Some reflections from a VC as he walks out the door

By Professor Nigel Seaton. Nigel is former Vice Chancellor - and now Emeritus Professor - at Abertay University, as well as Governor at Robert Gordon University. Nigel is also a former UCEA Board member.
24 May 2022

I have very recently stepped down as Vice-Chancellor of Abertay University after just shy of a decade working with great colleagues and outstanding students. For the last three years of my tenure, I was a member of the UCEA Board, building on an even earlier connection as a member of UCEA’s Scottish Committee since 2017.

While I continue my adjustment to a new chapter in my life, I am taking this opportunity to offer some reflections on the HE sector and the challenges ahead.

This is a time of flux. The world is coming out of the first global pandemic in a century. It was a difficult time for us all, and a terrible experience for many. Students and staff in our universities responded heroically, working and studying in what were often difficult circumstances, and learning new ways of working and studying as they went. And now a European war is upon us.

We find ourselves, quite suddenly, in a high-inflation economy for the first time since the 1970s. The optimistic tell us that this won’t be the same as the 1970s, in either the magnitude of the inflation or its duration. But the immediate impact is substantial and will probably be so for several years. The business press reports on the distinction between sectors of the economy that can readily raise prices, and sectors that can’t, making them even more susceptible to inflationary pressures. British universities, as far as their core business of teaching home students is concerned, have no ability at all to set prices.

These recent developments are overlaid upon a continuing squeeze on public funding for universities. In Scotland, this has been in place since 2013, with the latest increase of the unit of resource for teaching at 1.5% against a rate of inflation that is very much higher (CPI for April 2022 was 9%). The picture elsewhere in the UK is similar, with the highest fee for teaching home undergraduates in England and Wales remaining fixed at £9,000 or £9,250. In Scottish universities, we often make the point that most universities south of the border are better funded to the tune of about £2,000 per student, but I'm sure the external financial pressures are felt in much the same way north and south of the border.

Where do we go from here? Let’s gather some positive news first. Amid all the challenges of the pandemic, we learnt to work and study in new and ground-breaking ways. At Abertay, and I know in many other universities, we relied on trust and on empowering colleagues in new ways. I feel sure the sector will not lose that, and the increased flexibility about when and where to work is beneficial for all. Each university will be taking its own approach to post-pandemic pedagogy, but I am sure many universities will continue with blended learning, in the interest of effective learning as well as of supporting students from diverse backgrounds, with different preferences, and – in some cases – with disabilities or demanding caring responsibilities.

Where the news is less positive is in the tension between what we expect from our staff, and how we support them and reward them for it. The decline in defined-benefits pensions, quite late in reaching HE, is now in progress in our sector too. Whatever we might believe about the inevitability of this, with greater longevity and reduced investment returns (and I certainly regard it as inevitable) this is a stark change for staff who have often spent many years in HE with initial assumptions and expectations that are not now being realised.  

On pay, there are two competing truths. One is that institutions can’t afford to give real-terms pay rises because they don’t control their prices (or their main ones, anyway), and the governments that do control them are not significantly increasing them. The other truth is that it is not reasonable for staff at any university to bear the increased cost of living on their own shoulders just because university leaders can’t get the public funding they would like, especially given how staff have delivered for their students and their employers during the pandemic. The outcome requires a compromise. The difference this time is how it will seem to those involved. Is it possible for an outcome to be seen as both inevitable and unreasonable? I suspect it is.

Where does this leave the employers in higher education? First of all, I think it is important to be realistic. Universities will continue to be highly constrained by public funding that will almost certainly continue to fall in real terms over the next few years. There might be other shocks, including the possible disruption of international higher education as the free-trade system comes under increasing strain. There are few certainties, and we will all need to be adaptable. At Abertay, we looked at the Heifetz’s model of adaptive leadership to think about the likely future leadership challenges.

We need to adapt quickly, because the pace of change faced by all will be far greater than has been typical for British universities. This will be difficult, as universities are complex and rather traditional organisations where the natural pace of change is quite slow. But we will all need to prepare ourselves to move more quickly.

My final reflections are for the future. I think we all need to think hard about what we could do, at modest cost, to better support our colleagues in their working lives. I also think we have to work together to achieve this, and I’m pleased to see that UCEA’s final pay in this negotiating round offers opportunities for this joint working approach. Greater flexibility, allowing colleagues to better align their working patterns with their own needs and preferences, has to be embraced and I also think that as a sector we could go further in reducing the number of contracts that are fixed-term, even if this is inconvenient for some employers. My concern is that while some fixed-term contracts are unavoidable, others deliver relatively slight business benefits to employers while they create considerable uncertainty and stress among staff. We have done our best to achieve this at Abertay. Can we all work together to address this at sector level?

Finally, I would like to close this blog by saying what a pleasure it has been to be associated with UCEA. It’s a super employers’ association, and my own professional life has been greatly enriched by this experience.