Patrick Hackett: A very different start to our academic year
Usually at this time of year our campus is buzzing with excitement and optimism as students from all over the world descend on Manchester, taking full advantage of the opportunities that our University and the wider city present. It’s also one of the busiest times for colleagues with all hands on deck to support our on-going research activities and to make sure our students feel welcome and help them adjust to their new life.
This year it feels distinctly different. I came into my office in the John Owens Building last week and it was strangely quiet. The car parks were only half full and there were few people walking about – it felt quite odd. It was good, however, to be back on campus and to spend some time meeting colleagues who have been preparing for the arrival of our students. I met Katy Woolfenden and the team in the Library and visited the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons where – like the rest of the campus – measures have been put in place to create a COVID-safe environment for our staff and students. I also met some returning students who said they were pleased to be back and keen to pursue their studies.
I’m impressed by the monumental efforts that all of our colleagues have made to welcome our new and returning students. 2020 has been a difficult year for many of us, but particularly for young people who have had their studies disrupted, faced confusion over their A level results and then suffered delay and uncertainty over whether they had secured their university place. And now, after all that, they arrive in Manchester only to be told that in response to high local infection rates we are moving much of our teaching and learning online for the next few weeks.
As you will see from the daily figures that we are publishing on our website, some of our students and a small number of staff have tested positive for COVID and more are having to self-isolate. This is not the start to the academic year that any of us would have hoped for, but I am really proud of the high quality care and support that colleagues are providing for our students and each other in this challenging and fast-moving situation.
Some people say that surely we should have known this would happen and that we should never have “told” our students to come. The Government has made it clear that schools and universities should continue to operate as normal so as not to disadvantage this generation of students even further. In this context, it is our responsibility to be as accommodating and agile as possible as we try to deliver the University’s core mission and meet the expectations of all of those students who have chosen to study with us. That is what we are all trying to do.
Although we are in the middle of the toughest of times, I am overwhelmed and humbled by the commitment, hard work, collegiality and creativity our colleagues demonstrate on a daily basis. I want to thank each and every one of you for doing all you can to make sure we fulfil our University’s purpose. Thank you to those colleagues who have been here working on campus since March – like our residences staff, security, estates and facilities and student support colleagues. These colleagues are once again on the front line, working tirelessly to ensure that our students are safe, looked after and not alone.
Thank you to everyone working in student recruitment and admissions who had to navigate their way through the A-level confusion of the summer to ensure we were able to make offers to our students. Thank you to teaching and learning colleagues who have pulled out all the stops working in partnership with our academic colleagues to get our teaching and learning online. Thank you to colleagues who organised virtual graduation ceremonies during the summer and welcome week activities. And to those making arrangements to support the travel arrangements and welcome for our international students. And, of course, thanks to everyone who has continued to support our research effort throughout.
I realise that losing around 430 Professional Services (PS) colleagues through our recent voluntary severance scheme has only added to the pressure and workload for some colleagues. I would ask you to bear with us whilst we do all we can to identify the pressure points and assign additional PS staff to those areas delivering critical activities. We have not pushed forward with our Reshaping PS plan for the time being so we can focus on the here and now.
And we are listening to you – the findings from the What works? survey where you said you wanted more opportunities to work flexibly has led us to decide to develop a new flexible working policy to enable more colleagues to work in a blended way. Further details on this will be available by the end of this year. We are also considering a range of options so that we can provide more support for home working.
You can hear more about these topics at the next PSLT open meeting which will take place on Thursday, 15 October. Please join us and feel free to ask any questions of me or my colleagues. Alternatively, you can email me any time at Registrar@manchester.ac.uk.
Please do take care of yourselves too, and find the ways which are right for you to look after your wellbeing and to step away from work. You may find our staff wellbeing pages on StaffNet a helpful resource.
I wonder what a full tuition fee student experience/learning during a pandemic should look like. I wonder if it’s even possible to set expectations let alone manage them. I’m unsure if by the end of this academic year if the University would be open to a balanced review of student experience vs. fees. If we’re insistent on keeping fees as they are, then I wonder if pressures/stresses are then transferred onto all staff to deliver a fee-worthy service. At the end, would staff feel like they have delivered such a service? This brings me to my original point – what would a fee-worthy service during a pandemic look like? As an aside, we have to be careful not to sound too over reliant of government/national guidelines or Russell Group or other benchmarking as they do not set the maximum threshold for how a global, prestigious University like ours should act during these uncertain times. I do see this as an opportunity for this University to not only survive but to be a beacon globally. To do so, we will need searing honesty and humility. We have our values, we probably would liked to have more time for these values to mature within our organisation but this is as good a time as any to demonstrate our commitment to these values and have the actions undertaken by this University to be unmistakably driven by such a commitment.
Thanks for your comment. You make good points and we, like every other university, have had to think carefully about how we can ensure we deliver intended learning outcomes (ILOs) and the wider student experience that would be blended, with a mixture of on-campus and online learning. We have published a range of information on this, some of which I have copied and inserted at the end of this response for you.
You mention the pressures on our staff and our values. I believe that we are firmly committed to our values and, notwithstanding the inevitable pressures we are all facing, I have seen our staff display those values through the innovation, courage and pioneering spirit that have delivered a transformation in the way we deliver our learning and teaching, along with our services and support.
Here is an extract form other information we have published on Staffnet:
In response to the pandemic we have made significant investment and improvements to our online learning capability. Delivering online learning is at least as expensive as face-to-face unless it is at a very large scale (like the Open University) and indeed, we are aiming to deliver both online and on-campus learning. We are incurring significant additional costs in order to minimise the risk of infection. Social distancing to two-metres means we are having to hire additional spaces to enable face-to-face teaching to take place. We have also repurposed existing spaces across campus to provide as much study space as possible and are covering costs of additional cleaning, hand sanitising and masks.
You can find a breakdown of what the tuition fee is spent on, on our website.
In addition to this, although activities may not be taking place on campus we worked with our Students’ Union to put in place the recent welcome programme with a large number and variety of events, many of which were available online. There are also many activities also available to take part in through UoM Sport.
We have put in place a comprehensive support package for all students who are self-isolating, which includes a partnership with a major food retailer, delivery of parcels, wellbeing support, and assistance with practical matters such as arranging for laundry and prescription medicines.
In addition to this we continue to provide Students with access to online mental health and wellbeing support 24/7 through Togetherall – an online community monitored by trained clinicians. They can also request a 1-2-1 appointment with one of our own counsellors via the University’s Counselling Service.