Vice-Chancellor's updates

On these pages you’ll find all the latest correspondence from the Vice-Chancellor, as well as details of his upcoming staff events and you’ll be able to catch-up on the termly Vice-Chancellor’s Forum.

 

Upcoming staff events

  • Vice-Chancellor's Forum - Thursday 12 May, 1.00-2.00pm (Bramall Music Building)

 

Catch-up on the latest Vice-Chancellor's Forum

Vice-Chancellor's Forum - Wednesday 19 January, 2.00-3.20pm

 

 

 Questions from staff that didn't get chance to be answered live:

Financial strategy

Student fees not increasing with inflation: Is this not something that should have been foreseen, and mitigated against, rather than spending with the assumption that the money tree would continue to bear fruit?

 

Over a number of years, we have benefitted from careful management of our finances. This generates an annual surplus that we invest back into the University, and enables us to maintain reserves and continue to invest to help weather future challenges in whatever form. This meant that during the pandemic, for example, we did not have to take the same drastic measures as some other universities.

 

We have ambitious plans to increase the number of academic staff over the next few months and are as well placed as we can be to mitigate against the significant pressures that the sector could face due to a real terms reduction in student fees and the long-awaited Government response to the Augar Review of education and funding. 

 

Technical

With loss of significant technical expertise through VLS and retirement, how much funding is going to be allocated to the Technical Academy to ensure we have, recognise, and support the necessary skills going forward?

Technical staff are fundamental to the University – their creativity, enthusiasm and citizenship are key to everything we do. We want to make sure the University is a place where the best technicians want to work and to stay.

We were one of the founding signatories to the Science Council’s Technician Commitment, which led us to establish the Technical Academy in 2017. We have recently renewed our support for the Technician Commitment and, as part of this, the Technical Academy will be engaging with colleagues to understand how our offer can be as good as possible. The Academy’s activities will be co-created with and owned by the technical community to meet their needs and ambitions. Kate Bishop and Mark Sterling co-chair the steering group and I encourage you to contact them directly with your ideas.

Freedom of Speech

Do you have any plans to tackle cancel culture at the University? Universities are typically progressive places to study/work, yet there is often little recognition that there are some students/staff with conservative views

Universities are places of debate – it’s a fundamental part of our reason for existing – and as members of a university we have to accept and respect that others have different opinions to us. Regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum, this will sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. As I mentioned at the Forum, that’s actually a good thing, because it’s how we end up with a tolerant society.

As a University, we also have duties to protect freedom of speech that we take very seriously. On an everyday level though, it’s up to each of us to make sure no one feels unable to say what they think.

Covid and hybrid working

1. What are your initial ideas and expectations on staff that aren't teaching focused regarding working from home and working flexibly?

2. The last two years as you mentioned have been horrendous.  One good thing to come out of the pandemic is hybrid working.  Hybrid working is being encouraged across the UK and indeed worldwide on a permanent basis.  A lot of different departments across the Uni are all operating and advising differently.  Going forward, as you mentioned, UoB does support hybrid working, therefore could you clarify is the advice to discuss this with your line manager and see what is the best way forward for UoB business and work \ life balance?  Thank you.

3. Hi, I would like to extend a warm welcome to you. As you know, many people have caught Covid but not everyone has fully recovered from, so, what plans do the university have in place for long Covid suffers, such as support groups on campus etc.

I know that many will agree that it has been lovely to see our community coming back to campus during UoB Festival week and the start of teaching. Our students expect face to face teaching, and the Government has made it very clear that they expect this too. Regardless of whether or not you teach or support teaching, seeing others face to face helps us collaborate and often simply brightens the day.

I recognise the benefits that remote working brings, both in helping to balance work and home life and by helping us be more sustainable by reducing travel. I think we offer the best of both worlds through our hybrid working framework, and your line manager will be happy to advise on how this applies to your role.

While the Department for Education tells us that we are not allowed to require the wearing of face coverings, I am sympathetic to the concerns of staff and we will be strongly encouraging, and providing, face masks, mobile vaccination units, and other Covid-safe practices. If you are suffering from long Covid and this is affecting your work, please speak to your manager who will be pleased to advise you. You can access individual, confidential support through our Employee Assistance Programme. You may also like to get in touch with our Enabling Staff Network who welcome members with long term health conditions

Professional Services

1. What is your vision for Professional Services and the professional services staff experience?

2. Hi Adam - enjoying the Forum. Academic promotion has a clear pathway. How can Prof Services colleagues develop when opportunities are limited, leading to staff in the same roles for years and years?

I’m really impressed with Professional Services at Birmingham. Colleagues outside the University often comment positively on our Professional Services staff, and I have met so many bright and capable people in my first few weeks. Lee Sanders, our Registrar & Secretary, and his senior leadership team (Registrar’s Leadership Group), have set out five priorities for Professional Services for this year, which I fully support:

  1. Values – adopting the new University values from the Strategic Framework
  2. Leadership development – including a focus on development of line managers
  3. Students – putting students at the heart of Professional Services
  4. Context – supporting Professional Services to understand the University and sector context
  5. Diversity – increasing diversity within Professional Services, with a particular focus on recruitment, retention, and career progression of BAME colleagues at middle to senior levels

We have a fantastic programme at the University called Birmingham Professional, which brings together Professional Services colleagues from right across the University – in all roles and all grades – to provide networking and development opportunities. Birmingham Professional activity is focused around RLG’s five priorities and I encourage colleagues to engage with the Birmingham Professional, to speak to their line manager about their career ambitions, and to consider how to make the most of the opportunities available. One of the best things you can do is expose yourself to as much of the University as possible – don’t be afraid to think outside your team when looking for a new challenge. 

