Our staff have risen to the challenge of funding threats in spectacular fashion, with one of our largest ever increases in new research grants last year, up 40 per cent to just over £150m.
We may look back on this moment and say this is where our strategic focus began to make a real difference to the performance and standing of our University. This is a truly fantastic result which will bring further success; increases in new awards will generate growth in our annual income over the coming years.
To put this into perspective; our biggest increase in new grants in recent times was 9 per cent in 2006/7; at the time, we celebrated that as a great achievement. This was followed by a fall of 13 per cent and a small rise in 2008/9 of 4 per cent.
Eight of our nine faculties have seen increases in new awards, with multi-million pound awards in engineering and health accounting for around a fifth of the £151m total in 2009/10. That the University has the standing and credibility to attract such large grants is a source of pride and optimism.
We have done particularly well in securing just over £19m from the European Union (up 120 per cent on last year) for a diverse range of collaborative projects big and small, illustrating a concerted effort across campus. These range from improving machine translation of minority languages (Dr Serge Sharoff) to wear and tear on train engines (Professor Anne Neville) and fellowships for early career researchers like Guillaume Queval from the Plant Institute in Paris, who joins Professor Christine Foyer to work on crop yields.
Our research income – the money flowing in every year for ongoing research – is also up again this year, by a creditable 8 per cent. Six years ago, as I reported in this column, ours was the only Russell Group university to suffer a fall in annual research income. We have come a long way. In the current economic climate, it is possible this could happen again, but it would be against the trend and, essentially, beyond our control.
We don’t yet know our position in relation to our peers, but early indications are positive. A group of research-intensive universities was reporting a fall in new awards of just over 10 per cent in the year to February, and increased income of 2 per cent (against our 8 per cent). There’s a real prospect of increasing our market share and even our position, currently ninth overall for research income. Watch this space.
A great deal of commitment and hard work has been put into ensuring our students get the most out of their time here. Leeds for Life is sector-leading, and has been a great success where schools have taken it to heart. The results of the National Student Survey, with large variations and inconsistencies and unacceptably poor scores in some areas, are a particular disappointment, and we will be looking hard for the causes and remedies.
My 11 reasons why a graduate tax is a bad idea have had a good airing over recent weeks; all indications are that the government now favours an increase in graduate contributions. Senate will debate the proposals emerging from the Browne Review next month; and we will also, finally, have confirmation of funding for the next four years. As I said in June, the economies exercise has prepared us for the expected 25 per cent cut, and we are on course, on target and in control.
The issue of university pensions has, regrettably, become a political football, with one minister suggesting that students might not appreciate their fees being spent on academics’ ‘gold-plated’ pensions. Such language is very disappointing, but perhaps inevitable in the current fiscal climate.
The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) was set up in 1974 as a ‘final salary’ scheme (with members able to draw a pension of half their final salary after 40 years’ service). At that time, the average pension was paid for between six and ten years. Retired staff in USS today – happily – are expected to receive benefits for around 22 years. Pay has also increased faster than actuaries provided for.
These are the two main reasons why USS – like other public and private sector schemes in the UK and elsewhere – needs to increase its income and limit benefits to ensure it meets its commitments in the decades to come. The stock market’s plight does not help, but that is not the determining factor.
The University has a big stake in the outcome. We want to protect our staff’s pensions, and we have to control our financial commitment to the USS. Pensions are strictly regulated; if it’s decided that the scheme is still not sustainable and solvent – in pension-speak, if it requires further ‘de-risking’ – then the regulator can impose even more radical, detrimental changes to the scheme than those now being proposed.
The Universities Superannuation Scheme is a national one, and decisions will be made elsewhere, but we have been asked to consult our USS members. There will be trade-offs between the various proposals for securing the scheme’s future and the USS trustees would doubtless welcome views on these.
Whatever changes are made next April, I am confident USS will remain one of the safest and most generous pension schemes in the country; I’m happy to be held to that prediction!