VC/RUSU open student meeting - Friday 9 March Summary of discussion

On Friday 9 March the Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, and five full-time RUSU Officers hosted their second open student meeting of the year.

This page provides a summary of the main topics of discussion. It is not a transcript and the content has not been directly quoted. You can view the full discussion via the livestream on RUSU’s Facebook page.

Topic: Investment in sports facilities

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • While we are not known as a ‘Sports University’, our sports facilities are very good and better than many of our competitors
  • There has been recent investment in improving sports facilities, such as the hockey pitch a few years ago and, more recently, the Tennis Dome
  • The University has plans, working with RUSU, to develop a new 4G pitch, although this will be subject to planning permission and it will take time to develop our proposals

Response from RUSU:

  • There could be a bigger focus on sport than there is currently, but there are lots of priorities – we are working to develop the 4G pitch as soon as possible

Topic: Change of meeting date to non-strike day

Response from RUSU:

  • Following a request from a PhD student, RUSU arranged for the date of the open meeting to change to a non-strike day to allow students who did not feel comfortable to cross the picket line to attend

Topic: Valuation of USS and likelihood of Vice-Chancellor changing his position

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • The Vice-Chancellor explained the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) deficit and the proposed changes, as previously outlined in his open letter to all students and staff
  • The Vice-Chancellor backs the Universities UK (UUK) position but still supports efforts to find an affordable and sustainable solution
  • Negotiations are ongoing between UUK and the University and College Union (UCU) and, while this is the case, the Vice-Chancellor did not wish to speculate further
  • The Pensions Regulator has set a 30 June deadline by which this must be resolved

Topic: Financial situation at University of Reading and possibility to increase pension contributions

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • Every year, the University seeks to generate a surplus, which allows for essential investment
  • Currently, our surplus is very low and if the University was required to increase employer pension contributions, savings would need to be made elsewhere to fund this – this is why it is so important for an affordable and sustainable solution to this dispute
  • We have been open about the choices we have when it comes to areas of investment. In their different ways, each of these areas are intended to help us grow and remain competitive

Topic: Student compensation for missed teaching as a result of strike action

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • The University will not offer financial compensation to students as a result of strike action
  • We have worked hard to mitigate disruption as far as possible, the level of impact of the strikes has been unevenly balanced across the institution, and other University services have remained open
  • We appreciate this is an anxious time and we have kept students updated through a number of communications, including the Frequently Asked Questions on the Me@Reading student portal
  • The Vice-Chancellor acknowledged that, as a sector, we are in new territory with regards to changes to the tuition fee system and the associated contractual position – with attention from the Competition and Markets Authority and a focus on students as ‘customers’
  • The University Executive Board has agreed that any monies deducted from staff taking part in the current strike will be ring-fenced and used initially to help meet the costs of mitigating the strike action and its impact
  • Once these costs have been met, we plan to use these funds to support the welfare of students and staff and we have been in conversations with RUSU about possible priorities

Topic: Possibility of the University claiming insurance for disruption from strike action

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • We have asked our insurers whether there may be any grounds to make a claim for disruption from strike action but we have not yet received a definitive answer
  • If it were possible for us to make such a claim, any monies would be used in the same way as previously outlined – to firstly help meet the costs of mitigating the industrial action and then to support student and staff welfare

Topic: Possibility of low motivation among staff after strike action and impact on quality of teaching and student satisfaction

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • The Vice-Chancellor explained that staff currently undertaking strike action genuinely care about their students and he has huge faith in the professionalism of all staff - academics and those in professional services. He was very confident that all staff will continue to support students when they return to work
  • With regards to student satisfaction surveys, we always encourage students to be open and honest in surveys so we can address the issues raised - this student feedback has led to direct improvements being made by the University in the past

Topic: Increasing student numbers and provision of facilities and services

Response from the Vice-Chancellor:

  • It is important for us to grow our student numbers to increase our income – each year, inflation costs the University £10million alone
  • We have an ambition to increase our student bedrooms from around 5,000 to nearer 6,000
  • We have been able to meet our guarantee of a place in Halls for all new undergraduate students who choose us as their firm choice and meet the relevant conditions, and this is not under threat
  • We do have increased demand from returning students for places in Halls and we are trying to address this – unfortunately the St Patrick’s planning application was rejected, but we have taken all of the rooms in Kendrick Hall for next year
  • In terms of teaching space, we have been able to continue our commitment to end the teaching day at 6pm and not schedule classes beyond this, and we also have a new timetabling system to help us to manage our space more efficiently
  • There is a particular issue on study space while the Library is being refurbished, but we have worked to develop new spaces in Halls (opening later in March) and we are making better use of space across our campuses

Topic: Risk of PhD students being deterred from career in academia due to pension reform

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • This is a concern. However, in 2014, there were substantial changes to the pension scheme and this did not result in any recruitment challenges
  • Even with the proposed changes, the employer contribution for the USS pension scheme stands at 18%, double what is offered by most other employers. Hopefully, this will still be an attractive package for potential applicants

Topic: Commitment to 15-day coursework marking turnaround

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • This was introduced as a result of student feedback and we have seen substantial improvement since it was put in place
  • There are pockets where there are some difficulties and we are working with Schools in these areas to address these – there is still a very strong focus across the University in maintaining this target for timely feedback
  • The new Electronic Management of Assessment project will help to have a positive effect on turnaround times

Topic: Introduction of Campus Jobs and rates of pay for PhD students involved in teaching/marking

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • The Campus Jobs system was brought in to bring consistency to rates of pay for students employed by the University and make this fair
  • The system has so far enabled many students to find work on campus and we hope this will increase in the future

Response from RUSU:

  • There will be a referendum on RUSU’s position relating to the UCU industrial action and further details will be announced shortly

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • A change in RUSU’s position would not change the University’s position relating to financial compensation
  • The University will work with RUSU to identify how best to use any monies saved from staff deductions to support student and staff welfare

Topic: Supporting student hardship fund with monies saved from staff deductions

Response from Vice-Chancellor:

  • The hardship fund has received funding from such staff deductions from previous strike action, but the amount this time is likely to be larger and therefore it is being considered as one possible option

Response from RUSU:

  • The money currently allocated to the hardship fund is unlikely to be spent this year and therefore RUSU are considering suggesting that the University establish a new fund

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