Staff Networks

I am a member of some of the networks that provide a brilliant connection across campus, connecting staff from different departments. To run these networks take a lot of time and dedication - how are you going to make sure that the contributions to these networks can be counted against the working day, so that they can continue to grow and thrive as they support so many of the staff in wellbeing, connectivity and creativity.

Volunteering is always something to be celebrated, and it’s great that people are willing to invest their energy in supporting others. Your line manager will be able to work with you to help you manage your involvement in staff networks alongside your workload. I am sure the networks themselves will also be reflecting on how to enable people to contribute without becoming overloaded.

The volunteering that people do to help others’ development, including through staff networks, communities of practice, the Birmingham Professional, or by becoming a mentor or coach, all make a vital contribution to University life. The networks in particular are very important to the University, as we look to make this a place where the brightest and best, regardless of background and circumstance, can and want to work.

Research

Hi Adam - In line with increasing and supporting research and researchers, as someone who has been involved in research support for years, what can be done to better support central research support teams (e.g. research finance) who for years at UoB have been given the extra weight of administering increased research income without any adequate support to the teams themselves? Or rather, what can be done to ensure that the research support teams benefit from the increased income that the researchers are bringing in?

We are thinking hard about research support and how to make it fit for our Birmingham 2030 strategy and beyond, recognising that while we don’t know what the future will look like, we do know it’s likely to be different. As we look to meet our Birmingham 2030 goal of doubling our income, we will invest in people – both academic and Professional Services – in places where we need new recruits to support our ambitions.

We are bringing together a new research division, which we think will make it easier to support research, to move between the breadth of teams that support research, and to be responsive and dynamic so we can move with the changing research landscape. This will, for the first time, mean there is a Senior Officer with a sole focus on research at the senior Professional Services table, feeding directly into the governance and strategy of the University.

We would not be able to carry out the research we do without excellent Professional Services support, and I think that colleagues will find that the new structure will help you do this even more effectively.  

Thank you, Adam. You said that you would like to encourage us to do more risky and interdisciplinary research. This is a great point. How do you ensure the university will establish a positive culture that all other members in the interdiscilinary team, in addition to the PI, will be valued and recognized by the university?

Most of our research wouldn’t happen without the involvement of a wide range of people, and this is especially the case in interdisciplinary research where big teams are common. It’s vital we recognise everyone’s contribution, and we take all levels of involvement into account at appointment and promotion. For example, when looking at an individual’s grant activity we also look at where they have been a Co-Investigator and how many grants they have applied for, not just where they have been a PI or secured a grant. Disciplines can be very different, and grant activity always needs to be judged in that context too.

We continue to support interdisciplinary research, for example through the Institutes for Global Innovation, Sustainability, and Data Science & AI, as well as in many less formal collaborations within and outside campus. We also need to give people permission to think radically differently, to take risks, and sometimes to fail – and we will think more about how to enable this going forward. 

Education

Do you have a viewpoint on existing Foundation Degrees currently run in partnership with the University?

We run our own, on-campus foundation degrees for international students through the Birmingham International Academy, and partner with Kaplan International to manage the admissions process. The foundation pathways themselves remain a full Birmingham experience, delivered by Birmingham staff. Kaplan supports students in securing a place on our foundation pathways, and this partnership has been successful in helping us bring students from around the world to Birmingham.

We also work with other institutions in our region to benefit students who traditionally don’t have the opportunity to benefit from a Russell Group education. For example, we have developed a pathway with South and City College that enables students to join us in year 3 in Electrical Engineering.

There is rapid change in the world of work and our graduates are going to need to become lifelong learners to develop new skills and adapt; how can UoB take an agile approach to both adapting the curriculum as required to ensure graduates have the right skills but also be an institution where graduates return to learn.

We absolutely need to prepare our graduates for the changeable world in which they pursue their careers. We can do this through our existing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and by offering opportunities for lifelong learning. Our Programme Framework for the Future (ProFF) is currently being developed and will put the structures in place so that we can not only embed employability in our curriculum but also create opportunities for microcredentials and short courses (we already have a small portfolio of these) that are more likely to suit those looking for CPD or part-time learning.

No doubt the skills society requires will continue to evolve, but by implementing ProFF – and by empowering colleagues to be creative in how they teach – we can make sure Birmingham graduates are the best prepared. 

In your talk I think you mentioned about the University embracing innovative teaching, would that include student-centred learning? What I mean by student-centred learning is learning that involves not just the mind only. Rather than learning which takes place from the neck up, it involves feelings or personal meanings that has relevance for the whole person. It means inverting the traditional teacher-centered learning.

How do the University Executive Board plan to embed principles of Universal design for learning within its strategic objectives?

I spoke to Deborah, our Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), and to Sarah King in HEFi, and we already do a lot of work – such as the University Canvas Framework – that aligns with the principles of student-centred learning, even if we don’t usually call it that. Student-focused learning is also a focus of the Programme Framework for the Future (ProFF) project, and the enhanced curriculum and learning and assessment models it will enable.

HEFI has had an important focus on delivering the principles of our Inclusive Educator initiative, which is critically important in ensuring all students can participate fully in their Birmingham education. I encourage everyone to continue to engage with this initiative.

It is absolutely vital that students are at the centre of what we do, and that colleagues are empowered to be creative, be innovative, and use the best methods for them to deliver a stimulating and genuinely interactive education.

Reputation

1. We have a lot to celebrate here at Birmingham but I feel we are not great at being recognised for a lot of what we do. What could we do to raise UoB's profile ?

2. How does the international reputation and engagement of UoB factor as a priority now in a post-pandemic academic world?

