Students Staff
University of Essex

November 15, 2019

Safeguarding our pension

As a Vice-Chancellor of a university that is a member of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and a member myself, the inability of those who decide our pension arrangements to ensure we have a fair and sustainable scheme, is a source of regret and dismay.

The vote by University and College Union members for 8 days of strike action in 60 universities is one that I know individual members will not have voted for lightly and reflects the strength of feeling about the future of USS and working conditions. I also know that our staff have a profound and deeply felt commitment to the University and the success of our students.

Continued failure to deliver an agreed basis for the future of the pension scheme will not only affect the sustainability of our universities, but negatively impact on our ability to recruit and retain global academic and professional services talent in our universities.

At the University of Essex, our Council is the employer of all staff and we have held a series of open meetings to help inform the position of our Council. This input from staff led to our University Council adopting positions that have been held consistently for many years.

  • We believe high-quality pension arrangements are a significant part of the benefits available to our employees.
  • We feel the USS trustees are being overly prudent in their assumptions, which undervalue assets and overestimate liabilities.
  • At Essex, we remain willing to increase employer contributions to the scheme, to sustain critical features of the USS, including defined benefits.

We know some or all of these are inconvenient truths – as some senior figures in the sector have made clear to us at Essex. Undaunted, we continue to be an advocate for what we believe is right.

In 2018 we had a painful and disruptive strike that dragged the parties to the negotiating table. It is a matter of enormous pain and regret that we again find ourselves in a position that the negotiators who represent us – both employers and employees – are not willing to embrace principled compromise in seeking a solution to our pensions crisis. Should positions remain unchanged, no side will win and the most likely outcome is that a solution will be forced on us by the pensions regulator, who has the legal authority to break the pensions deadlock and impose a solution. I have no doubt this will be a profoundly unsatisfactory outcome for those that share our view about USS.

For our part at Essex our Council remains committed to paying more into USS to safeguard key components of a defined benefit pension scheme, but if the scheme is to remain unchanged employees should also be willing to contribute more, reflecting a shared commitment to the value of the scheme. However, we are concerned about the extra level of employee contributions and the impact this is having on affordability for some staff, especially if they feel forced to leave the USS scheme. We also recognise this is a national pension scheme and if universities and colleges leave USS, ultimately this will also undermine the viability of having a national university pension scheme.

We are calling for:

  • the Joint Expert Panel – the UCU and Universities UK-nominated expert panel of six with an independent Chair – to accelerate its work and to stake out where the common ground might be for the future. This might include, for example, differential contribution levels, so that USS members on lower salaries contribute a lower percentage of their pay to the scheme in a manner similar to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, or smoothing contribution increases over a longer period to ensure that the funding of the scheme reflects the long-term nature of the assets and liabilities of a pension scheme. A report prior to the commencement of strike action is urgently needed; and
  • employer and employee representatives to return immediately to the negotiating table without preconditions on either side.

Pay awards are determined through national collective bargaining and so long as we remain a part of these arrangements, we are bound by this scheme. We recognise the impact that inflation is having on the value of pay, but many universities feel the current offer of 1.8% for most staff, with higher levels of increase for the lowest paid, is at the limit of affordability. In this context, our ability to shape the agenda on pay is extremely limited.

However, this dispute is also about equality, casualisation and workloads within universities and these are areas where we have greater scope to chart our own course.  At Essex we have taken a values-led approach to these issues including:

  • taking concerted steps to de-casualise our workforce;
  • tackling head-on the issue of equal pay for work of equal value – the difference in pay between men and women for doing the same job – with the University having no significant pay gaps at all across all grades. We have also made some (but not enough) progress in closing the gender pay gap – the difference between average earnings of men and average earnings of women – which has reduced by 2.4% in 3 years to 16.2%;
  • announcing a massive investment in staff, something our students have said really matters to them and the quality of their learning. The largest recruitment of academic staff in the history of the University is now underway, which will improve our student to staff ratio to 14.6 to 1– the best we have had at Essex for many years. Important to us, is that this will help our staff have more time to develop their careers and improve their work life balance. We recognise that in addition to hiring new staff there is more that we must do, to ensure workloads are more manageable.

There is no doubt there is more that we can and must do and in particular work is underway to speed up closing the gender pay gap – which remains unacceptable – and to bring an equal focus to ethnicity pay gaps. We are also consulting on our People Supporting Strategy to ensure we continue to invest in staff success.

A concerted period of industrial action will inevitably have a negative impact on our students, notwithstanding our efforts to minimise this. As a result, at the University of Essex we have taken the decision to make a mitigating payment to students who have lectures and classes cancelled as a result of the strike in recognition of the reduction in learning opportunities that they will experience – and we are working with the Students’ Union to finalise our plans.  We also know that financial payments can never fully offset the impact of strike action on our students’ overall University experience.

There is an obligation on all parties to return immediately to the negotiating table without preconditions, to move on from win-lose strategies – and to recognise that principled compromise is the answer.  Jane Hamilton, the Chair of our Council has met this week with our Essex UCU branch representatives to discuss the University’s position and to ensure at Essex that we have an open dialogue about the shared challenges that we face. If we fail to find a negotiated settlement, the future of our pensions will be resolved by the regulator – and few will find much solace in that outcome.

October 25, 2019

Our commitment to European partnership

Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster, and our Dean of partnerships, Professor Dominic Micklewright, explain why it’s so important for us to continue to work with and nurture relationships with European universities.

