Court Minutes 10 February 2021

Confirmed minutes of the meeting of the University Court held at 3.00 pm on 10 February 2021 by Video Conference.


Court Members Court Members

Linda McPherson (Acting Chair),

Elaine Acaster OBE

Carolyn Bell,

Professor Richard Butt,

Dr Maria Giatsi-Clausen

Colin Cox,

Karen Cullen

Sir Paul Grice,

Cynthia Guthrie

Professor John Harper

Dr Arturo Langa

Ken McGarrity

Chiara Menozzi

Melanie Moreland

Robert Pattullo

Sarah Phillips

Dr Eurig Scandrett

Dr Andrew Scott

Frank Lennon

Chiara Menozzi

Melanie Moreland

Robert Pattullo

Sarah Phillips

Elizabeth Porter

Andy White


In Attendance

In Attendance Department 

Professor Fiona Coutts

Dean, Health Sciences

Gordon Craig

Head of Planning

Malcolm Cutt

Director of Operations and Finance

Irene Hynd

University Secretary (Secretary)

Dawn Martin

Assistant Secretary, Governance and Quality Enhancement (Minute Secretary)

Ian Robertson

Head of Finance

Steve Scott

Director of Campus and Commercial Services

Professor David Stevenson

Acting Dean, Arts, Social Sciences and Management

Welcome and Membership

The Chair welcomed members to the meeting of the University Court, which was being conducted virtually due to restrictions in place during the coronavirus emergency. As advised to members previously, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator had stated that charities may hold their meetings in this way, including where the governing document was silent on the matter. In line with good governance, Court discussion and decisions would be recorded in the usual form of confirmed minutes, approved by members.

On behalf of the University Court, the Chair congratulated Pamela Woodburn on her appointment to the role of Chair of Court, having secured the highest number of votes in the ballot for election. Pamela would take up the role with effect from 1 April 2021, but would attend the University Court meeting on 31 March 2021 as an observer. The Chair reported that she had been in contact with Pamela to offer her support with any background matters and initial queries, and that Pamela would participate in introductory discussions with University staff and Court members over the coming weeks and months.

Conflicts of Interest

There were no conflicts of interest declared.

Determination of other Competent Business

There was no other Competent Business identified.

Chair Report

The Chair reported on her attendance at the most recent meeting of the Committee of Scottish Chairs (CSC). The meeting had discussed a wide range of matters, including the following items likely to be of particular interest to Court members:

  • Impact of the coronavirus pandemic on staff and student mental health. Of particular note was a presentation from the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University which set out a range of responses to the mental health challenges. The presentation slides were available to Court members on request.
  • The Turing Scheme being launched to replace the Erasmus exchange programme. While the CSC recognised the potential benefits of the Turing Scheme in providing funding for international opportunities in education and training across the world, members had expressed nevertheless their considerable disappointment at the discontinuation of the Erasmus scheme. Details of the Turing Scheme had not yet been published, and it was suggested that the Scottish Government was considering additional schemes to support student and staff exchange with established European partners.
  • Scottish Funding Council (SFC) Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability. There had been no significant updates since the publication of the phase one report in October 2020. It was not expected that the review would be concluded, or firm outcomes published until after the Scottish Parliament Elections in May 2021. The University Court would be provided with opportunity to engage more fully with the Review at future meetings.
  • Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science: A forthcoming meeting between a number of nominated Chairs and Richard Lochhead, Further Education, Higher Education and Science, would provide an opportunity to discuss the matters noted above, as well as future funding arrangements for the
    sector. The Chair had been identified as leading a discussion on the Turing Scheme.

Principal's Report

The Principal presented a detailed update on key developments since the previous meeting of the Court on 9 December 2020 (COURT (21) 01). Matters highlighted in particular included the following:

(a) Update on semester two

The significant majority of teaching continued to be delivered online, following the tightening by the Scottish Government of coronavirus restrictions over the winter closure period. Under the revised ‘staggered start’ guidance for universities and colleges, access to Scotland’s university campuses and student accommodation provision from 5 January 2021 had been restricted to students who had remained over the winter break, and to other exceptional returners, where attendance was critical and time-sensitive to their course completion. These arrangements applied to those with essential placements, and to students returning on the grounds of wellbeing. In support of these arrangements, the University had continued to offer Lateral Flow Device Asymptomatic Covid-19 testing throughout January 2021.

