As we reach the end of the calendar year it is normal to reflect and to look forward. In a year when we launched a Transformation programme there is much to look back on; much that has been challenging and much that is positive.
Transformation has always been about implementing the vision in the Strategic Plan. It has been about financial stability and much more. And importantly it has triggered a conversation across our university about how we develop, support and sustain excellent education and research.
Of course it’s been vital that we get the University on a sustainable footing. At the start of 2016 that was looking like a significant challenge. The facts of our situation were clear and we shared them with everyone. It now feels that we are moving in the right direction, in part because of the effort that many of us put into increasing our income through student recruitment, conversion and clearing and in part because of the savings that will flow from the decisions we have made.
There have been some tough decisions and robust debate. As we made clear from the start, we have had to stop doing some things that are not financially sustainable or that are not strategic priorities, despite the quality of the work being done. Past performance is important, but so is future fit and focus. Hard choices have sometimes led to hard words and hard feelings; it’s a situation we are not used to at Leicester, but perhaps robust debate about future directions was one of the things that, in the past, we did less often than we should.
We’ve also insisted on comparing ourselves with the universities whose company we would like to keep. This has sometimes been uncomfortable, because our performance is, on the evidence, below par in several crucial areas. One of the most important outcomes of the debates about Transformation, in my view, is a greater willingness within departments to face the facts, challenge complacency and think hard about practical ways of improving performance.
I wouldn’t say that we have reached our destination, which is the sustainable and successful university described in the Strategic Conversation and the Strategic Plan. Those of you who came to my recent presentation with Martyn Riddleston (log in with Blackboard using your usual details) will have heard us stressing that no institution can simply cut its way to future prosperity and security. Indeed, the Transformation programme has focused on local changes—including investment in some cases—because while this makes the process longer it also means it can be adapted to departmental differences and changing circumstances.
Our goals must be to build a platform for long-term, intelligent and sustainable growth, which provides a basis for investment in research, student experience and education and in an estate that is not at the moment suited to our current needs, let alone future ambitions. But a sustainable and successful university will also encourage and benefit from accountability, collaboration and an approach to our work in which we all hold ourselves to the high standards that already characterise our strongest departments and divisions.
In a year of difficult conversations, it is all the more important to emphasise the great work being done by colleagues here at Leicester, in teaching and student support, in research and enterprise, in internationalisation and widening participation, and in changing lives. Those of you who came to Paul Boyle’s presentation last week (log in with Blackboard using your usual details) will have heard about the impact of the research we are doing and of the improvements we have made to the experience and success of our students. In terms of our widening participation agenda, we are working hard to bring students from non-traditional backgrounds into higher education. You may have seen the news about our new foundation year in Medicine designed to bring us the most able rather than the most fortunate, or our leading role in the new National Collaborative Outreach Programme, cementing our proud reputation as one of the most socially inclusive of all the research-led institutions.
My hope for the New Year is that we can quickly move on from the restructuring elements of Transformation. Of course, sustainability will continue to be a concern; we have no reason to believe that pressure on student numbers or research funding is going to lessen and we must always plan our future with a view to the risks as well as opportunities of our environment. We must also manage the local impact of the more or less unhelpful decisions of our government.
Our longer-term future is about improved performance and providing the systems and processes that help people in our departments and divisions do great work. It’s about performance development, reward and recognition, and our willingness to constructively challenge. High performance and high standards are a constant focus in our best departments and divisions and it is crucial that we understand what they do so that we can learn from their approach to success. To do that, we have to get better at recognising and sharing what we do well, and be clearer that collective success depends upon individual contributions.
Professor Mark Peel
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