We are proud of our reputation as an international cosmopolitan university, but we know that this can never be taken for granted. To play our part in ensuring Essex remains a beacon of global education and research excellence, it is paramount that we continue to work with and nurture relationships with European universities, especially those who share our values and with whom we have complementary strengths. This is the best way that our staff and students can be citizens of the world, understanding local and global contexts as they benefit from, and contribute to, an international knowledge base.

Students at our Colchester Campus

Students at our Colchester Campus

“Our future should not be seen as a zero-sum game”

We need to do this because our future should not be seen as a zero-sum game: with our focus on developing partnerships in other parts of the world coming at the expense of our existing links and deep levels of engagement with our European university partners. The current strength of the UK higher education and research is built on over 45 years of close engagement with European universities. Continuing this is crucial to the UK in retaining its pre-eminent place in arts and humanities, science and health and social science – and achieving its ambitions to become a global Britain. It is also crucial to Essex’s continuing success as a global university, proudly ranked 21st in the world for international outlook.

This is why in 2015, we wanted Essex to lead the way in founding a network of Young European Research Universities (YERUN). YERUN is a network of 17 like-minded universities that have been in the top 50 in the Times Higher Young University Rankings and are of a similar age. Importantly, we also share common values, being equally committed to excellence in education and research and to developing close research links between our universities. The most recent initiative, which will be led by Professor Sanja Bahun, Dean of Postgraduate Research and Education, is the development of a European framework for joint doctoral programmes and comprehensive support for early career researchers.

 “a radical proposal designed to shake up existing hierarchies”

Last year, the European Union announced an initiative to create a limited number of federated European Universities, backed by significant funding. This is a radical proposal designed to shake up existing hierarchies and turbo-charge deeper engagement than currently exists in existing networks and Erasmus programmes. It is no surprise that at the University of Essex we invested time and resources in responding to this initiative. For young European universities such as ourselves, reputation and global league table position in part stems from our willingness to challenge the status quo. The European Universities Network initiative offers us an exciting opportunity for disruptive innovation in higher education.

We are delighted that, earlier this year, Essex became a founding partner in the Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE). But it is a matter of great sadness to us that so few UK universities are full members of this new form of a federated European University and the opportunities it will offer. Only Edinburgh and Warwick are participating as full members of separate consortia amongst the 17 successful networks.

The YUFE European University brings together Antwerp, Bremen, Carlos III Madrid, Essex, Maastricht, Roma Tor Vergata, Eastern Finland, Cyprus, the University of Rijeka and Nicolaus Copernicus University. We are proud that, of all submitted bids, YUFE was the top ranked alliance scoring 97/100. Our focus now is to deliver the benefits that YUFE offers for our staff and students, and for our communities.

Two of our students

Two of our dentistry students

“The scale of our ambition is striking”

The scale of our ambition is striking, with YUFE universities focused on students obtaining joint degrees based on student-centred learning, innovative pedagogies, learning of languages, physical and virtual mobility, work-based learning and the transfer of the latest research results into education programmes. Researchers will benefit from sharing infrastructure and the creation of interdisciplinary teams, where students, staff, academics and local ecosystems co-create and co-share knowledge and innovation. At the heart of the idea is a desire to shape a new generation of creative Europeans who work together across borders and across disciplines; and to enhance the global performance and competitive advantage of European universities for the benefit of individuals and society.

We will continue to provide leadership in relation to our European alliances. In addition, we are delighted that Dr Nadine Rossol has been appointed to the new role of Deputy Dean of Partnerships (Europe) and that Monica Illsley, Chief of Staff in the VC’s Office will provide additional support. In this way we are ensuring that we have the senior leadership focus to ensure we nurture the vitality of our European links, which are central to who we are and what we stand for. In this way, deepening levels of engagement with our European university partners will complement our focus on developing partnerships in other parts of the world.

Professor Anthony Forster, Vice-Chancellor.
Professor Dominic Micklewright, Dean of Partnerships.

August 8, 2019

Investing in our environmental responsibilities alongside continued growth

In the face of global environmental challenges, we recognise that as an institution we have a responsibility to adapt our approaches to resource-use to minimise our environmental impact in the face of climate change. Our Head of Sustainability, Rob Davey, tells us about the work going on across our University to ensure we meet our own targets as well as helping create a sustainable planet. 

Rob Davey, Head of Sustainability.

A number of large-scale projects have helped us get close to our target to reduce our carbon emissions by 43% by 2020-21, against a 2005 baseline – we’ve already achieved a 33% reduction, but we know we will have to go further once we have reached our target. With close to £2.5 million committed to sustainability-focused capital projects for the strategic period 2019-25, we will be able to continue to build resilience as we seek more substantial carbon savings.

Recent projects include:

  • Replacement of ageing ultra-low freezers in Biological Sciences, for new, energy efficient equipment. It’s projected that they will reduce energy demand by 70%, cutting 63 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.
  • Installation of six new electric vehicle charging points on the North side of the Colchester campus, doubling our provision.
  • Roll out of a new centrally-managed print service which will see a switch from over 1,200 desktop printers to 177 multifunction devices (MFDs). The new MFDs are more energy efficient and by default print in mono and double-sided.
  • Solar panels are installed on all new buildings – you’ll find them on the STEM, Innovation Centre, Sports Arena and more, and we are investing to install more to achieve 5.5% on-site generation of electricity.

We have installed a total of 12 electric vehicle charging points at Colchester Campus.

