Interview with new Vice-Chancellor, Andy Schofield.

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After moving from Birmingham University, Andy Schofield is now the new Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University. SCAN caught up with him to discuss the effect of the pandemic and the plans for the university in the near future.

Morning Andy, first of all, thank you for taking the time to speak to SCAN this morning. My first question is just to check-in, how are you getting on during the pandemic?

Well, I think, as for many people, it’s a strange world at the moment. I’ve been very fortunate that I haven’t had it and no-one in my immediate family has been affected. It’s also very strange starting a new job under these circumstances.

How is the university coping with the pandemic at the moment?

I would say the university has done remarkably well. The same challenges that have affected individuals have affected the university multiple times over. It’s been a huge upheaval for students and staff, our priority is keeping students and staff safe. At the moment we’ve got 1200 students still on campus and there is a team of people covering the campus to look after people. Additionally, the ‘Are You Ok?’ app seems to have worked really effectively and we’re still trying to stay in contact with people to provide as much support and advice as possible.

When you look at the balance of what we’ve achieved so far, how quickly we’ve moved to a different state of running things. I’ve got huge admiration for the way my colleagues have responded so quickly. We’re still working to look over all the students who still remain on campus, but then we’re also in discussions for how the 2020/21 academic year will look and how we can consistently deliver the experience that our students have come to expect at Lancaster.

This brings me to my next question. Obviously, the next academic year is a growing concern for students, so what are the plans for the university come the new academic year?

First of all, I can appreciate for you and for the staff there is uncertainty. What we’re trying to do is make plans that are flexible, with the new academic year starting in September, it will start on time and we’re planning everything around it. We’ve got Welcome Week as well which will happen on 28th September, most of our students expect to begin on 5th October and that’s the date we’re sticking to. The plan is to be open and to make campus available for students, but we are very dependent on government rules. What we want to do is teach and have as much face-to-face experience as we can, in terms of teaching delivery, but above all, we have to be responsible for the health and safety of our staff and students.

We’re working carefully to implement social distancing measures, for example, and that’s a building by building activity. Obviously, if social distancing measures are strictly enforced, it will make some things much harder to do. For example, large lectures will be made difficult as you can’t have 300 people in a room and comply with social distancing measures, so there are activities that may have to take place online. But our priority is to make it a really good experience and do so in a way that respects the health and safety guidance.

Naturally, it’s still very early to plan ahead, but is there the possibility of a hybrid model like Manchester University and how will you navigate social distancing measures?

Well with the detailed plans, we’re not rushing ahead and deciding Welcome Week around a set of rules when we don’t know what it will look like in a few months’ time. But certainly, for teaching, a hybrid model is one of the options we’re looking at, large lectures could well be online, but they would be supplemented by, wherever possible, face-to-face, small group tutorials. I know with some students, the provisions that online teaching offers can sometimes be better; having the ability to go back to lectures and use them for revision, some students prefer. What we’re really trying to do is get the best of both worlds, maintaining safety whilst aiming for personal engagement.

Following rumours that members of staff have been asked to prepare for a year of online teaching, can you confirm if this is true or provide more details?

So, at the moment we haven’t asked staff to prepare for fully online teaching next year, we’ve asked them to be flexible which is reflected in the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen. Lockdowns could work on a regional basis where we’re asked to isolate for a couple of weeks, in which case we might have to flex in and out of online to face-to-face provisions. We’ve asked the staff to think carefully about their course and how it could run with interruptions.

We’re also thinking, should a second wave of the virus come, some of our students and staff may be ill for a period of time. So how would you prepare a module for a student who may have to miss several weeks of teaching, without it causing detriment to them?

The easiest thing to do would be to say everything will be online, but that wouldn’t be reflective of where our staff or students want to be.

Being a campus-based university gives us certain advantages as it’s self-contained and we can be in control of the environment. Lancaster is a great place to be a student, so it’s about how do we use that to create a campus experience that is so special for Lancaster.

How will future plans affect new students or returning students who may have decided to change their degree or defer their entry?

One thing I would say about those considering deferring for a year, is to consider what would you do instead? I think the decision to take a year out should be accompanied by the fact that something positive should come out of that decision.

I think at the moment, I’d be more worried about not coming; it’s not clear that there will be that many jobs around, it’s not clear that companies will be taking on people for experience and the possibility of travel which of course is another consideration for students who want to take years out.

It might be better to come to university, have that experience, then in a few years when the world looks different again, then have a year out.

I can appreciate the uncertainties surrounding students coming back to university, but there are equal uncertainties in a decision not to come to university.

With plans to potentially stay online and given the teaching disruption students have faced this year given the pandemic and the strikes, are there any plans to reimburse students for tuition fees?

Ultimately, our commitment is to provide the best education we possibly can, and we expect the fee to reflect that. Whilst the teaching may look different, if what students are achieving at the end reflects the same calibre, we’re not planning any reduction in fees, we’re planning to deliver a high-quality experience. An experience that’s of value in exactly the same way to our current students as it was for your predecessors.

So, in short, there is no plan to reduce the fees, just the plan to deliver really high-quality education.

Obviously, I can appreciate that, but given there is a difference between face-to-face and online teaching, and given the financial difficulties some students might face, are there any plans to offer financial support to students?  

So, I think that’s a slightly different question. The quality of the provision is something we’re striving to ensure is of the highest quality. Just because part of it is online does not mean in any way it is worse or less valuable. It can be positive if done in a thought-through manner.