It is true that while there is so much to celebrate at Birmingham, we haven’t always succeeded in converting this into a reputation that translates, for example, into global league tables. There is much that our colleagues in External Relations and other Professional Services teams are doing to help tell our story – internationally, nationally, locally; with Government, business, applicants, and the public. However, we can all take individual responsibility as ambassadors for our university and city, and can all do something to show the best of Birmingham to people we work with outside the University.

We are a global University with civic roots, and as I mentioned at the Forum our role has never been as important as in the recovery from the pandemic. Our Strategic Framework sets out some principles and ambitions for how we will continue to support and encourage international engagement and collaboration. 

Bureaucracy and Core

Given the much-welcomed review of HE bureaucracy, does the Vice-Chancellor intend to review university bureaucracy, for example the Core Systems processes? Although intended to bring several university systems into one place and centralize them, Core has resulted in a huge increase in paperwork and concomitant increase in time taken to process simple tasks to do with expenses, procurement, and other simple tasks. This is time taken away from research and teaching.

I have spoken to Erica, our Finance Director, and she says that for anyone not using Core systems regularly it can be difficult to find the right things, or to carry out necessary transactions. For those using it regularly it can also be difficult to navigate if you are not aligned with the processes. It is also the case that some aspects of the processes remain clunky for all users. All of these are continually under review and comments and feedback on specific areas, either through your local Finance Business Partner or Super User, are welcome.

Erica mentions that since go live, based on feedback from users across the University, a large number of changes have been delivered the system and surrounding processes, including to entry tile screens, simplified reports in Worktribe and Oracle, the development of training videos, and simplified Worklink processes. There are also face-to-face drop-in sessions in Colleges to help with purchasing.

I know colleagues continue to work hard to reduce bureaucracy that we don’t need, and to help colleagues navigate Core more easily. 

 

 

Vice-Chancellor's all-staff emails

Here you will find copies of the VC's correspondence to staff.

 

25.03.22

Dear colleague

The country held a National Day of Reflection on Wednesday this week, which was an opportunity to pause and remember that the last few years have been particularly challenging for many amongst our families, friends, colleagues and students. Of course, the impact of the pandemic will last for many years, and it is important for us to remember to be kind to ourselves and each other over the forthcoming months and years. I am more certain than ever that, overwhelmingly, staff at the University rose to the challenge and have looked after each other through difficult times – I was humbled when talking with staff in our Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO) this week to learn about quite how supportive their environment is.

I have had several opportunities this week to celebrate the achievements of our colleagues and students, and I thought I’d share some of these with you.

On Saturday evening, students from across the University presented a choral and orchestral concert at the Town Hall which celebrated our extraordinary musical heritage – from Edward Elgar through to contemporary composers including Daria Kwiatkowska, Michael Zev Gordon and Bob Chilcott. The singing and the musicianship were – quite genuinely – stunning and some of the students studying for an MA in conducting had an unexpected challenge because Bob Chilcott was unable to make the evening and they had to practice their craft with only 24 hours' notice. They should all be deservedly proud of the results. If the classical tradition isn’t your thing, the Music Department has put a Spotify playlist together to mark their exhibition of bands who have played at the University which is now open in the Bramall foyer. It’s definitely worth a trip.

And then on Monday evening, I attended the Guild Awards ceremony. For the first time in living memory, our Chancellor – Lord Bilimoria – was unable to attend but he still made a generous contribution to the evening's refreshments. At times raucous, the Guild Awards both celebrated the contributions of societies to the life of our students and showcased some exceptional talent, with singing and dancing from a wide range of student groups. It was a genuinely fun evening – although the official Society of the Year Award was given to the Wayfarers (hiking club), if it had been awarded on lung power Redbrick and student media would have been way out in front.

This week Gavin Maggs, Director of DARO, spoke to M3 about the success of the Birmingham In Action campaign. We have together already achieved 80% of the fundraising and volunteering targets that we set in 2018 and are now in the enviable position of needing to review and set more challenging targets for the forthcoming years. This week Gavin and I held a dinner for some of the donors who have generously supported the University over the past few years. In this case, all of them were Birmingham alumni and remembered, as we often do as we get older, their time at university with fondness. However, this wasn’t what prompted them to give – it was supporting exceptional people to do exceptional research and outreach and supporting students to thrive. Indeed, one of them has already this week pledged a six-figure sum to support students from the Commonwealth to study at the University. Philanthropy can also help to support academics develop new areas of research to a point where they become competitive for external research funding.

I’ve spent a lot of time meeting a wide range of staff from across the University this week and am only sorry that I haven’t had the chance to name-check everyone. I not only really enjoy the chance to hear from people, but there are some fairly consistent messages emerging about what makes people love working at Birmingham and those things that can be frustrating. Addressing these won’t always be easy but everyone I’ve spoken to in a position of leadership is committed to making Birmingham the best place it can be – and listening is the start of the process.

Our Birmingham Professional Awards are back this year after a break due to the pandemic. These celebrate the achievements of individuals and groups of Professional Services staff and the contribution they make to our university. I have always been impressed by the ambition and capabilities of Professional Services colleagues at Birmingham and this has only grown since I returned in January. If you work with PS colleagues that deserve recognition please nominate them (there is a specific award for academic colleagues to nominate their PS colleagues too). The deadline is 31 March.

We shortlisted this week for the final entrants to the “Vice-Chancellor's Challenge” which takes place next Friday. Students from all five colleges have been working in groups to develop ideas to solve some of the most pressing challenges under this year’s theme, ‘Seeking Solutions to Global Challenges’. They will present their ideas at the final and I will be joined by a panel of experts to choose the winning group who will be offered up to £10k and business development support to make their idea a reality. The most valuable part of the final for our students though is the opportunity for the audience to question them on their idea, and I would like to encourage as many of you as possible to sign up to come along and support our students – it should be a good event!