In the coming years we will need to take bigger and bolder steps in order to further reduce emissions and embed sustainability more widely across the University. Our Sustainability Sub-Strategy will be reviewed and relaunched for 2020-25, and we will explore opportunities to make our campuses net-zero carbon. Reducing waste overall, and improving recycling will continue to be a priority; over the last 9 years waste has declined overall by 39%, but we will need to go further and be more radical in our approaches.

Following considerable work to identify ways to improve and demonstrate our work to date, we are now ranked 44th in the People & Planet University League, a huge jump from our previous position of 124th. This creates real positivity for the coming year, and what we can achieve next. We have also won the Green Flag Award for the third year running, and Wivenhoe Park was the only University to be in the top 10 of the 2018 People’s Choice for the UK’s favourite parks.

Our biggest challenge is to think differently – something we are all responsible for. Every department within the University has the potential to embed sustainability into their work, making it business as usual. Engaging with colleagues cross the University is on-going to understand changes that can be made. Procurement includes sustainability criteria in all large tenders, while Essex Food has developed their Ethics Food programme to focus on healthy and sustainable choices across their outlets.

Multi function printers are more energy efficient and print in mono and double sided.

If you have an idea or suggestion for ways to adapt your working processes that you would like to discuss, contact the Sustainability team:

July 12, 2019

Investing in our future

We are a University investing in our future. Here our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster, tells us about the exciting developments that form our Capital Investment Plan.

We are a University with an ambitious strategic plan and to support this we have embarked upon an unprecedented staff recruitment cycle and we are expecting to welcome a record number of new students this year.

To ensure that we deliver our commitment to excellence in education and research and support the growth of the University to 20,00 students and 1,000 researchers by 2025, we are announcing £225m of capital investment. This will create exciting new facilities as well as further develop and enhance existing infrastructure across our three campuses. Funded through both annual cash surpluses and additional borrowing of £80 million, these investments will allow us to continue putting our students at the heart of everything we do.

Our new north teaching centre 2 will provide bespoke teaching and learning space.

To provide a transformational environment for both education and research we will be investing in:

  • A new academic building at Colchester Campus
  • A new teaching centre at Colchester Campus
  • New student accommodation at Colchester Campus – 1,250 bed spaces delivered in two phases
  • A new studio building at Loughton Campus

While new buildings form part of our plans, we will also make more efficient and effective use of our existing space; including reconfiguring offices, enhancing teaching spaces and libraries and refurbishing laboratories. By upgrading our physical and digital environment we hope to foster a culture of collaboration and team work. We will reconfigure and refurbish existing work and study spaces, knocking down real and perceived barriers, promoting partnerships and strong relationships across teams, departments and sections.

Infrastructure enhancement

To meet our ambitious research aspirations we are investing in:

  • Our research facilities through a programme of improvement works for our existing laboratories and equipment. Refurbishments to lab spaces and equipment for Health and Social Care and Computer Science and Electronic Engineering have recently been completed and a refurbishment of lab spaces and equipment for Sport Rehabilitation and Exercise Science is planned for this summer along with development of the glasshouse facility for Biological Sciences.
  • A new double height studio at Loughton Campus is set to be completed by Sept 2020.

    We will work to enhance our existing 1960s estate, making the very best of the space that we have. We will improve learning spaces by enhancing teaching equipment, furniture and spaces, and provide flexible environments for varied teaching styles.

  • The refurbishment of our six iconic Towers at Colchester Campus will continue, with works expected to be completed by 2023/24.
  • We will deliver on our commitment to excellence in education by redesigning our online learning modules and creating digitised training materials, improving student assessment systems and developing timetabling and room booking systems.
  • We will also deliver a new curriculum management system, build a new Learning Gateway, upgrade our in-house student information system and develop our admissions system.
  • Our ambitious website project Phase 3 will also continue, aiming to give our students a seamless and personalised experience online.
  • We will investigate solutions for better research data storage and evolve our digital services as part of the software anywhere project.
  • We will procure a new finance planning, scenario and budgeting tool to ensure we have accurate scenario analysis and we will upgrade our email infrastructure and improve our commercial email security.

New facilities – enabling growth and transformation

A new academic building at Colchester Campus will accommodate our new academic staff as well as enhancing the learning experience for our students. The building will incorporate multi-functional learning spaces, collaborative spaces, study spaces, event space, a common room, department receptions and a café. The build is planned for the North of campus and will incorporate the refurbishment of Rayleigh Square which will provide outdoor space for social and study purposes.

New studio space will allow East 15 Loughton Campus to expand their course offering, enhancing their student experience and allowing for growth.

Carbon reduction

Our Innovation Centre is now open on the Knowledge Gateway.

We have ambitious carbon reduction and energy saving targets and our work in this area will continue. We will continue to install photovoltaic panels on our buildings and will move towards more modern, energy-efficient systems. We will also ensure our new builds are highly energy-efficient.

Knowledge Gateway

Both the Innovation Centre and Parkside Office Village phase 2 have recently completed and we will now look for funding to support the further development of both sites.

This is another exciting phase in our journey and we will keep you updated as to the progress of these works.

June 28, 2019

Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE) is born

We heard this week that the YUFE network has been successful in its bid to become one of the first 17 networks funded by the European Commission to pilot the concept of a new European University model. Our Chief of Staff, Monica Illsley, tells us more.

Monica Illsley

Our Chief of Staff, Monica Illsley

Having worked on the bid over the last year with the seven other research intensive, student-focussed universities from across Europe*, we have built strong relationships, based on mutual understanding and trust, and we are excited about what we can achieve together and to advance the missions of our individual universities.

