Students Staff
University of Essex

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.

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