Finally, as I write I’ve just heard from Heather Widdows, PVC Research, that the University has been awarded £4.43 million under the new harmonised UKRI Impact Acceleration Accounts from AHRC, BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC. Congratulations to everyone who worked on the application.

With best wishes

Adam  

25.02.22

Dear colleague

Everything this week has been overshadowed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine yesterday. I am not alone in feeling horrified and powerless in the face of naked aggression against a democratic, sovereign country. All I can do is to express my sorrow, sympathy and hope that – even now – the tanks turn around. As far as we are aware, we don’t have any students or staff in Ukraine at the moment but if you know otherwise, please let us know as a matter of urgency. During times such as these we need to remember that, within our community, there are nationals of both countries and that they need support from all of us: none of them bear any responsibility for the action of President Putin.

If you want some solace, you could do far worse than visit the Barber Institute. I visited on Sunday for the second time since I’ve been here: it has an extraordinary and important collection of art that is so impressive it can be overwhelming. I like to visit for short periods rather than find my brain saturating. At the moment, they have a temporary exhibition which explores the ways in which Europeans understood ‘exotic’ animals between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries and this is worth visiting alone.

At the end of last week, the University’s Leadership team (ULF) spent two days together at the University’s hotel looking strategically at where the University is and where we’re going to. Among other things we looked at our distinctiveness, research targets and culture, and the possibilities to expand our transnational education and distance learning offer. I was impressed by the team’s creativeness and enthusiasm to make bold interventions, and we are going to do some initial work to scope out possibilities before considering how we can ensure appropriate resource for new developments and that we aren’t simply asking people to do more.

This week has seen a number of sector developments including the government’s response to the Augar Review. Although there might have been many things that we would have liked, the response is relatively benign for the University, though because tuition fees will remain frozen for at least another three years they will, by 2024-25, be worth only two thirds of the value of the original £9,000 fee. The Government has also confirmed that the current admissions system will be retained, rather than moving to one where offers or admissions can only take place after students receive their exam results. The biggest change, however, will be for students repaying their loans. Anyone who starts a degree from 2023 will see a reduction of the interest rate compared to the one charged to current borrowers, but this is offset by an increase in the repayment period to 40 years. Further details are provided in both Research Professional and Wonkhe, which any member of staff can sign up to for free.

This week also saw the Joint Negotiating Committee of USS agree, by the casting vote of the Chair, to adopt the UUK proposals to resolve the USS 2020 valuation. I know that many staff will find this a disappointing outcome, but I genuinely believe that it is the least worst option available. It is an outcome which means that current contribution rates are maintained, provides substantial protection against inflation and addresses the deficit in the USS scheme. It is true, however, that although a USS pension remains one of the best available, it will provide fewer guaranteed benefits in the future and everyone I’ve spoken to wishes that the economics had fallen differently.

Away from the industrial dispute, Deputy PVC Mark Sterling and I were pleased to meet with members of the BUCU Committee on Wednesday. Although we discussed and didn’t agree much about the current dispute over USS, there is very considerable shared ground and we agreed to work together to ensure that Birmingham can be the best possible working environment for all of our staff. For example, we have a shared interest in giving our staff the time and space to do their jobs effectively; we committed to working together to find ways to reduce our reliance on ‘casualised’ members of staff; we have a strong shared commitment to EDI; and all agree about the need for us to exemplify best practice in environmental sustainability.

I have now started to visit and hear from academic schools - including the School of Biomedical Sciences and Languages, Cultures, Art History and Music. I’m very grateful to everyone for making the time to see me and was impressed by what I heard, though there are some clear messages about the pressure that members of staff feel under. I’m sure that some of this comes from the extraordinary circumstances of the last two years, but know that there is more to it than this. The entire leadership of the University is committed to doing what we can within our power to make Birmingham a place where staff feel enthused to give their best, whether they educate, research, or work in the professional services. Deborah Longworth will be writing in the next few weeks to share some of the changes that are being made in the education space.

February has been LGBTQ+ history month and the University has run many events including a festival being hosted as part of our EDI partnership with the University of Amsterdam. The festival’s theme this year was ‘Somewhere to Belong’, and it has explored issues surrounding LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, disabled students‘ global mobility, conversion therapy, and financial inclusion, and included prominent panellists from across Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America.

I hope that you have a lovely weekend.

With best wishes

Adam 

18.02.22

Dear colleague

It’s been lovely to see so many good news stories, both of student and staff successes, coming into my inbox each week – please do keep them coming.

Despite the weather, the campus has been coming back to life over the last few weeks and it’s joyful. Our students are, of course, here to learn but they also have rich and varied lives beyond their studies. At the end of last week, a couple of students from Social Policy talked to me on their way back from an event in the Great Hall that the School had put on to support their social networks. One of them lived on campus, but the other cycles in every day from Handsworth and spoke about how appreciative she was that the School of Social Policy recognised that local students, in particular, can find it harder to make friends than students in residences. Having had a tour of the new sports centre recently, with its strong emphasis on engaging students, staff and the local community irrespective of sporting abilities, it’s also pleasing that our student sports teams continue to do well, with recent BUCS gold medals and title wins for our Women’s Netball, Men’s Cross Country, Women’s Hockey, and Men’s squash teams.

We are, of course, a university full of outstanding researchers who continue to publish important papers and win prestigious grants. It’s always a little invidious to name individuals, but I did want to mention a few awards, including Pat Lockwood’s ERC grant to investigate why and when people make decisions to help others, Sophie King-Hill's ESRC award to research sexual behaviours in young people, and Katrien Segaert’s Leverhulme Grant to investigate how people maintain language throughout their life span.

