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It has been an incredibly busy ten days or so for many, many people across the University, but we have now reached our threshold numbers for home and EU undergraduate numbers. Both I, and the rest of the Senior Management Team, would therefore like to thank everybody involved for all the hard work that has gone into this all across the University. It is an incredible achievement and one that places us in a very good position going forward.
Swansea University has clearly placed student growth at the centre of its strategy. There are very good reasons for this, but it also presents us with a number of very significant challenges. We want to grow for two very clear reasons:
- First, in order to be seen as a truly global university we need to be able to offer a full range of programmes to an excellent standard and to be recognised as a leading player in research, not just across two or three disciplines, but across all the subjects that we offer. In order to do this it is essential that we invest, primarily in the very best academics available, but also in the facilities we need to support those individuals and the students they attract. In order to invest we need resources, and it is still the case that our primary source of income, and in the current climate the one that we have most control over, is student fees.
- Second, and closely related to the first, is that we do need to get into a position where we are financially sustainable. At our current size we are entirely dependent on contingencies and find it difficult to release funds to invest in student support, the estate, research support and other factors to the level that we would like. If we can grow in size, and therefore in overall income, we know where we can achieve efficiencies (both in professional services and elsewhere) and therefore release funds to improve the services that are available, as well as providing resources to invest in new initiatives for the future. It is essential therefore that this growth does not just happen in an uncontrolled fashion, but that it is planned and managed. This is what we are aiming to achieve through the development of a ten year strategy, leading to financial stability and sustainability and providing us enough head room, in three, five or seven years’ time to do what we need to do in order to be the global institution that we aspire to be.
Growth does, however, offer some challenges, not least of which is an inevitable time lag between the immediate growth in numbers and the subsequent investment in staff and the student experience. We are committed, however, to provide the necessary investment in those areas where growth is planned and is seen to be at its strongest and money will follow numbers. There are, however, three specific challenges that I do just want to highlight, and to offer some insight into what we are doing to meet them.
The first is that we recognise that there are limits on growing simply by doing more of the same. Many programmes across the University are already reaching the limit of the numbers they can achieve (either because of the number of students available, or because of practical limitations internally). Growth in these areas, while still possible, is always going to be marginal. We recognise, therefore, that growth demands doing new things. This may be through new programmes (masters and new undergraduate programmes within existing subject areas, linking with institutions overseas in joint or dual degree programmes, developing professional or CPD programmes, or developing whole new areas such as Chemistry and Education). This is planned through the annual Business Planning Round and each College has a clear list of new programmes that it is intending to develop over the next five years. This is not fixed in stone and we are always open to changes in the market and to initiatives from individuals who can see an opportunity for development. It is the role of the Programme Management Board, however, of which I am Chair, to manage this process and to oversee the strategy for growth through the development of new programmes.
The second challenge comes in delivery. Class sizes will inevitably grow, there is a premium on space, across both of our campuses, and there is a limit to what is possible unless we begin to take significant action now and to plan for the future. Building will not keep pace with the growth in student numbers, but that is only an issue if we assume that the growth will only be managed by doing more of what we already do at present. Teaching is changing. New technologies are opening up new possibilities. Students are engaging in learning in very different ways. Learning technologies are not a simplistic answer to all our problems, but we do need to recognise the changes that are happening and the ways in which new technologies can help to improve the learning experience of students, while also perhaps challenging our need for lots of time spent in large lecture theatres or in individual face to face interactions. There are also things we can do structurally, in terms of the academic year, changes to regulations, rethinking assessments etc. that can both bring benefits to student experiences while also enabling us to manage numbers more effectively. The Go Beyond project is aimed, in part, at looking at these issues and you will hear much more about this over the year.
The third challenge is student support. We all recognise that the stresses and strains on students are probably more significant today than they have ever been. We need to be aware of the impact of all these policies on the student body, and we are very grateful that we are able to work alongside the Student’s Union as we aim to address them. Student support, however, in terms of personal tutoring and fundamental welfare provision is something that the STEP4Excellence project has been reviewing over the last year. We have put forward a strategy and proposals that will radically rethink this whole area of our work, providing a much clearer view of what academic tutors (or mentors) are expected to do, and also providing the support mechanisms in terms of both welfare and academic skills support that are necessary to underpin this. We are looking to run pilot projects for this new scheme this year, to learn from the experience, and then to roll it out across the University in 2017/18. Again, do keep an eye on this blog for information about how this is progressing.
Clearing, therefore, and the meeting (or exceeding) of thresholds is really excellent news for the University and shows that our overall strategy is on target. Growth in student numbers is important for us, and offers many exciting opportunities and challenges. The whole University community has clearly been involved in the recruitment process and are fully behind our objectives. Let us all work together, therefore, to see how the challenges of the next few years can be transformed into opportunities to develop new ways of working and new opportunities for our students, and particularly those who are planning to join us for the first time in a few weeks time.