While we have been preparing for the possibility of a positive outcome, now that it is a reality and our network has been funded (€5 million over the 3-year pilot phase with the prospect of further funding should our model prove successful), we each need to put in place mechanisms to enable our Universities to work together to implement the commitments set out in our bid.

A summary of what we have undertaken to do is available now, but what I hope to do through this blog is to try to share a sense of the vision and of what this week’s success means for our University.

The European Commission’s vision is to support the creation of a number of truly European Universities which it sees as:

  • transnational alliances of higher education institutions from across the EU that share long-term strategy and promote European values and identity;
  • inter-university campuses around which students, doctoral candidates, staff and researchers can move seamlessly;
  • Universities that will pool their expertise, platforms and resources to deliver joint curricula covering various disciplines;
  • with students having the flexibility to personalise their education, choosing what, where and when to study and achieve a European degree.

But how do we go about making it a reality and how might our students and staff benefit? Each network has put forward its own distinct model that it will test during the pilot phase. As a YUFE member, we envisage:

  • giving our students and staff access to a range of opportunities at seven other young research universities in seven different countries;
  • building a YUFE-wide education system that is open, accessible and inclusive, founded on the central principle of putting students at the forefront of everything we do;
  • designing and delivering YUFE Open Programmes (at all study levels) that will make Europe-wide higher education and seamless physical and virtual mobility a reality for students;
  • YUFE-wide education and research collaborations that will focus on contributing to addressing key current and future global societal challenges (ie European identity and responsibilities in a global world; Citizens well-being; Digital societies; and Sustainability);
  • our graduates having the opportunity to achieve an additional YUFE Diploma Supplement recognised throughout Europe which they will earn through accumulating recognition of mobility, language learning, professional training, work experience and community volunteering;
  • our academic and professional services staff benefiting from a range of enhanced YUFE-wide career and development opportunities;
  • enhanced working with our region (through Essex County Council) and the regions of the other seven partners who have all committed to a range of initiatives including: tapping in to the YUFE Talent and Expert Pool and to knowledge-creating and knowledge-translating Challenge Teams made up of students, researchers, citizens and professionals from the public and private sector who will work together to seek to better understand and address global, regional and local challenges; building entrepreneurial capacity; and enabling meaningful community volunteering.

We will share our experiences with our partners, benefit from their expertise and experience, and develop initiatives together for the benefit of current and future students and staff.

We cannot be sure what the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU might be for our involvement in YUFE. What we do know is that it is precisely through our involvement in these kinds of initiatives that we hope to be able to maintain and grow our European links for the benefit of our students and staff.  We are fortunate to have established strong partnerships in recent years with 17 European Universities through our membership of Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN). It is this alliance that led to us being invited to join YUFE and I have no doubt that it will continue to open doors for us to collaborate with universities in Europe. In the meantime, our YUFE partners value the unique contribution that we can make to the alliance and the significant commitment that we have made towards ensuring the successful bid and have agreed unanimously that Essex should continue to be a full member of YUFE for as long as, and in whatever way, possible.

As we move into the delivery phase, we will provide further updates about how staff and students can get involved with this exciting new initiative.

*YUFE full partners are: Maastricht University (Netherlands), Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain), University of Antwerp (Belgium), University of Bremen (Germany), University of Cyprus (Cyprus), University of Eastern Finland, University of Essex, University of Rome Tor Vergata (Italy)

YUFE associated partners are: European Entrepreneurs CMA-PME, Kiron Open Higher Education, Nicolaus Copernicus University of Torún (Poland), The Adecco Group (France), The Educational Testing Service Global, The University of Rijeka (Croatia)

June 24, 2019

Annual Meeting 2019 – Our year’s achievements

Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster, shared some of our major achievements as part of this year’s Annual Meeting. Read his full speech here.

I would like to start by highlighting one of the best things that has happened for us this year: being named University of the Year by the Times Higher.

These annual awards really are the Oscars of Higher Education – and this honour is recognition of the impact that we are making here at the University of Essex.

One of the Times Higher Education awards judges said “This is a university that is putting people first.” And we have done this by seeking to live up to the founding vision and our values by putting students and staff success at the centre of what we do”.

The award panel pointed to many proof points – including a systematic decasualisation of our workforce, ensuring we have no pay gaps by grade so that there is equal pay for work of equal value, and creating staff contracts for graduate teaching assistants. They also singled out that we are ‘unabashed’ in our strategy to recruit students based on potential rather than just prior achievement and that we really do help all our students fulfil their aspirations.

The Panel said “…what are universities if not communities of talented, committed people? By putting those people, both staff and students first, the University of Essex has every right to its claim to be a “home for staff and students who want to make the world a better place.” It is also our University of the Year.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to everyone in this room for their part in supporting us, and to our whole community whose commitment to our work is the reason we received this recognition. I have been touched by the response of our alumni and our international partners that they are proud of their association with Essex and what we stand for.

Becoming University of the Year is only one of our many achievements and I would like to introduce more highlights from an amazing year for the University of Essex.

For the benefit of people and communities

Students at our Southend Campus.

Students at our Southend Campus.

We are a growing university of 16,500 students and 2,200 staff, and this year we have seen a record number of applications in students wanting to study here at Essex.

Despite unprecedented challenges within our sector, the uncertainties of Brexit, and the Augar Review of post-18 education funding, we continue to focus on our unwavering commitment to providing excellence in education and research for the benefit of people and communities.

As we grow, we are doing so by building on a foundation of prudent financial management to ensure we are, and remain,  financially secure.

