As part of the Annual Meeting and Summer Reception, our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster, gave a speech outlining our successes. Read on to find out about how we’re leading the way in education and research, business engagement and alumni and student volunteering and achieving great things in sustainability and sport.
I am absolutely delighted that for the first time since 2019, we are able to meet face-to-face and first and foremost I want to offer my personal thanks to you for your support to our students and staff, and the success of the University of Essex. Your support has made the world of difference in so many different ways – thank you.
The University of Essex stands out from other universities because we are equally committed to excellence in education and research, and we recruit our students on the basis of potential as well as prior achievement – because we are great at spotting talent and unlocking potential – and I’m proud that, 58 years since the University of Essex opened its doors, this remains our focus.
Over the last decade, we have also recognised that growth is essential to ensure that the subjects and disciplines that we cover have critical mass; that we are in the top 30 of universities in terms of research power; and, that we benefit from economies of scale in all areas of our work. And so we are now in the position that we have over 18,000 students, 858 researchers (an increase of 4.4% on the previous year), 1,132 academic staff and 1,420 professional services staff and our turnover is £260 million. We have gone from being one of the smallest multi-faculty universities in England, to being a medium sized university, with all the benefits this brings.
It is wonderful that we have grown, but I am equally pleased that our values remain the same: our equal commitment to education and research; our commitment to internationalism; our focus on recruiting students on the basis of potential as well as prior achievement; and the power of education to transform lives.
In the context of the very significant impact of COVID on the University, which for example last year reduced the financial contribution from campus services by £16 million compared with pre-pandemic years – through very careful stewardship of income and expenditure, the significant slowing down of our capital/refurbishment programme and a focus on liquidity, the University is in a stable financial position. In Academic Year 2020/21 we generated a cash surplus of 5.7%, and we have 140 days of liquidity as at 31 July 2021, with total long-term debt £144.9 million. The University was fully compliant with our banking covenants and is on track to remain so.
Our University Council is keen to ensure we do not overestimate the speed of our bounce back coming out of the pandemic – and we have therefore extended our recovery period by an extra year to 2025, we have reduced our minimum cash surplus target over the next 3 years from 5.5% to a minimum of 3% this year, 4% next year and then back to a minimum of 5.5% which is the level that places us on a long-term sustainable footing.
And in turning to our Education successes, in the last academic year I am pleased to report:
Behind these statistics are of course many individual stories and it was wonderful recognition that Dr Liam Jarvis was awarded the Most Innovative Teacher award at the 2021 Times Higher Education Awards. Liam was recognised for his quick thinking and imaginative response to the COVID-19 lockdown, transforming his intensive creative theatre workshop into a unique online learning experience. In a matter of weeks, Liam sent virtual reality headsets around the world allowing his students to watch performances and take part in storytelling workshops. Also celebrating at the event, were our University Library and Cultural Services team who were finalists in the Outstanding Library Team category for an amazing second time in three years. The team was recognised for its response to the pandemic, for taking a user-centred approach and transforming the Library’s support for teaching, learning and research, and ensuring that students could get personalised support wherever they were in the world.
We were also recognised in the “Levelling Up Universities Awards 2021” for our work to boost opportunities for young people through the “Make Happen” project which is based at the University and is part of the Office for Students’ UniConnect programme.
In 2021 our Students’ Union was ranked first in the UK for national Student Volunteering Week. Through the work of our Volunteering Team, we had the highest number of projects; the highest number of active volunteers; and the highest number of volunteering hours of any University in the UK. Our students have continued to have a positive impact on the wider Essex community through volunteering a new record of 2,046 hours in Student Volunteering Week contributing to a total of 42,000 hours this year. I am in awe of the hard work and dedication of our wonderful students who have taken up a wide range of opportunities to help others, despite the challenges of a global pandemic and restricted access to traditional volunteering activities.