A key issue for the remainder of this academic year was whether, and to what extent, it would be possible to increase the amount of in-person teaching. The University remained committed to on-campus delivery wherever possible, recognising the benefits in terms of learning and student welfare. The update from the Scottish Government on 2 February 2021 had confirmed that current restrictions would remain in place until at least the end of February, with a possible easing of restrictions around the start of March 2021.

A related development was the establishment of a cross-sector Further and Higher Education Ministerial Task Force to support the successful completion of the current academic year and the wider contribution of universities and colleges. The Principal would represent Universities Scotland on the Task Force, together with Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland.

(b) Student support

Support services operating on campus had been reduced in line with the lockdown restrictions and sector guidance. However, all support services remained fully accessible to all students, whether studying on campus or remotely. Examples of provision included support from the ResLife Team for students living on campus, the delivery of online careers webinars and the Qmploy Festival of Careers, the provision of one to one Counselling and Wellbeing Services, and access to Togetherall (previously Big White Wall), a supportive online community. The Students’ Union support services were also fully operational. The Principal paid tribute to officers and staff of the Students’ Union for their outstanding leadership and exceptional efforts to support students during an uncertain and challenging period.

(c) The staff experience

The Principal acknowledged the continued commitment and professionalism demonstrated by staff, noting in particular the significant efforts made by staff
to ensure that students could participate in practice experience opportunities. The University continued to work to support staff, including providing specific guidance to staff with childcare and caring responsibilities when working at home. A full report and action plan had been published in December 2020, following analysis of the staff survey undertaken earlier in the year. Key themes progressed included support for wellbeing, workload, staff concern around return to campus, working from home, and communication.

(d) Recruitment

At the time of reporting, undergraduate applications through UCAS were some 8% ahead of applications received at the equivalent period last year. The extension of the UCAS deadline for undergraduate applicants to the end of January 2021 meant that applications continued to be processed, and a full breakdown by fee status was not yet available. The recent Scottish Government announcement that, for 2021-22 entry, undergraduate students from the Republic of Ireland would have the same fee status as students from the rest of the UK was a welcome clarification. Postgraduate applications were also ahead of the equivalent period last year. Whilst the application numbers were encouraging, it was rather too early in the postgraduate recruitment cycle to draw any firm conclusions on likely final numbers. Members would receive an update on undergraduate and postgraduate recruitment at the March meeting of the Court.

(e) Financial position

The underlying outturn position for 2019-20 showed a deficit of just over £1 million. This was in line with the previous forecast, and just above the original pre-COVID budget. The 2019-20 annual accounts would be considered in detail later in the meeting (Minute 7 below refers). The 2020-21 forecast outturn position had not changed from the December estimate, but showed an improvement on the original position forecast in June 2020. A further update would be presented to Court once the Quarter 2 accounts process had been completed. Key changes were likely to result from the stronger than forecast recruitment of students in January 2021, and the higher than expected level of accommodation refunds, arising from the stricter coronavirus restrictions. The impact of coronavirus restrictions on 2021 summer commercial activities remained uncertain.

The Scottish Government had published its draft Budget for 2021-22 on 28 January 2021 The headline increase for higher education (at 2.7%), and the further commitments to fund the increase in volume of provision, were broadly positive. Further consideration would be given to the detail of the budget, once the Government’s Budget Bill hadcompleted its parliamentary consideration, and the significant flows of resources associated with the pandemic had been clarified further.

(f) Research

Member were advised that final preparations for submitting to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework were in progress, with submission due by 31 March 2021.

The University had entered into a strategic research and innovation collaboration with Edinburgh Napier University (ENU). Current collaborative priorities were the development of joint training, support and mentoring for early career academics and contract researchers; funding for four jointly supervised PhDs in the broad area of health and wellbeing; and agreement on Edinburgh Napier University’s involvement in the City Deal funded Innovation Hub.