Katrien’s success is a timely reminder that the third round of Leverhulme International Professorships will commence soon. These aim to attract excellent research leaders of any nationality who are currently working outside the UK and are worth in total up to £5m over 5 years, for permanent appointments. The University is only able to make one bid per round and we have a 100% success rate from the first two rounds. Colleagues are encouraged to identify potential candidates and also consider candidates for the Academy of Medical Sciences Fellowships (opening later this year) and Royal Society Wolfson Fellowships (open now).

In sector developments last week, John Blake, the new Director for Fair Access and participation at the Office for Students, made a speech that confirmed a shift in focus for the OfS’ approach to widening participation. Like all universities, we will be expected to submit variations on our existing five-year Access & Participation Plan to take account of new priorities around partnerships with schools, progression of students through their course and into employment, and evaluation of interventions.

If we are to offer the best education and do the best research we can, we can’t do it by ourselves – partnerships are key. Earlier this week, I was a guest of the Royal Shakespeare Company at their new production of Much Ado About Nothing to celebrate our long-standing relationship with them. Our collaboration, recently renewed to 2026, is a visible demonstration of our shared commitment to the arts and humanities. It brings RSC expertise into our teaching at the Shakespeare Institute, in English Literature, and Drama and Theatre Arts; supports our research project, Signing Shakespeare, which explores Shakespeare with d/Deaf learners; and enhances the student experience through our Stratford Residential, one of which we held in December for our final years who’d missed out previously because of the pandemic. The collaboration with the RSC is just one example of the vital contribution that the humanities make to our society and I am strongly committed to ensuring that Birmingham continues to have a vibrant and exciting presence in the arts and humanities.

Congratulations to Much Ado About Nothing cast member Michael Joel Bartelle, who, as well as being a Shakespeare Institute PhD student, also captained our University Challenge team in the most recent series – including a victory over Sussex (when I was still there) who managed to score no points at all.

It’s been great to get to know some of my new colleagues during my induction – whether at staff lunches, VC Open Forums, local management team meetings, or by people simply saying hello in the corridor. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d be holding open office sessions too, and you can now book for the first few online. Come and chat to me about anything to do with the University – it could be something you care a lot about, or something you wish would start, stop, change, or happen more. And of course, if there’s anything you think I should be aware of in the meantime, do drop me an email at a.tickell@bham.ac.uk.

Best wishes

Adam 

11.02.22

Dear colleague

It is vital that universities work closely with industry to maximise the impact of the research we undertake.

For over a decade the University has been a partner in the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) at Ansty in Coventry. The Centre brings together universities and industry and provides some of the most advanced manufacturing equipment to find solutions to real world problems, and thanks to the work of Stephen Jarvis, Clive Roberts, Karl Dearn and colleagues, we have strengthened this partnership by announcing we will jointly invest in a new research group to work on the decarbonisation of manufacturing.  I spoke with Clive Hickman, the Managing Director of the MTC, yesterday who stressed how important the relationship with Birmingham has been for their successes.

In less than six months’ time we’ll welcome thousands of visitors to our beautiful campus, which will be televised across the world to an estimated audience of 1.5 billion people during the Commonwealth Games. It is fair to say a huge amount of work is taking place across the City and the University to engage with and prepare for the Games.

Earlier this week Robin Mason and I met with Jo Lomas, the UK Envoy to the Commonwealth, to discuss our role in the Games. It was great to hear about the Commonwealth Connections initiative she was launching on behalf of the British Council that will twin local schools with those across the Commonwealth and celebrate the broader connections between communities. There will be an opportunity to sign up to an event in the Great Hall on 14 March to explore our own historic and current involvement with the Commonwealth.

Robin has recently been appointed as Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission which offers scholarships to bring outstanding academics from Commonwealth countries to Britain’s universities and has a particular role in promoting equality and inclusion and offering opportunities to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. He has also been honoured by the Brazilian government with the Order of Rio Branco, Officer Class in recognition of his outstanding work to strengthen links between Brazil and the UK in both education and research. This has included the establishment of the Birmingham-Brazil Forum, and a Visiting Fellows Scheme that provides early career academics in Brazil the opportunity to come to the University to undertake research projects.

You might have seen that the University will be included in a permanent walkway being created by the City to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. This will guide visitors through Birmingham’s most notable landmarks including Centenary Square and the Bullring and will bring additional visitors to campus during the Commonwealth Games and beyond. It will also provide a 22km route for us to get our steps in during the summer months!

Finally, as I’m sure you know, next week some members of UCU will be starting strike action in relation to proposed changes to the USS pension scheme and, later, last year’s pay claim.  I know that no-one strikes without thinking hard about it and hope that – whatever side of the picket line people are on – all of us can behave with kindness and respect.  I wrote to the local UCU branch yesterday recognising how difficult proposed changes to USS scheme are for members.  However, as UCU have tabled alternative proposals which are now subject to a formal consultation, I hope that next week’s industrial action can be paused whilst both employers and UCU can consult with their members on UCU’s proposal. 

Best wishes

Adam

04.02.22

Dear colleague

One of the joys about working at Birmingham is that we are both a global and a local university.

Our new campus in Dubai is now fully open, as students started Semester Two from the new campus. With nearly 800 staff and students, the facility has been designed to encourage collaborative and flexible learning and the University’s presence is leading to significant research opportunities.  This week, the UK Government also announced that the University of Birmingham in Dubai will be one of only six providers of a new international teaching qualification.  A huge collective effort has been behind the successful establishment of the Dubai campus and I’d like to give my thanks to everyone involved.  The official opening will now take place at the end of March and I’m looking forward to visiting then.