We also remain confident about our future. I am delighted that we are advertising 100 new academic posts and 50 new professional services posts, the largest single expansion of our University since our foundation in 1964.

And we hope to submit over 600 staff to the government research assessment exercise in 2021, nearly double the number of staff we submitted in 2014.

These appointments are a response to the record number of students who want to study with us, and our desire to increase our research power so that we are not viewed as a small University that undertakes great research, but instead are recognised as a leading university for both the quality and quantity of our research.

I am delighted to say, that alongside the accolade of being the Times Higher Education University of the Year, we are firmly established in the top 30 in the UK in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019 rankings.

Essex is now ranked Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework, the highest government rating of teaching quality, and I am delighted that we continue to put student success and offering a transformational education at the centre of all that we do.

True to our mission, over 40% of our UK students come from households with an income of less than £25,000 a year, and we are now the most socially inclusive university in the Times Good University Guide top 30.

We have maintained our top 15 position for overall student satisfaction in English mainstream universities. At departmental level, we are now in the top 50 for social sciences in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and 51st for Law.  And, our East 15 Acting School is now ranked first in the Good University Guide 2019 for drama, the first time an Essex department has been ranked first in the country in a subject league table.

We continue to work hard to improve an Essex Education and we are seeing long-term improvements in assessment and feedback, and continuing to invest in learning resources.

This has included a significant increase in the number of staff gaining professional recognition or a teaching qualification over the past six years, now 61%, and this rate has consistently exceeded the sector average for this period.

We also continue to increase our spending on facilities and academic services per student and we are ranked in the top 10 in the UK for facilities spend on students for the last four years. This year we are fifth in the country for the amount we spend on our students.

University can be tough

A student at our Student Services Hub

A student at our Student Services Hub.

University can be a tough time. In recognising this, we have increased our expenditure on mental health support services by 23% in the past year, and we have improved these services. We now provide a helpline support service, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to our students. We have also increased our drop-in service availability by 80%. This means any student who needs support can be seen, and seen much more quickly.

In February, the University came into disrepute for antisemitism. Robust action has been taken to address this, including a review, which will be considered by Council in July. At Essex we have a tradition of coming together to demonstrate our support for each other as individuals and as a community. This is why 500 staff, students and members of the wider community, came together on our Colchester Campus to show support and solidarity for our Jewish students and staff.

We have also had to confront the unacceptable behaviour in the form of sexual assaults on our campuses and respond to complaints about the University’s handling of sexual assault cases by our students. Our procedures are overly complicated and bureaucratic; the time we have taken to resolve some of these cases has left students in a very difficult position and created uncertainty for them; and we need to do more to keep complainants up-to-date on our investigations. A review involving students is underway and will draw on independent advice and guidance and we will put in place a new student code of conduct for the start of next term.

A cosmopolitan university

Graduands at our Asia Graduation.

Graduands at our Asia graduation.

Almost three years to the day, 23 June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU. We remain a cosmopolitan university committed to inclusivity and a University where you can find the world in one place and we have worked hard to ensure we continue to attract the very best talent from around the world.

We are second in the UK for international outlook. 34% of our students and 30% of our staff are from outside the UK, making us the most international mainstream university in the UK outside London.

In response to external challenges and uncertainty, and the new opportunities to play a part as Global Britain, we are increasing our efforts in building collaboration and partnerships across continents, to strengthen the Essex degree and our global reputation.

Today 41% of Essex students study for an Essex degree via our global partners, including the University of Essex Online, Kaplan Singapore, and Brickfields Asia College in Malaysia. Our online degrees have the highest levels of student satisfaction of any online provider in the UK. We now have 18 international academic partnerships and 146 friendship and progression agreements with other universities.

This year we hosted two very successful overseas graduation ceremonies for 200 students at our Asia graduation ceremony in Beijing in February, and for 100 in Singapore in April.

Another exciting partnership is our flagship programme with North West University in Xi’an, which by the 2019-2020 academic year will see 350 first, second and third year students registered on a joint course,  taught in English and Mandarin, and we will welcome our first cohort of 116 students to Colchester for their studies in October 2020.

At this time it’s more important than ever to forge international partnerships with universities that share our mission and values. In March, we launched the Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE) Alliance, with seven other European universities. This will see us nurture the links that our universities have built-up with European partners through research, education and staff exchanges. It will help us further our commitment to innovation, staff and student mobility, and enriching the economic, social and cultural life of our region. YUFE students will learn in the lecture theatre, but also through work experience placements and through a focus on social action. This is an exciting initiative which will offer students and staff more than a conventional exchange placement: they will be fully integrated into the institution, can make use of all the services, and take advantage of the strong connections between YUFE institutions.

Over the past year, as part of our Essex Abroad programme, we have doubled the number of summer schools available at overseas institutions in our drive to encourage students to take up the opportunity to experience living and working overseas.

A university with impact

Students in a lecture.

We are committed to providing excellence in education and research.

I am pleased that the Edge Hotel School became a full academic department in our Faculty of Humanities and our 21st academic department earlier in the year. As part of the faculty Edge Hotel School is building on the exceptional reputation and profile it has established in the hospitality and education sectors since its launch in 2012.

It is the first school of its kind in the country to provide industry-led two-year degrees covering hotel management, events management and hospitality, from the luxury four–star Wivenhoe House Hotel.

The THE University of the Year award recognised Essex as a university with impact. We make an impact in many ways, through our research and education, but also to society and to the local, regional and the national economy.