(g) SFC Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability

Scotland’s University Principals had participated in a productive session with the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) Chief Executive, during which there had been discussion around the Review. As reported earlier by the Chair (minute 4 refers), the timeline for the next phase of the review had not yet been confirmed.

(h) Vaccination Centre

Good progress was being made towards the temporary drive through Vaccination Centre on campus, which would be operated by NHS Lothian. The facility was scheduled to begin operation on 10 February 2021. The Principal extended thanks to QMU colleagues from campus services for their contribution to this important initiative, and to the Marketing and Communications Team for their support with media coverage.

(i) Forwardplanning

Whilst navigating through the current semester, consideration was also being given to planning for the next academic session in the context of the legacy and ongoing impact of the pandemic. The Senior Leadership Team had set in hand a piece of work to proactively capture and manage the various streams of work involved. A fuller update would be provided to the Finance and Estates Committee, and to Court, at respective meetings in March 2021.

The Chair thanked the Principal for the detailed presentation and extended her thanks to the Senior Leadership Team, the Students’ Union and the wider staff and student community for their exceptional on-going efforts. Particular thanks were extended to colleagues involved in the establishment of the Vaccination Centre.

In discussion, members covered a number of matters including:

  • Staff wellbeing: Court members commended the steps being taken to support staff under the unprecedented circumstances. The Principal thanked Court members for their ongoing support to the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) and wider staff community. In response to a query, the Principal advised that SLT members were mindful of the need to look after their own health and wellbeing, and to set a good example of work-life balance. It was agreed that a more detailed report on the range of support in place for staff would come to a future meeting. The Acting Head of Human Resources would be invited to join the discussion.
  • Skills development: Members expressed interest in the University’s approach to skills development opportunities, particularly in the context of wider discussions around the contribution of the HE sector to Scotland’s economic recovery. In response, it was noted that the University was engaged actively with evolving sector discussions, including those being progressed by the Universities Scotland Learning and Teaching Committee. There was continuing commitment to Graduate Apprenticeship provision, and more recently, the University had responded to the invitation to deliver a range of short courses with the support of the SFC Upskilling Funding, including delivery of ‘micro credentials’. The University was mindful also of targets for ‘green jobs’ in the Scottish Government’s Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan 2020-25.

Minutes of the Previous Meeting

The unconfirmed minutes of the Court meeting held on 9 December 2020 (COURT (20) MINS 06) were APPROVED as an accurate record.

Annual Accounts

Court CONSIDERED the near final audited strategic report and consolidated financial statements for the University and its subsidiary company for the year ended 31 July 2020 (COURT (21) 02). The external audit report from Ernst and Young (EY) (COURT (21) 04) and internal audit report from Azets (COURT (21) 05) were provided to informmembers’ consideration. Court also CONSIDERED the Letter of Representations to Ernst and Young (Court (21) 03) and delegated authority to the Chair to sign the Letter.

The Director of Operations and Finance delivered a short presentation on the strategic report and financial statements, which had been considered and endorsed by the Finance and Estates Committee (FEC) and the Audit and Risk Committee (ARC). Both FEC and ARC had recommended that the University Court should grant approval. Members were advised that there were some minor points to be finalised in the EY audit report wording, following conclusion of the EY review of pension provisions. As such, it was not possible to ask for final Court approval of the accounts. Court was asked to delegate authority to the Chair and Principal to sign the final accounts, subject to review by the FEC and ARC Conveners. The deadline for submission to the Scottish Funding Council was 28 February 2021.

As noted previously by the Principal (minute 5 refers), the end of year accounts showed an underlying deficit of just over £1m, this being within £100k of the initial (pre-COVID) budget. The University had complied with all bank covenants, and would have complied with the original covenant, prior to the relaxation granted by Barclays. The one off receipt of £1.4 million from Persimmon in August 2020 for reimbursement of infrastructure costs had been accounted for in the 2019-20 accounts. The final reported position had been affected by sizeable adjustments to the valuation of land and buildings and to pension provisions, although neither of these had any immediate impact on cash flows, and the cash position remained relatively strong. After these adjustments, the accounts showed a deficit of £9.5 million.

