a significant shortfall of student numbers come September, especially international students. And we are seeing disruption to research and to research funding which will also have a very real impact on our finances in the next academic year.

These issues will be discussed in detail at our Senior Leaders’ Group meeting later this week. Following that meeting I will update you further on the potential financial impact of Covid-19 as well as set out some thoughts on the role we will all need to play to ensure our future financial sustainability.

    • Uncertainty next academic year

We do not yet know what the start of the next academic year will look like in terms of a continuation of the current lockdown, other kinds of social distancing that may be introduced over the next few months, or continued constraints on international mobility.

But we need to plan for at least short-term disruption to research caused by the continued lockdown. Our focus has to be on maintaining our research capability intact, and ensuring that the quality of our research is high amid uncertainties around research funding flows and conditions for extensions of grants.

We will also need to anticipate and plan for a number of different scenarios for the start of teaching in September, including students starting the new academic year online and a mix of online and on-campus provision. This will have major implications for how we plan and organise our teaching, our physical and virtual spaces, our timetabling and how we support our students. We will need to consider how we can work with much greater levels of flexibility and agility than we have needed in the past.

    • Intense and changed competition

Our assumption is that the disruption of international mobility is likely to impact hard on the international student market in 2020-21 and potentially on future cycles of recruitment. As competition to recruit international students becomes more intense and UK universities work harder to secure high quality home students, we must be ready to recruit and position the educational offer we provide to our students in a different range of markets. We will need to look hard at our portfolio of programmes and how we deliver them.

3. Facing new challenges - maintaining our values and principles

We will develop our approach not only to enable us to respond to the impact of Covid-19, but to allow us to be the kind of university we want to be in the future. Above all, it is important that throughout these difficult times, we stay true to our principles. They play a key role in our vision for the future. I see three principles that we can build on, which were the central themes of the Strategic Vision and the University-wide conversation that helped frame it.

    • A university for public good

The commitment to public good, through the education of our students and the impact of our research, remains critical. We are now in a crisis which is inflicting deep damage on society and the economy, with Covid-19 deepening existing inequalities here in the UK and around the world. This is surely a moment to reaffirm our commitment to public good, so that our capabilities are applied to the rebuilding and renewal that will need to be done as a result of this crisis, in economic development and social inclusion, in and around York, nationally and internationally.

    • A community of shared purpose

We make our greatest contribution to society when our staff act collectively as a community, engaged in a shared purpose. As stated in our Strategic Vision, we must be committed to maintaining a supportive environment in which members of staff can develop stimulating and rewarding careers, deploying their expertise, talent and commitment to maximum benefit within and beyond the University.

We will be asking you to work in different ways and to embrace change, coming together for a shared purpose and ultimately maximising the public good that flows from our work.

    • An agile and responsive university

We have already shown over the past six weeks the levels of flexibility and agility we can demonstrate when we face a crisis. As we move into this more adaptive phase of operation, we need to maintain similar levels of agility and deploy our capacity for change in a proactive way, building on and evolving our strengths as we emerge from this situation.

I hope I have been able to give you a flavour of the world we now find ourselves in, and how, in the absence of certainty, we need to identify and understand the challenges we face.

Over the coming weeks we will push on with our thinking and I will share it with you as we do. We are determined to be prepared, to think and act differently, and to come together as a community, staff and students, as we shape the future of our University.

Thank you all again.

Best wishes


Professor Charlie Jeffery