But you touched on another important aspect which is about hardship, and that is something that troubles us, it also reflects quite a lot in how we managed the accommodation rebate which we were debating in April. We’ve put quite a lot of resources in hardship funds for students, these are there to support people.

Can you shed any light on the current cash-flow problems currently rumoured to be circulating the university?

Up till this point we’ve done remarkably well in order to mitigate the cash-flow and the primary focus has been the rebate surrounding accommodation and we’ve worked hard to mitigate that. This has included putting staff on furlough, a vacancy freeze on new staff and we’ve reigned in the spending we would normally be making. We will end the financial year in pretty much the same place we anticipated to be before January.

As you look to the future, this becomes harder to predict because, as a research university, we rely on income from international students as well as home students. Should they make the decision now to come here, then that does have financial implications and we won’t know the implications of that until October when the students arrive. We’re already putting in plans for all scenarios as to how we will act on that.

At this point in time, there is no crisis, there are alarming signs on the horizon, but like any university, we’re in a position of uncertainty.

With this uncertainty in mind, I wanted to ask about how this could affect staff as there have been rumours of redundancy, so is this something that could potentially happen in the future?

At this point there are no plans about redundancies, so anything I say will just add to the speculation.

All I would say is that is a step that none of us would take lightly and would be done after we’d exhausted the voluntary means that we might be able to achieve similar outcomes.

In terms of re-opening campus, I’m aware there were plans to re-open the pre-school, following this are there plans for a phased re-opening of campus?

Obviously, we’d made plans to open the pre-school, and then now the North-West is looking more carefully at how it opens up, we’re just very sensitive to government advice and we’re making plans for a phased re-opening of campus.

I have sent a message to staff regarding working from home, where some of us may remain in these circumstances until the end of the calendar year, purely because of the way our buildings are designed as this is not very conducive to government guidelines and we have a responsibility to ensure people are safe.

So, we’re trying to prioritise those coming to campus for specific tasks, those who cannot carry out these tasks anywhere else.

The campus is still open at the moment, as I mentioned there are still 1200 students on campus with staff looking after them.

This year for me, like other students, the library has been a valuable resource, given that that is built with people in close proximity, how will these measures affect students wanting to use the library? 

We’re going through each building and working out how do we operate it? How do we make it effective? how do we position people to keep them safe?

So, the library is being rated and provisioned in a way that will allow the optimum number of people with whatever social distancing rules are in effect. If government guidelines change from two to one metre, like it is in other parts of the world, that completely changes the way in which we operate.

Labs are the same, as people work in close proximity – do we put up Perspex barriers? It’s a tremendous amount of work and the estates’ team are working night and day to try and get this right.

 Just a few closing questions now, in terms of the university going forward, Covid-19 or otherwise, what are your plans in general?

Well Lancaster is a great university and it’s a privilege to be coming here and my plans are to steer the university to succeed even more. This is a great university and my plans are to keep it great; about giving students a great experience, teaching students, but more than that, giving them an environment where the next stage of their lives and their career beyond it and that they are prepared for that.

Keeping the excitement about knowledge and how it can transform people is a huge part of my ambition. We’re also in a part of the world that needs a university and needs that beacon of excellence and to inspire kids to think ‘this is what I could be’ or ‘these are the things I could go on to do’.

Something that my colleagues at Eden North are working on and the possibility of an Eden Project to happen here is a hugely exciting thing as an area of scientific excellence and social change.

So, you were at the University of Birmingham before coming to Lancaster, what motivated the move?

It’s a tricky question. I loved being at Birmingham and I spent 21 years there. But this was an opportunity that doesn’t come around often. I’m a physicist by background, so I have some knowledge of the Physics department here, so it’s always had that attraction as a place where great science is done, and it’s always had a high reputation for me.

So, I put in an application and every interaction I had with colleagues here just reinforced what a great university this is, and arriving I still think the same thing. So why wouldn’t you want to come here?

What are your goals for Lancaster in the future? 

I’ve touched on this a bit already, but what is this university about?

It’s about delivering a great experience, not just educational, but more than that; it’s about cutting-edge research. I believe the very best teachers are those immersed in their discipline.

But also, I want to ensure that Lancaster remains part of a wider community – to the city, to the region and globally. I think it’s important that Lancaster students feel a part of that international community and making that partnership work across the world is really important.

Just building on the international scope Lancaster has, what advantages does this bring?

I think it brings a number of advantages; one is the throughflow of students and the mobility it can give students internationally. It’s also important to immerse students in this global culture, that’s why it’s important that Lancaster has this global feel. It’s also important as it’s where some of our research overlaps with regions connected to those universities.

The students in Lancaster are almost more mobile than any other university, and Lancaster clearly has a more global, outward-looking culture which is fostered by having these partnerships.

Moving on from the previous Vice-Chancellor, Mark Smith, is there any inspiration you can take from him or anything you would like to build on?

I’ve always been impressed with Mark’s work and he is held in very high regard in this sector and if you look at his legacy in Lancaster, these are really important things that he’s done, like the league tables and the expansion of campus and building on that is an important part of my job.

Having another practising scientist, like I am, and looking at how you connect your own scientific work, the responsibilities of the university and that leadership in how you manage the money that the government puts aside for research and development.

I’m certainly benefitting from the legacy he has left here and it is part of the attraction in coming to Lancaster and it’s a great springboard for me to come and take the university even further.

We wish Andy the best of luck in his new role as Vice Chancellor.

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