Building on past, looking to future

May 6th, 2011

Little has changed in the oak-panelled Council Room in the Trent Building since it opened as part of Nottingham University College 83 years ago. But as the University has evolved – into a modern, international institution – so too has the Council, taking strength from the past to face the challenges to Higher Education that lie ahead.

Council is the University’s governing body, responsible for strategic planning, finances, buildings and staff. Members included senior managers and academics from the University and external members, such as alumni, leading business figures and student representatives who give their time voluntarily.

“The difficulty at the moment is that there are so many unknowns around government policy, the size and shape of future HE, modes of study: part time, full time, distance learners,” says Karen Cox, Professor in Cancer and Palliative Care, who joined the Council in August 2008 after being appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Staffing and the Community.

“The challenge is for the Council to manage our resources – both human and material, while staying true to the University’s mission. We need to decide how to manage the institution in an uncertain world. We need to be pro-active and responsive.”

Prof Cox explains: “As a member your job is to think and act beyond your own particular role and department and to bring a degree of ‘objectivity’ to the table, to counter and balance your own experience and perspectives. To challenge and be challenged.

“We have collective responsibility.  Sometimes discussions can get challenging but ultimately we need to come to conclusions. People have to feel they can air their views but ultimately that they can make a decision and feel they can move forward. That makes a successful governing body.”

The changes in funding and the new fees system are likely to have significant effect on the University, not all of them predictable, agrees Keith Hamill, Pro-Chancellor and Council President.

“Nottingham enters this situation with substantial strengths and the management, supported by the Council, has been preparing for these developments for the last few years – including an impressive improvement in cost efficiency, which the staff has implemented, and which means that the University enters this period in a stronger financial position with a better business model, ” says Mr Hamill.

The University has ambitious plans for growth and Council knows that the changes ahead will bring opportunities as well as threats. The student experience will continue to be an important issue and its competitive significance will grow.

But it’s not just about the changes, but how Nottingham deals with the changes that will help determine its future success, says Dame Elizabeth Fradd DBE.

Dame Elizabeth joined the Council in 2009 and is a member of Audit Committee and Nominations Committee. A nursing academic and consultant, she was in charge of children’s services at City Hospital and the Queen’s Medical Centre for 12 years and is involved in teaching at the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Physiotherapy.

“Universities are all about the expectations of young people and their families and the national skills requirements of the future,” she says.

“However, what dominates the current landscape is the financial situation: the coming fees and the cuts to teaching funding. It is not going to be just the decisions that the University makes, but portraying, managing and monitoring the outcomes of those decisions. The implications will ripple right across the University.

“Nottingham hasn’t needed to be overly concerned about its financial position in the past, particularly in comparison to other institutions, but it needs to be deeply concerned now because of the national picture.”

Dame Elizabeth, who has a visiting Professorship at Birmingham City University and Wolverhampton and also does some work at Keele and Coventry Universities, says she brings a freshness to the Council. “All boards need new people coming in to ask the ‘Why’ questions that are only possible when they’re new. Asking the simple questions due to one’s ignorance and lack of assuredness in a certain environment makes others think through their rationality for certain things again. “

“Council members are independent of the University, and therefore independent of the recommendations that University management are making. Not every recommendation goes through Council smoothly, nor should it. Council are there to challenge management to ensure that good decisions are being made. If everything were just nodded through, that would indicate that Council were uninterested and not doing their job. The strength of Council’s relationship with management here at Nottingham is that robust and rigorous challenge can be made to management recommendations, differences can be resolved, and as a result, sensible decisions are arrived at.”

Returning to the uncertainties ahead, she adds: “How do you maintain the calibre of the learning and research at Nottingham at the same time as widening the entry gate to potential students? Opportunity is important, but if the entry requirements for some students are relaxed, this may lead to a greater burden on teaching staff and will need to be carefully managed.

“The University is committed to raising the aspirations of young people in this area and encouraging them to go onto Higher Education, but there is no guarantee they will come to Nottingham. How do we ensure that the whole sector works fairly together so that equal efforts to widen participation benefits the whole sector, rather than the hard work of one or two institutions benefitting everyone else?

“Some decisions made in these uncertain times may well not work out. Nottingham will need to be prepared to re-examine the decisions that it has made and be flexible in its approach particularly until the future becomes clearer.”

Mr Hamill says: “I hope the Council will draw on the experience of the past that a confident emphasis on bold strategic development will achieve good returns even in difficult circumstances.

“Nottingham’s first Vice Chancellor, Bertram Hallward, said that the combination of high-calibre research, teaching by the same people as do the research and the personal development from learning, together with the levels of social contact and other activities mean that Higher Education tends to humanise. I know that is sometimes harder as the institutions have got so big but I do think it’s a worthwhile objective.”

Mr Hamill credits teamwork as the key. And on stepping down, he says: “The University is an outstanding institution to be associated with and it’s been a real pleasure to see it grow and become so successful. I benefitted enormously from my experiences as a student at Nottingham and it is good to have an opportunity to help give something back.”

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