For many years, the University has had a strong presence in one of Birmingham’s twinned cities, Guangzhou in southern China.  To celebrate Chinese New Year, students studying there at our joint institute with Jinan University performed alongside world-class pianist Di Xiao, flautist Eimear McGeown, and performers from the Chinese musical arts centre Euphoria China to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Tiger. It’s worth a watch if you missed the live stream.  We also supported the Birmingham Chinese Festival Committee, whose usual New Year festival in the city centre was disrupted, by hosting the Lion Dance in Chancellors Court.  If you didn’t manage to see it, there is a short clip online.

The Commonwealth Games, which open in six months, will be the perfect blend of the global and the local.  The University has been given 20 spaces in the Queen’s Baton Relay.  We would really welcome nominees from among University of Birmingham graduates, students or staff members by 14 Feb.

My personal favourite of the week, though, was the student Sikh Society’s ‘Langar on Campus’ event yesterday. The Sikh Society has around 150 members and have, for 14 years, been hosting Guru Ka Langar – an act of generosity, where they serve food free of charge to anyone who comes, irrespective of who or what they are.  When I went, the marquee in Chancellor’s Court was full – both of people and of joy.  I was genuinely impressed by the warmth of the Committee Members, by the fact that that the food had been prepared by members of the city’s Sikh community to support our students, and by the fact that students from other local universities had come to help.  Such acts of kindness are a lesson to us all.

I also really enjoyed my first meeting of the University’s governing body, the Council, this week.  The Council is responsible for major strategic decisions, authorising (or not) significant investments, and has a wide range of legal and regulatory responsibilities.  At the meeting, we talked about how the University can achieve our ambitions in the Strategic Framework and there was a widespread recognition that a combination of Covid and the fact that fees have failed to keep pace with inflation has put many staff under considerable pressure.  Everyone is committed to taking those actions – within our power – to address this – notably with the appointment of over 450 new staff in the next couple of years. 

I am still digesting the Levelling Up White Paper and the implications for both the University and the West Midlands.  The region will be one of three to host an ‘Innovation Accelerator’ and as details of these become clearer, we will work with regional partners to develop a strong response.  I also spoke with Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, yesterday and he was very positive about the possibilities both for the city and for the ways that the region’s universities can contribute to and take advantage of a new approach to tackling the UK’s persistent and pernicious economic geography.

Although it might feel as if the pandemic has disappeared, it is important that we remain vigilant.  Covid cases are rising again and the best protection from serious illness is being fully vaccinated.  The mobile vaccination bus has been back on campus and will return next Monday and Tuesday.  If you need a vaccination or booster and are eligible, you can head over to Chancellors Court between 9.00 – 3.30pm.

Finally, and sadly, the Barbara Hepworth statue, Ancestor 1, that has graced the University for forty years has now been removed.  The statue has always been on loan from the Hepworth family and they have now decided that it deserves new audiences.  This is, of course, a real shame – Hepworth was an inspirational and original sculptor – but we should be really grateful for such a lengthy loan.  There are plans for new statues on campus and the opportunity to refresh this artwork is genuinely exciting.  In the meantime, if you are ever in Cornwall, the Hepworth Museum in St Ives is definitely worth the trip.

Have a lovely weekend.

With best wishes
Adam

28.01.22

Dear colleague 

Campus is returning to life as more and more students are returning for semester two. On Sunday morning, nearly 500 students and members of staff joined the 5km fun run and it was genuinely lovely to see so many people back here. The run was part of the UoBe Festival, which has had a wide range of activities and performances in Chancellor’s Court and the Great Hall – continuing to the end of today with fairground rides, activities and street food.  If you’re on campus, do join in – the rides, at least, are free (and noisy).  Huge thanks to Kelly Hamilton and her team for organising the festival: at the time of writing there have been over 10,000 sign ups to the activities and student feedback is extremely positive. The festival is just one of a series of activities that are available to our students and this week also saw the launch of the Vice Chancellor’s Challenge. During the Challenge, interdisciplinary groups of students work on developing practical solutions to global problems and this year we’ve themed them around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing them develop over the coming months. 

This week has seen both local and national politicians visit campus. I talked with the leaders of the Conservative Group on Birmingham City Council on Tuesday and was really pleased to hear how much they value the ways that we contribute to the life of the city and how they see the University as essential to the future of Birmingham and the West Midlands. I’m committed to playing my own small part in this.  I wasn’t, though, the main attraction: they had really come to learn more about some of the work being done here on sustainability and, in particular, on air quality.    

On Monday, Wes Streeting, Shadow Secretary for Health and Social Care joined the MP for Edgbaston, Preet Gill, on a visit to the Medical School and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. I learned as much as our visitors did about the extraordinary way that academics and clinicians worked together from the very outset of the pandemic, both to improve immediate patient care and to understand and tackle coronavirus. Our local hospital trust has had more Covid patients than any other in Europe, partly because it is so big but partly because vaccine hesitancy and socio-economic disadvantage have been a fatal combination.  If there is anything good to have come out of the numerous tragedies of the last two years, it is the proof that long-established close working relationships and outstanding expertise could spring into action for the public good.  

This is, of course, a university full of talented researchers.  We’ve heard recently that a multi-disciplinary team have won UKRI funding to examine ageing as part of multidisciplinary networks - Leigh Breen, Carolyn Greig, Janet Lord, Dan Tennant, and Niharika Duggal. Matt Nicholl has won this year’s Royal Astronomical Society Fowler Award, for making transformative breakthroughs in our understanding of new, rare, and extreme astronomical transients - objects that exist from milliseconds to several years. Congratulations to them all. 

