Open Letter to Reading UCU15 February 2019
I was disappointed to receive the resolution of no confidence arising from the UCU Extraordinary General meeting on Wednesday. I wish to be clear from the outset, however, that I fully acknowledge the frustrations that it represents.
As I explained to you and those at the meeting, and also in the face-to-face meetings I have been holding with colleagues over recent weeks, my priority is to encourage an open and more engaged dialogue about the issues facing our institution. The UCU is critical to this dialogue and I fully support the important role you play in our University community.
That discussion necessarily involves consideration of past activities. One of our most important lessons from how difficult but necessary changes have been handled in the past is the need for open, transparent and timely communication. My approach is to be open about the challenges we currently face from the outset, even if I do not yet have all the answers. In that spirit, I have answered the questions you posted about the National Institute for Research in Dairying (NIRD) land sale fully in writing and invited you to share that response, and I felt it was important for me to attend the Wednesday meeting to answer questions from your members.
Much more importantly, we need to look to the future and determine how we can work together to build a strong and successful organisation. In this, the University leadership and the UCU are partners. We have the same interest in shaping an institution that is an excellent employer of which colleagues are proud. We want to strengthen our University’s reputation for the valuable long-term contribution locally, nationally and globally of our world-leading research and teaching. I remain entirely open that this will involve change, and that change will have an impact on our colleagues.
Undoubtedly, some past activities and investments, such as our Malaysia campus, have not performed as well as we would have liked. Others have given a positive financial return for the institution, which we have reinvested in necessary improvements to our campus environment, teaching and research infrastructure and student experience – including the redevelopment of a modern library. Despite views to the contrary, the NIRD land sale is one of these and all considerable net proceeds of the sale will over time be reinvested in research in food and agriculture at the University.
As a forthcoming article that I have written for Wonkhe outlines, I agree with you that good governance is critical to our future success. There is already a great deal we have done in this regard. Over the past five years, we have revised our Royal Charter, changed our management structure to provide clearer areas of responsibility, and changed the way our governing Council operates. Our culture around decision-making has also improved, with more willingness to consult on changes, accept challenge, and be more open and transparent. We have established the People Plan Board, with representation from across the University, to oversee some of our most important projects around the experience of our staff, and regularly consult with our Staff Forum.
I disagree with you that these are circumstances unique to Reading. There are clearly and undeniably many challenges that affect the whole sector. To proceed as though issues such as Brexit, demographic changes affecting student recruitment, intense sector competition and increased pension costs do not contribute to our current financial challenges would put the University of Reading at a massive disadvantage, while other institutions respond and adapt to these challenges.
Whatever our views on the desirability of changes to the higher education sector in recent years, we cannot simply pretend they have not happened. Increased competition, changing student demographics and preferences, and major changes in how the sector is regulated are realities that we cannot afford to ignore if we are to have a confident and successful future.
Where I do absolutely agree with you is that the answers to these questions will come from honest and regular discussion and we are committed to including the UCU with that. We are sure that you will approach that discussion in a constructive and positive spirit, and we would welcome the opportunity to speak with you in person to consider how that can be best achieved to the benefit of all our colleagues.
Professor Robert Van De Noort FSA