Court Minutes 23 June 2021
Confirmed minutes of the meeting of the University Court held at 3.00 pm on 23 June 2021 by Video Conference.
|Court Members||Court Members|
Pamela Woodburn (Chair)
Elaine Acaster OBE
Professor Richard Butt
Dr Maria Giatsi-Clausen
Sir Paul Grice
Professor Fiona Coutts
Dean, Health Sciences
Head of Planning
Director of Operations and Finance
University Secretary (Secretary)
Assistant Secretary, Governance and Quality Enhancement (Minute Secretary)
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 provides for charities holding their meetings in this way, including where the governing document is silent on the matter. In line with good governance, Court discussion and decisions are recorded in the usual form of confirmed minutes, approved by members.
A particular welcome was extended to newly appointed members, Steven Hendry and Garvin Sealy, and to Sophie Cunningham, Student Vice-President and Aasiyah Patankar, Student President, who had taken up their roles on 10 June 2021. The newly appointed members introduced themselves, and at the Chair’s invitation, provided brief information on their experience, and the particular expertise that they would bring to the business of the Court.
Apologies were received from Carolyn Bell and Robert Pattullo.
Conflicts of Interest
There were no conflicts of interest declared.
Detrmination of other Competent Business
There was no other Competent Business identified.
Minutes of the Previous Meeting
Meeting held on 31 March 2021
The unconfirmed minutes of the Court meeting held on 31 March 2021 (COURT (21) MINS 02) were APPROVED as an accurate record.
Extraordinary meeting held on 27 April 2021
The unconfirmed minutes of the Extraordinary Court meeting held on 27 April 2021 (COURT (21) MINS 03) were APPROVED as an accurate record.
COURT (21) MINS (02): Minute 10: Long term maintenance
Court NOTED approval by the University Court of Phase 1 of planned remedial fire safety works in the student accommodation, such approval having been secured by email correspondence of 25 May 2021.
The Chair extended thanks to the Senior Leadership Team and Court members for their warm welcome following her appointment, and for supporting her transition to the role. The recent Court induction day had addressed comprehensively the role and responsibilities of the Court and its members. Meetings with the Vice-Chair, with the Principal and with other members of the Court and Senior Leadership Team had presented further valuable opportunity for discussion around roles and relationships, as well as sector and institutional priorities. The Chair looked forward to learning more about members’ backgrounds and interests, and extended an invitation to members to contact her directly, should they wish to arrange a meeting.
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:
- Scotland’s Fair Work agenda: The CSC had expressed its commitment to the Scottish Government’s Fair Work Action Plan. Court members were advised that Queen Margaret University’s working practices were consistent with the ambitions set out in the Plan, and that the University was an accredited living wage employer, as noted in its Outcome Agreement with the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
- Scottish Funding Council (SFC) Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability. At this stage, it was difficult to predict with any certainty the content of the final report, nor how Ministers would respond to the report’s recommendations. The Chairs had discussed in particular the focus on the sector research and knowledge exchange agenda, and anticipated a stronger emphasis on both of these areas within the Outcome Agreement.
- Cyber security. Following a recent cyber-attack on another HEI, the Chairs had discussed the risk to the sector and necessary mitigations. The attack had brought into sharp relief the potential threat to the sector.
The Chair reported formally on the appointment of Elaine Acaster to the role of Vice- Chair of the University Court in April 2021. Elaine would attend a forthcoming CSC sub- group discussion on governance arrangements for appointment to vacancies on University governing bodies, and in particular, the role of the Nominations Committee.
The Principal presented a detailed update on key developments since the meeting of the University Court held on 31 March 2021 (COURT (21) 21).
As a preface to the report, the Principal acknowledged the significant efforts of the University community throughout academic session 2020-21 against the continued backdrop of uncertainty and anxiety arising from the Covid pandemic. It was of particular note that students had performed exceptionally well under these challenging circumstances, achieving outstanding results across programmes. The Principal congratulated all students on their achievements, and thanked academic and professional services teams for their contribution to those student successes. The Principal acknowledged also the support and wise counsel provided by the University Court over the academic session.