Our research looks for solutions, it helps to put ideas into practice, and through our research we are demonstrating our commitment as a university helping to make the world a better place.

Our Catalyst project with Suffolk and Essex County Councils is improving public services for the most vulnerable people in our communities, through predicting risk, and targeting services more effectively through the use of data analysis and cutting-edge technology.

Areas of focus include identifying ‘at risk’ children and adults, evaluating the impact of public services, mapping community assets, and establishing a powerful community volunteering hub.

We are also making a difference through a unique three-way partnership with Essex County Council and Essex Police through the Essex Centre for Data Analysis. This new centre is doing amazing work for the people and communities of Essex, by seeking to tackle system-wide public policy issues through the smarter use of data.

The partnership involves a core team of 12 people, supported by technology, to offer a way for councils, police, health, and voluntary and community organisations in Essex to use the power of data to tackle some of the most challenging issues. We believe the project to be so powerful, influential and transformative that we have recently submitted it for the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

Another ground-breaking project we are involved with is Enabling innovation, research to application, where we are one of seven universities and colleges across the East of England transforming the way businesses connect with universities and colleges, to drive growth and increase productivity.

Reflecting the amazing work of our staff at Essex, I am delighted to say that we received our largest amount of research funding in the last year, totalling £43 million.

Our headline research project funding includes £16m for the next wave of Understanding Society, the UK’s household longitudinal survey,  and the largest household panel study in the world, that collects data to provide vital insights into the causes and consequences of social change. The project is led by the Institute of Social and Economic Research, based here at Essex, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Also, £5.8m for the Research Centre on Micro-Social Change, MiSOC, an internationally recognised centre of excellence that investigates how society and policy changes influence individuals and families’ behaviour and wellbeing.

And our Business and Local Government Data Research Centre has received £1.2m, to continue to help public sector organisations harness the power of their data through advanced analytics.

Another breakthrough research project, which has received £1.8m, will focus on how urban soil supports the ecosystem. This will provide, for the first time, a comprehensive assessment of the relationship between the urban soil environment, its biodiversity, and ecosystem processes and functions.

We are also working with Public Health England, to explore innovative ways of working together, including research, apprenticeships, student exchange and scholarships. And we are very pleased that Health Education England have provided additional funding for oral health courses at our Southend Campus and we are currently working on plans to expand the provision of teaching in this subject, which represents a growing subject area within our health and social care portfolio.

Our social impact

Students at our Big Bang Science Fair.

Students at our Big Bang Science Fair.

One of our outstanding achievements is our social impact. Our work offers real benefit for people and communities, particularly those facing social, economic, political and cultural challenges. In a report to be published this summer, we outline the significant contribution we make to help empower society through a range of activities from world-leading research to volunteering and hands-on support for business.

Our students are central to the positive effect we have on our local communities. We are proud of our students’ achievements in volunteering and social action. This year, the Students’ Union V-Team has dedicated more than 36,000 hours of volunteering, a record 2,000 hours more than last year.

This is across a range of some 90 projects: volunteering on our refugee training programme to teaching local schoolchildren; supporting conservation projects, to decorating local community centres; taking part in our ‘golden age’ programme where students befriend elderly residents in care homes, to stewarding at national events, such as Remembrance Sunday.

Our schools’ outreach programme goes from strength to strength, focusing on schoolchildren in our region to think about their future in higher education, irrespective of their background. By the end of this academic year, we expect to have worked with 12,000 students from over 100 schools and colleges.

This includes a varied range of activity, such as hosting the Big Bang science festival here on our Colchester Campus; extending our Schools Membership programme to 39 schools; and the ‘Six-Six’ programme now offering 14 subjects that are taught to local sixth form students here on our Colchester Campus, by school and university staff.

In our role as the lead institution for the Essex consortium of the National Collaborative Outreach Programme, since December 2017 we have engaged with over 60,000 students from local areas where higher education participation is low.

We also continue to provide hands-on support for business, helping to create jobs and wealth for the region. This year we opened our £12m Knowledge Gateway Innovation Centre in partnership with Essex County Council and the South East LEP and the newest phase of Parkside Office Village, 1,300 square metres, is now fully occupied.

There are now 24 companies working in the Office Village and we are in the top five of all UK universities for the number of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, working with businesses to share our expertise – and Knowledge Gateway is fast becoming the location of choice in the east for knowledge based science, technology and digital creative companies.

Last month we launched our University Strategy for 2019 through to 2025, which is the result of a process of creative collaboration and input from staff, students and stakeholders, across our campus communities and beyond.

It reaffirms our mission to contribute to society through excellence in education and research by supporting students from every background to succeed; by enhancing our impact through social action; and growing our community of staff and students.

As part of this, by 2025 we want to be firmly established in the top 25 of all universities in the UK, and ranked in the top 200 of Universities globally.

This has been another amazing year for the University. But our achievements are also your achievements, so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you all to give yourselves, and our wonderful university community, a big round of applause for all the efforts you made that have helped us be crowned University of the Year.

June 19, 2019

Closing the gap between academia and policy: working with the Cabinet Office’s Open Innovation Team

Our Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Christine Raines tells us more about the University’s new collaboration with the Cabinet Office Open Innovation Team.

The University of Essex is engaging in an exciting and innovative Government initiative. We’re on a journey of discovery, not just to enter the world of No. 10, but also a completely new venture for the University.