Emma Kendrick and her PhD student Kieran O’Regan have just launched a new spin-out company that aims to speed up battery prototype development.   Emma was one of an outstanding cross-section of academics I met this week from across the Colleges who are embarking on the ‘Research Leaders’ programme in People and Organisational Development.  The session I joined was engaging and fun – unsurprisingly, some people had suggestions as to how we can support research more effectively, but there were also many very positive observations about here.  As I’ve said in a previous message, the challenge for us is to make Birmingham the most stimulating and exciting place to be for researchers, for educators and for professional and support staff.  

You might already know that we are organising the Forum for Global Challenges, which will take place at the ICC between 3-5 May, in collaboration with the World Bank, UNESCO, West Midlands Combined Authority and aligned to the Birmingham2022 Games. This will bring together some of the world’s most influential thinkers and doers from academic, business and political spheres, to share and generate real-world solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges – climate change and inequality. It will be an important opportunity for our staff to showcase the amazing work that we do in tackling these ‘wicked problems’, so please do submit your abstracts (deadline 7th Feb 2022). There are also lots of exciting opportunities for our students to participate – especially in the Global Youth Hackathon, and as rapporteurs, reporters, or curators of the ‘My solutions’ public engagement campaign. 

Finally, teaching will resume in full next week and it will be good to see our community coming back to campus, however, I know that for some people this may bring mixed emotions. As I mentioned last week, while Covid cases remain quite high, we will be strongly encouraging, and providing, face masks and other covid-safe practices.  The Department for Education’s guidelines to universities are, however, clear that we are not allowed to require the wearing of face coverings. If your doctor has told you that you are clinically extremely vulnerable, please talk to your line manager who will be pleased to support you. 

Happy Chinese New Year to those of you celebrating over the next week, and best wishes for a happy and healthy Year of the Tiger. 

 Adam 

21.01.22

Dear colleague

It was lovely to see so many of you at the VC Forum earlier this week - thank you for your insightful and challenging questions. Because we received so many questions online, I didn’t have time to answer them all, but I will do so over the next couple of weeks and, as I said at the time, we will post them on the intranet. We will also make a recording of the session available online with accurate captioning for those who couldn't attend and would like to see it.

 At the end of last week, I joined Heather Widdows and the College Directors of Research for a couple of hours at their away day at the Exchange. It’s the first time I’ve been in the Exchange and people who have already been there will know what a special place it is. The building is architecturally stunning: the main atrium has a coffee shop open to anyone, and downstairs in the old bank vault is an exhibition which accessibly showcases some of our research on areas of sustainability, including pollution and air quality, the BIFOR experiment which explores the effect of rising C02 levels on tree growth and hydrogen transport.

As I said, though, I was there to meet with some of the senior research leaders and we discussed some of their thoughts and plans to enhance the University’s research culture in order to ensure that individual academics and research groups feel supported and believe that Birmingham is the best place possible for them to work.

As a global institution with an ambition to be recognised as one of the 50 most prestigious universities in the world, you might expect them to have been looking exclusively outwards. Academics here have an extraordinary range of rich and deep relationships with their counterparts around the world and it is important that we not only support these, but we enhance them. Science has few boundaries and collaboration is unambiguously positive.

However, we are also the University of Birmingham. We are embedded in a city which was the cornerstone of the industrial revolution and characterised by extraordinary excitement and dynamism, brimming with new ideas and scientific innovation. And Birmingham today is in a similar period of change, energy and dynamism. Birmingham has the youngest average age of any city in the UK and the first non-White majority city. The senior research team explored some of the ways in which we can contribute to a whole range of global, national and local research challenges, such as the climate emergency or the economic revival of the city and region.  Over the coming months, the team plan to consult more widely within the University.

It’s been a fairly busy week with national developments. Yesterday, the Office for Students issued a consultation around penalising universities where threshold numbers of students don’t progress to second or third year or complete their degree and, separately, issued a consultation on the future of the Teaching Excellence Framework  (Consultations - Office for Students). I haven’t had a chance to look at these in detail, but we will be responding to both. Later today, we expect the Government to publish updated guidance for universities in how to deal with Coronavirus. I don’t know what it will suggest but, given that almost all restrictions will be removed nationally, I expect it to be highly permissive. We will wait to see what it says before finalising our plans, but the University will continue to prioritise the health and safety our staff and students and, in particular, will be clear that we would expect people to wear facemasks in lectures and crowded spaces.  We will also have a vaccination centre on site to encourage students and staff to get a booster jab if they haven’t already had one.

As this email goes out, I will be on my way to the sports centre to meet Andy Allford and his team to have a look around, what appears from the outside at least, to be a fantastic facility for our staff, students and local community. I mentioned at the Forum that I used to be a keen cyclist and have now taken up yoga, so maybe this will inspire me to try something new!

Have a lovely weekend
Adam

14.01.22

Dear colleague,

 Thanks for the exceptionally warm welcome I’ve had over the last fortnight. It has been a pleasure to meet people and read the emails you have sent.  It’s been particularly lovely to hear how much people love the University, but also to get a sense of priorities from across the piece.  I’m looking forward to meeting more of you as I visit Schools and Divisions over the next weeks and months, but if you see me walking around the campus and I’m not in a tearing hurry, do feel free to stop me and say hello.

 Staff in CAL will know that Andrzej Gasiorek has decided to step down as Head of the College. On behalf of the whole University, I want to thank Andrzej for his leadership which has been characterised by integrity and warmth. Andrzej is, and will continue to be, a firm advocate of the enduring value of the humanities and I know will be missed.  He will be taking a period of research leave and very much remain part of the University.  I’m also very grateful to Corey Ross who has agreed to take over as interim Head of College from the start of February. We will start the search for a permanent Head of College shortly.