Since we last met in 2019, campus developments of note include:
Maintaining our relationship with universities in the European Union remains critical to achieving our global ambition to be recognised for research and education excellence.
Both partnerships go some way towards overcoming the 70% reduction in EU students now coming to Essex, and are a key part of our strategy to maintain the richness and diversity of our student body. It is core to our identity that at Essex you can find the world in one place.
In recent years we have launched a number of other partnerships across the globe.
We have also seen substantial developments in relation to student and staff wellbeing and highlights include:
In the latest Research Excellence Framework results, released last month, Essex was confirmed in the top 10 for five subjects, based on the Times Higher Education’s research power measure. This takes into account the key areas of the Research Excellence Framework – research outputs, impact and environment – and the size of the research community in each Unit of Assessment.
Our institutional Grade Point Average has also increased. Compared with 2014, our overall proportion of top-rated research has increased from 29.5% to 37.8%. We have improved our overall Grade Point Average in 13 out of 14 Units of Assessment – and reflecting investment in new areas of research we submitted to three new Units of Assessment.
It is very encouraging that some of our largest departments – those that have grown the most since 2014 – have performed well in both relative and absolute terms, with Law rising to 19th in the UK and Computer Science and Electronic Engineering rising to 28th. Some of our smaller departments have also performed exceptionally well, notably Languages and Linguistics now ranked 3rd in the UK.
And I am absolutely delighted that our world class strength in Social Sciences is underscored by economics, languages and linguistics, politics, and sociology being ranked top 10 in the UK. No other University has all these four Social Science subjects ranked in the top 10 in the UK.
We have continued to invest in our research facilities to ensure that we can attract and retain the very best researchers. This includes a recently completed £1.89 million refurbishment for Life Sciences to allow collaboration nationally and internationally in marine biology, which relates to our broader climate emergency agenda and structural biology expertise.
One of the highlights of this year has been the launch of our Institute of Public Health and Wellbeing directed by Professor Ciara de Cesare. Launched in February, we want the Institute to quickly become an international centre of excellence, bringing together interdisciplinary research strengths to tackle public health priorities in close collaboration with local partners. Partnership will remain key and I want to thank Provide community interest company, North East Essex and South Suffolk Clinical Commissioning Group and Health Education East of England for their generous support in helping us launch this Institute.
We have been able to extend the impact of the Institute through the development of six ‘Health and Social Care Hubs’. A 14 million-pound new building on the Knowledge Gateway will house the Institute and offer state of the art teaching and clinic spaces, intended to transform health and social care in the region and strengthen our connection with community and sector partners. In addition, Health Education East of England have awarded us a grant of 3 million pounds to equip new ‘Health and Social Care Hubs’ which will support our community, offering health and wellbeing facilities, and filling gaps in current services; providing easy access for partners to benefit from the University’s knowledge and expertise, skills and talent – as well as providing high quality clinical placements for our students, who are the future healthcare workforce.
We constantly remind ourselves that the University of Essex was founded ‘in’, ‘by’ and ‘for’ the people of Essex, and I am delighted that alongside the amazing graduates we produce, the University contributes £500 million pounds to the Essex regional economy through our activities on our Southend, Colchester and Loughton campuses.
Business engagement remains a key priority for us. In 2019 our 34-acre research and technology park, Knowledge Gateway was selected by the UK Government and Research England as one of 20 University Enterprise Zones to drive innovation. The University and our partners have invested over £80 million in Knowledge Gateway, including relocating our Essex Business School adjacent to the site, the development of a 3,700 metre square Innovation Centre, and 2,900 metres squared of office space for small and medium sized enterprises in 7 purpose-built buildings.
We want Knowledge Gateway to be a national centre of excellence for businesses in high-value, knowledge-based sectors that benefit from the University’s research expertise and we are proud to have benefited from the support of our community, the South East LEP and Essex County Council – and that the development of Knowledge Gateway is a top ten strategic project for Essex County Council.
I am pleased that the momentum in developing Knowledge Gateway is being sustained, through a £14 million 5,000 metres squared building at the Colchester entrance, due for completion in May 2023 – and it is this new building which will house various business and research units, including our Institute of Public Health and Wellbeing.
I am proud that the Government’s first ever Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) confirmed Essex as one of the best universities for engaging with the community and helping generate local growth and regeneration. We were ranked in the top 3 of all universities for our work with the public and third sector; and in the top 20% for our public and community engagement contributing to local growth and regeneration.
These achievements reflect our long-standing commitment to long term research collaborations. With 40 current awards worth a total of £10 million pounds, we are also ranked first out of all universities in the UK for the number of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships we have been awarded. Since 2001 we have been awarded over 100 KTPs worth £20 million pounds with half of these being delivered in the last 5 years.
Our physical campuses at Southend, Loughton and Colchester remain central to our student and staff experience, but also to our wider role in our communities. In the latest Green Flag People’s Choice Awards to find the UK’s best green spaces, Wivenhoe Park was once again placed in the top ten in the UK following a public vote – the only university to be in the top 10. This is a real honour and great recognition of the special nature of the Park.
Seeing our campuses flourish in recent months has been wonderful. We are keenly aware of the need to use our amazing spaces to help build and nurture a strong sense of community. Just one such example is our wonderful Essex Sports Arena on our Colchester campus, a 1,600-seater space that hosts a wide range of sporting events many of which are open to the public – the largest indoor arena in the east of England, and amongst the largest of any university in the UK. As well as being the home of our British Universities and Colleges Sport national champions women’s basketball team and a number of other league-winning teams, it is open to our local community not just for sporting events, but for conferences, exhibitions, trade and craft shows, celebrations, weddings and dance events.
I am very proud of the ‘game day’ experience that accompanies sports games in the Arena, with great music, entertainment and competitions. The experience is so good I simply can’t believe anyone here might not have been experienced this. But if this is the case, as you make your way over to the Summer Reception this afternoon, there will be students offering you complimentary tickets to matches. We would absolutely love to have your support – and you have my personal guarantee that for the couple of hours you are in the Arena you will have the time of your life.
In December 2020, we declared an ecological and climate emergency and agreed an action plan to reach net zero by 2035. Our Sustainability Sub-Strategy sets out how we deliver excellence in education and excellence in research within the context of a climate emergency. We know that addressing our impact will require: the right environment, moments of transition, changing the way that we do things, progressing a broad range of initiatives, and a truly collaborative approach with our community.
Our Sustainability Sub-Strategy defines, and enables us to measure progress on, our journey to net zero carbon emissions and to substantially reducing the University’s environmental impact. We will do this by:
To help us measure our progress, we made a submission in the Times Higher Education World Impact rankings which compares the contribution universities make to 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. We are absolutely delighted that in our very first submission, the University was ranked=76th in the World out of 1,406 institutions. This is wonderful recognition of our commitment, progress and success in relation to sustainability and the impact we have on society.
In the 2021 People and Planet University League Table, the University is ranked 20th for Carbon Management and 27th for our approach to Sustainable Food. We have reduced our carbon emissions by 28% since 2005 and we now use 100% certified renewable electricity. The solar panels installed on campus roofs already provide 2.5% of our electricity needs, with installation of more solar panels underway to increase this to 5%. We have also established a task force to reduce our energy consumption over the next 12 months.
Finally, I want to say a little about our amazing University of Essex graduates.
In the most recent Study UK Alumni Awards we had 5 Essex graduates shortlisted at national level and a further 6 Essex graduates were shortlisted at regional level. For the fourth year running we have had alumni in the Global Finals of the Awards with our two global finalists being recognised out of over 1,500 applications which is amazing. This makes this year our most successful year for Essex participating in the Study UK Alumni Awards. We are very proud of the achievements of our graduates and the fact that they have been recognised on this global platform. Their achievement really does help to demonstrate how so many of our Essex graduates embody the Essex Spirit when they graduate.
Our alumni also continue to support the institution through volunteering and this year alone amassed 177 volunteer engagements – and this matters more than ever. These have included: 90 of our former students being guest speakers at our events; 25 interviews and blogs; and more than 60 graduate profiles being produced inspiring our current students. Our alumni’s passion and desire to give back to the next generation of Essex students and the wider local community, is exemplified through this work and I am pleased that we have recruited even more new alumni volunteers this year.
And I would like to extend my thanks to all of you who have been willing to support this generation of students, through generosity in donating to hardship funds, mentoring and offering work experience and in many other ways. If you are able to help, please let us know – we want to do all that we can to ensure that this is not a forgotten generation
In conclusion, as you will know, John Bercow announced his decision to step down as Chancellor in November of last year, having served more than four years in the role which he had held since 2017. John said it has been a pleasure and an honour to be able to support the University in his role as Chancellor over the past four years and Essex has remained an important part of his life since he graduated in 1985. We have thanked John for his service and will shortly commence the search for John’s successor – and we will be sure to let Court Members know how you can engage in this process.
I am delighted that our University remains a draw for students from across the globe and I have no doubt that Essex students, graduates and researchers will continue to play a central role in a post pandemic recovery – the World needs Essex more than ever – and we are well placed to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Thank you.
This part of the afternoon, is an opportunity for me to thank you for your support and generosity in supporting the University – and to share with you our exciting new fundraising appeal.
Over the last two years we have rightly focused our fundraising efforts on emergency support through our Hardship Fund – and thanks to our amazing community of donors, many of whom are here today, we have raised an amazing £300,000 pounds. I want to express my sincere thanks to everyone who has supported our students in this way.
As we move on from the pandemic, a commitment to support every student from every background to achieve something special, remains at the very heart of our mission.
Access to education should not just be for the elite, and your family’s financial circumstances should not be the determining factor as to whether you can make it to university or not. However, we know that, for many students, financial support remains the difference between fulfilling their potential, or missing out.
44% of our UK undergraduate students come from households with incomes of less than £25,000 and, of our local students, two fifths are from the most deprived areas in the County of Essex. While we are proud that Essex is a university for all, I cannot help but think of those trailblazers and changemakers that have not come to Essex because their dream of an education felt out of their reach.
That’s why today, I’m proud to launch our ‘Essex Futures’ appeal. For this exciting new appeal, we have set ourselves an ambitious fundraising target of £1m, to provide scholarships and bursaries to those students who may otherwise miss out on fulfilling their potential. With your support, ‘Essex Futures’ will build a long-term scholarships programme, raising vital funds to support ambitious students unlock their potential. This will include young people from under-represented groups including care-leavers, those from low-income households, refugees or students who are the first in their family to go to university.
At a time when the world is facing so many challenges, we believe it needs more Essex graduates.
I am therefore delighted to announce that thanks to the generosity of a small number of alumni and founding donors, we have already raised the substantial sum of £50,000 to kick start our appeal.
I hope that you will consider joining me in making a donation to our ‘Essex Futures’ appeal, to help unlock the potential of tomorrow’s pioneers, innovators and trailblazers. They are the future but they need our support now.
You are now going to hear directly from three current scholarship recipients sharing their aspirations and how they want to help change the world. They epitomise the future Essex pioneers, innovators and trailblazers who we believe can make an impact in our world.
I would like to invite you to join our scholars and our donors on the Silberrad Deck for drinks and light refreshments, where we encourage you to talk to them, to find out more – and if you can, to become a supporter. Thank you very much.
Vice-Chancellor, University of Essex
Anthony has been the Vice-Chancellor since 2012 and is a Professor of Politics and International Relations. His research focused on European and British foreign and security policy, and for four years Anthony was the Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union.