The Open Innovation Team

University of Essex and partners at Number 10 Downing Street

Today marks the start of a three-year relationship between the Open Innovation Team in the Cabinet Office and the University of Essex, alongside Brunel, Lancaster and York Universities. On Tuesday 18 June, Vanessa Cuthill (Director, Research and Enterprise Office) and I attended a short signing ceremony at No. 10 Downing Street to formalise the relationship. Oliver Dowden, Minister for Implementation, presided over the ceremony. Read what he had to say here.

The Open Innovation Team is relatively new in Government and aims to ‘bring academics closer to the policy-making agenda’. They have already ran a successful pilot phase and we are proud to be part of the new phase 2019-2021.

As a leading dual-intensive university with a strong link between transformative education and research we have a valuable role to play in the formulation and implementation of policy. We can be a ‘go-to’ source of rigorous and evidenced-based knowledge. We are in the top 20 UK universities for research excellence and home to world-leading social science. Our Institute for Social and Economic Research holds a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education, the highest form of national recognition for the work of a UK university.

Our strategy 2019-25 highlights the value we place on research – ‘we will define the next generation of research challenges, set agendas for addressing enduring and emerging challenges, lead the advancement of knowledge and develop innovative applications of knowledge and ideas for the benefit of people and communities’. The new knowledge created by our world leading research is making a difference to people’s lives at the local, national and international levels. But we don’t do this in isolation. We work with a wide variety of partners: businesses, academics, charities and local government. But in order to maximise the impact of our research we need to be able to reach key individuals in government departments.

Through our engagement with the Open Innovation Team we are already building relations with a number of government departments. Highlights include: Professor Pete Fussey’s research, which is informing work by the Home Office on future technology in UK policing; Professor Lorna McGregor recently presented her research to the newly-created Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and is now cited a recent Parliamentary paper.

Our relationship with the Open Innovation Team brings a number of other exciting opportunities including workshops about the policy making process, internships for early career researchers and PhD placement opportunities.

May 31, 2019

Tackling sexual violence

Our Registrar, Bryn Morris, tells us more about the work the University is doing to ensure we all feel safe in our community. 

Our Registrar and Secretary, Bryn Morris.

There have been a number of complaints about the University’s handling of sexual assault cases by our students, as well as BBC coverage about an issue that is of vital importance to us all: ensuring we all feel safe, that our community is an inclusive and welcoming environment; and that we have a zero tolerance approach to all forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence. I want to provide an update on progress that we have made in addressing these issues and to set out where we have more work to do.

All cases that have been reported to us have been investigated and every effort has been made to support those involved. We have reviewed the cases highlighted by the BBC and have provided face-to-face advice and support to the students involved, including giving them information about reporting the incidents to the police. We have followed up with each student and carried out full investigations through our Student Conduct Office, based on our Code of Student Conduct.

I recognise that our procedures are overly complicated and bureaucratic; the time we have taken to resolve some of these cases has left students in a very difficult position and created uncertainty for them.  We know we need to do more to keep complainants up-to-date on our investigations. I apologise for this and I recognise that we must do better. Five specific issues have been raised:

Why have investigations taken so long?

Some of the cases in question are incredibly complex and our commitment to a thorough investigation of all the available evidence may have contributed to perceived delays. Our goal is to conclude every complaint within 60 calendar days, as recommended by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. In 2017-18 80% of complaints were resolved within this timeframe. Cases can sometimes be delayed due to ongoing police investigations, intermitting students or difficulty in reaching witnesses outside of term time. Whatever the reason, it is not acceptable that 20% of cases are not concluded within 60 days. We need to review how we further speed up the resolution of complaints and we will do so.

Why hasn’t the University encouraged students to report cases to the police?

Where students might have been subject to a crime, we want them to report incidents to the police. This is integral to our student support and student conduct protocols. We will review how advice is provided to students at every stage of our support and student conduct processes to ensure that students feel encouraged and supported in raising matters with the police. I want to encourage all students to report an incident. We have a number of routes for reporting:

What are you doing about the delays in dealing with complaints?

Our aim is to make it as straightforward as possible for members of our community to report unacceptable behaviour, including historical incidents. The introduction of the new Report and Support system, developed jointly with our Students’ Union has corresponded with an increase in the number of student conduct complaints requiring investigation. We have already allocated extra resource to enable the appointment of an Assistant Proctor for the start of the next academic year, which will speed up the handling of complaints. If we need to invest more to ensure timely handling of complaints, we will do so.

Why aren’t students being investigated or found guilty of sexual violence excluded from the University?

All conduct cases are investigated thoroughly and impartially, either immediately or once any police investigations have been concluded.  When an investigation identifies that there is a case to answer, serious cases are referred to a Student Conduct Committee comprising two members of academic staff and a student member, specially trained to undertake these roles.  The Committee decides whether the complaint is justified and if it is, what penalty should be imposed.  This can and does include expulsion but other sanctions may be imposed by the Committee.  In agreeing our new Code of Student Conduct, we will ensure that we provide greater clarity and transparency on the range of penalties that can apply in all types of conduct cases, including the most serious.

Is the University protecting its reputation rather than protecting students?

All conduct cases are investigated impartially and thoroughly with judgements reached based solely on the evidence available.  The University does not interfere in the progress of conduct cases or in their outcome.  Our current approach to handling complaints isn’t meeting the needs of our students and we will review this, ensuring students play a key role in the process.  We will also draw on external advice to make sure we get things right in future.  This open blog is part of a set of actions to acknowledge publicly that we need to do better.