As in previous years, Court was required to form an opinion on whether the University should prepare its accounts on a going concern basis. A number of scenarios had been considered in which adverse sensitivities were applied to the base forecast, and possible mitigating actions then modelled for each scenario. All scenarios indicated that the University could continue in operation for the next twelve months whilst maintaining a minimum cash balance, as required by the bank covenant. Several scenarios indicated a potential breach of the operational leverage covenant at 31 July 2021. However, Barclays had provided a relaxation, which would allow this covenant to be met under all scenarios. SFC had provided a letter indicating its intention to continue to fund the University along broadly similar lines for at least the next year. In addition to the consideration of scenarios, the rolling five-year review of KPIs, indicated that, whilst EBITDA was a little below the five-year average target for long-term financial sustainability, the cash indicators showed a position above the long-term average target.

The Chair thanked the Director of Operations and Finance for the comprehensive paper and presentation. On behalf of Court, she commended the Senior Leadership Team on the successful management of the University’s finances despite the challenges arising from COVID.

Court endorsed the accounting policies used in the preparation of the accounts. Based on the analysis in paper and the current position update from the Principal (minute 5 refers), Court determined that it was appropriate to for the 2019-20 financial statements to be prepared on a going concern basis.

Court APPROVED the Strategic Report and Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2020 and delegated authority to to the Chair and Principal to sign the final accounts once the EY audit had concluded.

Land Development Update

The Director of Campus and Commercial Services provided an update on the Land Development project. The first draft of the Full Business Case (FBC) for the Innovation Hub had been submitted to the City Deal Project Management Office prior to the winter break. The FBC had been positively received, with some further information requested from the UK and Scottish Governments. In addition, it was noted that a response from the Westminster Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was also expected. Once complete and prior to its submission, the FBC would be subject to Finance and Estates Committee and Court approval. Subject to concluding any outstanding responses it was projected that the FBC would be scheduled to go to the June 2021 City Deal Project Committee. The sequencing of meetings to enable that was such that it might be necessary to convene extraordinary meetings of FEC and Court to consider and approve the final submission. In parallel with work on the FBC, the structure of the Joint Venture between the Council and the University continued to be developed, taking account of tax advice. It was expected that an updated timeline for the project would come to the meeting of the Finance and Estates Committee on 10 March 2021.

In response to a specific question, and following the earlier update on the involvement of Edinburgh Napier University (ENU) in the City Deal (minute 5 refers), the Director of Campus and Commercial Services explained that ENU would support QMU with data driven innovation, this being a key strand in the City Deal. The involvement of ENU not only added demonstrably to the academic case, it also strengthened the collaboration across the four Edinburgh based universities.

Scottish Funding Outcome Agreement

Guidance for Interim Outcome Agreements for Colleges and Universities for Academic Year 2020-21

Court NOTED the Guidance for Interim Outcome Agreements for Academic Year 2020- 21, which the Scottish Funding Council had issued on 1 December 2020 (COURT (21) 06).

QMU Self-evaluation for Academic Year 2019-20

Court RECEIVED the Self-Evaluation for Academic Year 2019-20 (COURT (21) 07), which had been submitted to the Scottish Funding Council on 20 January 2021. The Self-Evaluation provided commentary on the extent to which QMU had been able to meet agreed targets during the reporting period.

Interim Outcome Agreement for Academic Year 2020-21

Court APPROVED the Interim Outcome Agreement for Academic Year 2020-21 (COURT (21) 08), which had been submitted to the Scottish Funding Council in draft format on 5 February 2021. The Interim Outcome Agreement had been developed from the Outcome Agreement 2020-23, which had been provided to Court members in near final draft form on 5 February 2020. The minutes of members’ discussion from that meeting recorded that the narrative captured extremely well the breadth of activities and significant achievements across the University, and that the content was well aligned with the strategic goals, values and targets emerging through the strategy refresh. Outputs and outcomes had been considered broadly realistic and appropriate. The version now presented for 2020-21 had been updated to reflect the challenges presented by the coronavirus emergency and the requirements of the Interim Outcome Agreement Guidance, but retained the key outputs agreed by the Court in February 2020. A further update to the 2020-23 version was due to be submitted to the SFC in May 2021. As this timescale did not align well with the published dates for Court meeting, it might be preferable to consider the update at the same time as the Full Business Case for the City Deal, which would likely need to be considered at an Extraordinary meeting (minute 8 refers).