 On my first day in the office, I joined Keir Starmer, partners from Birmingham City Council, and MPs Preet Gill and Jess Phillips on a visit to the Tyseley Energy Park.  The Energy Park is a collaboration between the University, the City Council, the West Midlands Combined Authority and range of private sector companies which is working to support the transition to a decarbonised society.  Our visitors heard from Professor Yulong Ding and his team, and from Professor Martin Freer about his vision to create the leading centre for decarbonising home heating.  It was truly inspirational and has left a lasting impression.

 On my second day in the office Kier Starmer announced that he’d tested positive for Covid.  I’ve tested daily and am now past the danger point and I think that all of the University staff managed to avoid it too.

 The scale of opportunities that exist for the University to play a role as an honest broker in developing meaningful collaborations between partners across the Midlands is immense. Of course, we are already closely intertwined with the City and I’m looking forward to visiting the Exchange this morning for the first time.  The Exchange is not only a very visible and popular statement, I particularly like that it is very close to the site of Mason’s College – one of the institutions that grew into the University of Birmingham.  But the Commonwealth Games will be the most high-profile way that we demonstrate this year how central the University is to our local, regional and national life.  In this context, I was really pleased to meet the organisers earlier in the week who couldn’t have been more effusive about the part that we are playing.

Robin Mason and I, along with the Birmingham Global team, also had the pleasure of welcoming the Rector and Provost for International Cooperation from the University of São Paulo to campus this week. USP is the leading Brazilian university, accounting for more than 20% of all scientific production in Brazil, and one of the strongest in Latin America. There are already broad and well-established links between our institutions, and we spent time exploring where there are exciting opportunities for further connections to be forged.

Some of you might be aware that I am leading a review on behalf of the Government which aims to reduce the volume of unnecessary bureaucracy in the research system.  The aim is to ensure that academics can focus on their science and scholarship, such that the only bureaucracy that is required is essential.  We published our interim report on Wednesday and central to it, at this stage, is a set of principles that should be applied. 

The general principle that we should always ensure that bureaucracy is essential is one that applies most widely.  We must ensure that we aren’t burdening ourselves with requirements that aren’t required in law or by funders or regulators or that don’t help us to improve our research or teaching.  In this context, Deborah Longworth, interim PVC Education, is leading a piece of work which will reduce the volume of paperwork required around teaching.  Deborah is passionate in her belief that teaching is a creative process which can be enhanced with digital capabilities or novel pedagogies, for example, but that people are at the heart of it.  Similarly, Heather Widdows, PVC Research and Knowledge Transfer, will be leading work to ensure that we can foster an environment where our researchers are stimulated and supported to be creative and entrepreneurial.

 I hope that you have a lovely weekend and that, for those of you doing it, the marking of assessments has some moments of levity.

With best wishes
Adam

04.01.2022

Dear colleagues,

As I walked in to work this morning, I reflected on how lucky I am to be joining you at the University of Birmingham as Vice-Chancellor.

Under David Eastwood’s leadership, Birmingham firmly established itself as an innovative and bold institution that performs strongly in both education and research. The University pioneered widely admired and copied initiatives, has invested in research talent, innovated in education and developed outstanding facilities and opportunities for students.  It has created exceptional research facilities, has a professional services that demonstrably deliver, and has collaborated fruitfully with local partners in the city and region and with others all over the world. There is clearly a considerable amount of inspiring work taking place and I’d like to thank David for this, and for his support for me during the six months since I was appointed.  Birmingham’s successes also, of course, have come from the efforts of everyone across the University.  I am genuinely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with you all.

The new Strategic Framework has set the ambition for Birmingham to be amongst the best fifty universities in the world.  Achieving any particular ranking isn’t a good thing in itself – it is an aim that seeks to ensure that the University is recognised as being a place where the best people in the world want to come to work and study, an institution that is characterised by intellectual energy and openness.

At a time when universities face uncertainty and challenge, Birmingham has the physical, financial and cultural resources to thrive.  We must use these resources to stimulate and support creativity in both research and education and ensure that we can provide the very best environment possible to attract and retain the brightest academic and professional services people. 

Over the coming months and years, we must become recognised as a University characterised by our actions to promote equality, diversity and inclusion - there is further work to do to embed inclusive practice and create a community with a diverse range of voices and experiences at all levels.  We must also recognise our responsibilities to respond to the global environmental emergency, embedding sustainability into the way we operate as a research institution, as an educator and as a major institution in our own right: we host a generation that cares about the environment and its future because it is their future.

Some of you may know that I have previously worked for the University of Birmingham, holding posts including Provost and PVC Research, before becoming the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex five years ago. Much has changed over the five years I have been away. This is most visible in the development of the campus here, but this is matched by investments in the academy, extensive curriculum reform, and exciting initiatives such as the Commonwealth Games.  During my time at Sussex, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about leading an organism as complex as a university.

The success of Birmingham, as of all universities, will ultimately rest on the people in its community. I have spent some time here over the past couple of months and have been struck by the ambition of the people I have met, and their belief in the future of the University. I am eager to understand the views of as many people as possible and plan to visit all Schools and Professional Services Divisions over the next few months to hear about what you do and what you think. I will hold termly open office sessions for staff and students that anyone can sign up for, and will write weekly with my reflections. I will also hold regular Open Forums, and you will shortly be able to sign up to attend the first of these, which is taking place on 19th January. If you would like to get in touch at other times, please contact me at a.tickell@bham.ac.uk (but forgive me if I don’t respond immediately!).

There is much to do during this next term, and the uncertainty of the omicron variant means that we may have to balance our longer-term plans with shorter-term measures. I know how hard the last two years have been for so many staff and we will do as much as we can to support you and our students.  These are not easy times, but I am confident that we will come together to deal with whatever we face and that we will emerge from the pandemic as a strong University with an exciting future.

With best wishes
Adam