Next Steps

  • We will introduce a new Code of Student Conduct prior to the start of autumn term 2019.
  • We will integrate feedback from students, the SU and the Women’s Officer in the SU, in the design of this system, to ensure it works for students and is easier to understand.
  • We will draw on independent external advice, to ensure we are creating a fair and transparent process, which supports students who make complaints.

Our goal is to ensure the University of Essex is an inclusive and welcoming environment and that we have zero tolerance to all forms of sexual harassment and violence. We have more work to do and I will keep you updated on a regular basis.

Bryn Morris

Registrar & Secretary

May 23, 2019

Academic Freedom and Inclusion

We are a University that values both academic freedom and inclusion. Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Designate), Professor Lorna Fox O’Mahony, tells us more about how we balance the freedoms and responsibilities of these dual commitments in our community. 

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, (Designate) Professor Lorna Fox O’Mahony.

Academic freedom and inclusion are dual commitments at the heart of our community. The founding charter of the University of Essex enshrines academic freedom within the law, stating that: ‘Academic staff shall have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges.’ (University of Essex Royal Charter, paragraph 22).

Inclusion is also a fundamental value that underpins how we work at Essex, how we behave, and how we treat each other within our community. Our commitment to inclusion means that we value equally every member of our community. It means nurturing an environment in which every member feels safe, supported and able to reach their potential.

Our commitment to inclusion is also reflected in our openness to new ideas, to challenging, controversial or unpopular opinions. These twin commitments – to academic freedom and to inclusion regardless of backgrounds, characteristics, opinions or ideas – are also enshrined in law. Section 43 of the Education (No.2) Act 1986 requires all those concerned in the governance of universities to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, employees and visiting speakers.

Living our values

In living up to our values of inclusion and academic freedom, a core underpinning principle is that these freedoms, values and responsibilities apply to all of us. This is why, as individuals and as a community, it is important for us to stand up for the rights of others to express (within the law) views that we may not share, as much as those we have in common. These equal freedoms are balanced by equal responsibilities: our commitment to inclusion demands that we exercise our freedoms responsibly, respectfully and with due regard to the values we share as a community.

Our values-led approach to academic freedom and inclusion is consistent with our legal obligations, which include an express duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of our premises is not denied to any individual or body on any ground connected with their beliefs or views, policy or objectives. This does not mean that any organisation or individual can speak at any university, nor does it mean that universities are required to invite anyone who wishes to speak onto our campuses. It means that we have a responsibility to take account of all of the freedoms and responsibilities at stake when making decisions about specific issues. We must also take into account the security of speakers and attendees at events and where we believe speakers will not operate within our code of practice, we do not support invitations to external speakers.

Fair and transparent decisions

The University’s dual commitments to academic freedom and inclusion also apply to the processes through which we appoint staff. Our University Ordinances (Ordinances 36, 37 and 38) set out the approach appointment panels take to ensure fair and transparent decisions based on criteria that apply to all. The University’s duty as an inclusive employer involves ensuring we make our judgements on transparent and evenly applied criteria, in a fair and objective way. This also aligns with our obligations under the Equality Act 2010, which sets out our responsibilities as individuals and as a University to be inclusive of all regardless of characteristics, beliefs or opinions.

Our regular ‘THINK’ seminars reflect our commitment to living these values by supporting students and staff to navigate difficult questions through discussion and engagement: exploring challenging views and unconventional ideas in an inclusive environment that is respectful to all. We all bear responsibilities in the ways that we exercise our freedoms and the THINK seminars provide an uplifting example of how passionately held views can be advocated with conviction on different sides of a debate in a manner that embodies the values that we are committed to upholding as a University community.

May 21, 2019

Our pledge to support students who don’t have family support

At Essex, we don’t want any of our students to feel alone and that’s why we’ve joined the Stand Alone initiative. Monica Illsley, our Chief of Staff, and Tancrede Chartier, the President of our Students’ Union explain how we support students who do not have families they can turn to for support and advice and how we can do more by working together.

How does it feel to stand alone as a student…to not be able to count on the support and approval of your family? This is the reality for students who, for one reason or another, have no contact with, and are ‘estranged’ from, their families. Yet, just like their peers, they want to succeed in life. They want to be able to pursue higher study, to experience student life to the full and, ultimately, to successfully complete a degree that will open up life opportunities for them.

At Essex, the University and Students’ Union work together to try to make all students feel welcome and to help all to achieve their full potential. That’s why we’ve signed the Stand Alone pledge – a nationwide initiative that aims to break down the barriers that can stand in the way of students who don’t have family support. We are the first university to have made a joint pledge with our students’ union.

In our Stand Alone pledge, we set out our commitment to supporting estranged students. But signing a pledge is the easy bit. Now we need to make sure that we are directing our students to resources that can help them and that we are providing the dedicated support they need.

We have started by publishing information for estranged students in one place including individualized advice, guidance and relevant specialist services that we hope will help these students to succeed in their studies. This includes, for example, named advisors to provide a first point of contact for support for each student who is without a family network, giving priority to their applications to our hardship fund to ease their financial concerns, and providing longer accommodation contracts if they need to bridge the gap between academic years.

But we are committed to doing more and want to encourage students without family support to make themselves heard and to seek support – both to improve their own chances of success but also to help us better understand their needs so that we can support others.

We’re training our staff to raise awareness, reviewing our bursary support and working on strengthening how we refer students to specialist support organisations but we need your help.

If you are a student who has no contact with your parents, please get in touch. We really want to ensure you are getting the support you need and to hear your views and gather ideas that will help inform our new Stand Alone action plan.


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