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President's weekly update

11 October 2018

A key focus of Foundation Day this year was biotechnology, one of our five research beacons. Our Foundation lecturer, Dr Gerald Chan, a leading businessman and entrepreneur, spoke about biotechnology and the conflation of science, business and ethics. He stressed the importance of universities and the links between creativity and science. Gerald received an honorary doctorate along with the eminent scientists Professors CNR Rao (a chemist) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (a biologist), the actress Sarah Lancashire and the architect Rachel Haugh. Sarah responded on behalf of the honorary graduates. I spoke about the successes of the past year and the challenges and uncertainties we face at the present time. You can watch the event on StaffNet.

Foundation Day was a particularly special occasion this year because it was attended by members of our North American Foundation (NAFUM) which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, our Global Leadership Board (GLB) which is in its 10th year and our Hong Kong Foundation which was founded six years ago. Each of these supports the University in raising philanthropic funds and promoting what we do. The Lord Mayor of Manchester hosted a Civic Reception for members of our foundations and I attended their joint board meeting the day before Foundation Day celebrations. Lord David Willetts, former Minister for Universities, spoke to our foundation board members about universities and the three key issues they face: globalisation; technology (especially digital and new forms of flexible and online learning); and culture; ie how universities better engage with wider communities in a more ‘populist’ environment where we risk being seen by some as elitist and apart from their lives. We also discussed the importance of disseminating the very real impacts of universities on society.

David Willetts was in Manchester for a meeting of the Science Museum Board (which includes the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester). I joined them for part of their meeting which was held in our beautiful Whitworth Art Gallery.

Foundation Day was also World Mental Health Day and we announced an important initiative to support our students with mental health problems. The four universities in Greater Manchester (the universities of Salford, Bolton, Manchester Metropolitan and us) have been working with the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care partnership to develop and jointly fund a fast track, dedicated professional support service for students seeking support for mental health issues.

We are working to provide more support and training for current and potential academic and professional services leaders across the University. I spoke at one of the cohorts in the second phase of our Inspiring Leaders Programme and at our Leading at Manchester programme. At both events attendees asked for my views on the future for UK universities. It is difficult to predict with any accuracy the outcomes from current Brexit negotiations, the Augar Review of post-18 education funding and the current discussions about pensions. 

Many predict that the Augar Review will recommend reductions in undergraduate student fees. The impact of this would be very significant for our University (for example it would be ~£27m pa loss of income if fees were reduced by £1,000), but would depend on how any shortfall is made up by direct government funding. On the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension, we must await the responses of the USS Trustee and the Pension Regulator to proposed revisions in assumptions regarding the valuation of USS suggested by the recent report from the Joint Expert Panel.

There is currently a consultation with over 350 employers as part of USS on the levels of risk they are willing to take on and any additional payments they are able to make. It is unfortunate that these discussions come at a time when universities are facing very high risks from Brexit and the Augar Review, though we all wish to see a satisfactory resolution.

I hosted an event for Professor Leo Schmidt from Germany who spent almost a week at Jodrell Bank Observatory and will submit comments that will form part of the consideration by UNESCO about whether Jodrell should be awarded ‘World Heritage’ status. The application has involved a huge amount of work by many, led by the Director of the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, Professor Teresa Anderson. We will not hear the outcome until summer 2019. The discussions highlighted the huge value of our cultural institutions (including Manchester Museum, The Whitworth, John Rylands Library and Jodrell) which contribute to all three of our core goals.

I welcomed this year’s intake of about 100 Presidential Doctoral Scholars. This programme, which has been running for six years, attracts the best PhD students from across the world to disciplines across the University. They, and other PhD students, make a major contribution to our research outputs and to our other core goals.

Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor