Pandemic is putting Gloucestershire universities through examination of a lifetime

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 10 June 2020 9:11

Universities are used to examinations, but the test that all three Gloucestershire’s are sitting currently has only two outcomes – one is success and the other does not bear thinking about. 

No pressure then, as the three institutions which have done so much to put the county on the map world-wide as a place of excellence sit what you could call ‘the exam of a lifetime’. 

The vexing question (complete with a thousand coded caveats), reads ‘how do you run and lead multi-million-pound businesses essential for our economic prosperity through a pandemic unscathed?’ - and it came with no revision period. 

Pictured: Stephen Marston, courtesy of Cheltenham creative communications agency Mighty.

Part of the answer is apparent already – it simply cannot be done entirely ‘unscathed’. But what this means it yet to be truly felt, although millions of pounds have disappeared from the balance sheets already. 

The other, rather longer and more complicated answer is still being written – but those grappling with the ever-changing conundrum are confident all will be well, if not better than before in the longer term. It may sound premature, but this is a sector which knows its subject now probably better than ever. 

“We suddenly had a huge task on our hands. Nine thousands students had to leave campus, some needed to stay, we had to work out how we could get others take their final exams and graduate, and continue to deliver course for everyone else,” said Stephen Marston, the vice chancellor of the £80 million turnover University of Gloucestershire – managing to sound like he’d met a rather tricky crossword puzzle rather than a task that would leave most flustered. 

“We very quickly set up the Coronavirus Response Team and then told every member of staff to look at how they could deliver their module online.” 

Some of those subjects lent themselves more easily to the task, others - for a university which delivers everything from accounting, business management and animal biology to sports business and coaching and urban planning - were more challenging. 

“We knew it had to be done quickly and set ourselves a deadline of March 31.” 

It has been a team effort, said Mr Marston, not hiding his respect for staff, technical and teaching, and students who all made it. The deadline was met on both of its campuses – Cheltenham and Gloucester. That was stage one. 

North of Gloucester Hartpury University continued to look its usual picture of magnificence, but it too entered crisis management – while projecting the same calm and delivering its own quick-silver response. 

Not that is has not felt the body blows too. 

“We have already lost a lot of income. A whole summer’s worth - the best part of £2 million,” said Russell Marchant (pictured immediately above), the vice chancellor of the campus regarded as a centre of excellence and lauded by Ofsted on more than one occasion. 

“We can mitigate some of that loss, but the impact on the bottom line is a significant six figure sum,” said Mr Marchant. 

Some of that income was immediately written off with the cancellation of its equestrian events staged at its incredible arenas. 

But his attitude reflects that of the other university leaders – that staff and students came first, and now attention has turned to a successful journey out of lockdown. It is vital and he holds a number of scenario plans in his hand ready to play. 

Students were sent home with money reimbursed for accommodation as a matter of principal.

“You can’t pay for something you don’t get,” said Mr Marchant, who added that the students' union has been fantastic.

A few international and other students remain out of necessity. Staff also tackled the move online, difficult at a university which practical subjects like veterinary course and animal husbandry require real-life to intervene. 

“It is very difficult for us to do a Cambridge (referring to the relative ease with which the more academic-centred seat of learning could announce it would remain online only until 2021),” is how Mr Marchant put it. 

At the Royal Agricultural University, calm authority also pervades. Its higher education status relatively new, but this year it was expecting to celebrate 175 years of teaching and has no intention of not moving through into 2021 and beyond with its usual style. 

Professor Joanna Price, the vice chancellor of the Cirencester-based institution – the first female to hold the role – admits her background as a vet gives helps her make sense of the science of the pandemic rather more than some of us can. 

The RAU also deals with an international contingent of students as well as those from far and wide in the UK, plus the links to the town’s GFirst LEP-funded Growth Hub and Farm 491 agri-tech centre. 

Like the rest, its reliance on overseas students is not a major factor in its income, but like the other two it is significant and the relationships important. 

“We do some teaching overseas as well,” said Professor Price. 

Perceptions of how Gloucestershire and the wider UK is seen abroad are important for both. As Mr Marchant points out, if the UK is perceived as less in control than another country students could vote with their feet. Some evidence of that is already emerging. 

But all are gathering the positives and that they can deliver – in the case of the University of Gloucestershire for 9,250 students post-summer – is met with a resounding ‘yes’ and a caveat - ‘that it will be different’. 

Professor Price says Gloucestershire could become increasingly attractive because of the region’s relatively low infection and death rate – possible even with some capital residents moving lock stock and barrel to the shire. 

And the often unique specialisms within the likes of the RAU - which delivers everything from agriculture, food and the environment and business and entrepreneurship to cultural heritage institute, equine management and science and real estate and land management. 

Yes, here also the impact has alreadybeen felt on the bottom line. 

“We are not talking about tens of thousands of pounds here. It is a substantial amount of money,” said Professor Price, explaining it was a similar story at the RAU to the other two universities where income from summer courses, events, property etc had been lost. 

“We have mitigated by furloughing some of our staff.” 

But while all face different challenges in the detail (the courses and buildings which better suit on-line teaching or better suit social distancing) and all are watching for any change in temperature around the pandemic, they are united in their stoicism and confidence. 

And indeed, not just that all will be well – but that the many lessons learned in the heat of the last few weeks and months will make their institutions and therefore the county an even better place to study and live. 

Just the small task now then of assessing their thousands of students on very different courses and graduating those whose degrees and studies have been so rudely interrupted. The scenario does not even produce a blink - from any of them. 

Perhaps revealing a glimpse of Gloucestershire’s secret weapon, Professor Price signs of with this: “I think one of the things we have in Gloucestershire that is making us strong is partnership working. I feel we have that in Gloucestershire. And I think the LEP (GFirst LEP local enterprise partnership) has been the glue that has pulled that together. It is about confidence, and we have that in the university sector.”