Members provided feedback on the Self-Evaluation and Interim Outcome Agreement, noting that the both documents reflected very clearly the University’s purpose, values and strategic goals. Whilst the Interim Outcome Agreement exceeded the minimum length recommended in the SFC Guidance, Court considered it helpful to include this level of detail, which offered a comprehensive overview of a range of activities, including the University’s skills and research agenda. It was suggested that an executive summary could be a useful addition to the Self-Evaluation for future iterations. In discussion, members covered a range of matters as set out below:

  • Students with protected characteristics: It was noted that the proportion of disabled students and students from BAME backgrounds had declined from the previous year, although the figure remained close to target for both categories. The University Secretary explained that disability award data was no longer provided directly to the University, and that the figure within the Self-Evaluation was based on the number of students self-reporting. As such, it was likely that the actual number was higher. There was significant ongoing work to improve demographic diversity under the auspices of the Equality and Diversity Committee and the Widening Participation and Student Retention Board. However, there had been particular challenges in the past year, during which period it had been difficult to make virtual community connections.
  • Impact of blended learning on the student experience: Members discussed the advantages and disadvantages of online learning and the impact on student progress. Whilst there was potential for online learning to negatively affect engagement, attainment and retention for some students, others had responded very well.
  • Retention and support implications for 2019 and 2020 school leavers: Members noted the particular challenges facing school leavers who had not taken traditional exams in 2019-20, and would not do so in 2020-21 due to the pandemic. Mechanisms were in place to provide proactive support to all students and to respond to individual circumstances, including those arising from the changes to school assessment. The Peer Assistant Learning Scheme was identified as a particularly successful initiative, which was being rolled out incrementally across the University. The Deputy Principal reported that there had been positive attainment in last year’s examinations, and there would be further analysis following this year’s assessment diet.
  • Transition from Further to Higher Education: In recognition of the particular challenges experienced by college students during the pandemic, transition arrangements had been adapted to provide enhanced support to direct entrants.
  • Contribution to economic recovery: It was suggested that the next iteration of the Outcome Agreement could expand on the University’s responsiveness to the needs of employers.

Finance and Estates Committee/ Audit and Risk Committee

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the joint meeting of the Finance and Estates Committee and Audit and Risk Committee held on 26 January 2021 (FEC/AUDIT (21) MINS 01). Matters arising had been discussed elsewhere in the meeting. The Convener reported that the joint meeting format had worked well, and that it had been useful to have representatives from Ernst and Young and Azets in attendance.


Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Senate held on 16 December 2020 (SEN (20) MINS 05).

Health and Safety Committee

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Health and Safety Committee held on 15 December 2020 (H&S (20) MINS 05). There were no particular matters brought to members’ attention.

Annual Report from Committee of Court

Court RECEIVED the 2019-20 Annual Reports of the Finance and Estates Committee (COURT (21) 09) and the Audit and Risk Committee (COURT (21) 10). The reports provided a helpful overview of the operation of the Committees and confirmed that the Committees had effectively discharged their responsibilities in accordance with their terms of reference, as delegated by the University Court.


It was confirmed that the Annual General Meeting would take place prior to the Ordinary meeting on 31 March 2021. Such meeting would be held virtually, in view of the ongoing restrictions relating to travel and to indoor gatherings.

A member commented on the format and presentation of papers, and in particular, the number of documents provided. In discussion, members commented variously on the extent to which the papers were comprehensive and well presented, but also on the potential to reduce the volume. Members acknowledged the need to strike a balance between brevity and provision of the information necessary for good governance. It was noted also that the format and content, and the inclusion of a significant number of the papers was determined by external agencies.

Members were reminded that, under the provisions of the Higher Education Code for Good Governance, the five yearly externally facilitated Court Effectiveness Review was due to take place in the current year. The timing of this would be subject to further discussion with the incoming Chair. The Review would present a timely opportunity to revisit the presentation of papers within the overall consideration of the management of Court business. It was confirmed also to members that the University was exploring online solutions to sharing and disseminating papers.