Matters highlighted in the report included the following:
(a) Update on semester one (2021-22)
Planning for semester one of the academic year 2021-22 continued to be informed by discussions with Scottish Government officials, with such discussions being conducted primarily through the Covid Leads Group, on which the University Secretary represented the University’s interests. The Principal reported that the Scottish Government had established an Advanced Learning Covid Recovery Group, of which he was a member. The overall aim of the Scottish Government’s planning for 2021-22 was to enable in- person provision to the extent consistent with the continued safety of staff and students, in line with Scotland’s overall response to Covid, whilst ensuring the highest possible quality learning experience for learners.
A key consideration for the sector was the extent to which physical distancing would be required, following emergence of the Delta variant of the virus. Whilst the position remained uncertain, the First Minister had made the encouraging announcement, on 21 June 2021, that all major coronavirus restrictions were expected to be removed from 9 August 2021, subject to necessary conditions on vaccination and harm reduction continuing to be met. As outlined further in the written report, programme teams had been asked to plan for a blended delivery model, with large lectures delivered online and other learning experiences delivered on campus. The University continued to engage fully with developments in the areas of asymptomatic student testing and student vaccination, both of which were important elements of the recovery route map.
The Admissions Team continued to monitor progress in the recruitment of new entrants to the University in session 2021-22. The relatively positive position advised in the Principal’s previous report to Court remained.
Undergraduate applications received were around 9% above those received in the equivalent period last year. In terms of the UCAS undergraduate recruitment cycle, applicants who had been made an offer by the University were required to accept or reject the offer by 10 June. Members were reminded that final intake numbers for undergraduate programmes would be determined by the extent to which those with conditional offers of entry met those conditions. The University’s ability to project intake numbers with accuracy this year would be impacted further by the uncertainty around the release of SQA Higher exam results and the late release of Irish Leaving Certificate results.
Applications for taught postgraduate full-time study were some 5% above those received at the equivalent last year. While firm acceptances were just under 4% lower than at the same time last year, this was explained in part by adjustments to the application and offer cycle, with deadlines being somewhat later this year. Total offers had also been reduced for a number of programmes with capped numbers.
The Principal was pleased to report that the quarter three report for the current financial year showed an improved position, with the deficit now forecast to be some £1.1m better than the original budget. In discussion of the 2021-22 budget, the Senior Leadership Team had considered whether to aim for a breakeven budget (in line with the pre-Covid financial strategy), but had agreed that this would leave little room to deal with any adverse variances or to engage in any significant investment. Following discussion at the most recent meeting of the Finance and Estates Committee, a budget with a deficit of £650k was proposed for 2021-22. The financial position would be covered in greater detail later in the meeting (minute 8 below refers).
(d) Risk workshop
The planned risk management workshop for members of the Audit and Risk Committee (ARC) and members of the senior team had taken place on 1 June 2021, facilitated by the University’s internal auditors. Outputs from the session, which had addressed risk appetite in a number of areas, would be used to update the Risk Management Strategy and would inform the review of the corporate risk register, both of which will be taken back to the ARC meeting in September for review.
(e) Research Excellence Framework
The University had uploaded its main submission to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) in advance of the 31 March deadline, and its impact case studies and corroborating evidence in advance of the deadline of 1 June.
(f) International development
The University continued to explore opportunities to expand its provision with existing partners and to pursue new collaborative partnerships in areas of expertise, where such partnerships were of a quality and scale commensurate with achieving strategic objectives. Recent developments with existing partners had further extended the University’s reach in Europe and India, and discussions were in progress with potential new partners in the Middle East and North America.
(g) SFC Review of coherence and sustainability
The Chair had reported on this item earlier in the meeting (minute 6 above refers). The Principal reiterated the University’s sincere commitment to working in collaboration with further and higher education partners, noting the importance of a clear funding model to support sustainable enhancements to the learner journey.
(h) Medium and longer term planning
The Senior Leadership Team had been considering carefully the University’s strategic direction over the next three to five year period and beyond. Subject to agreement from Court, the Principal suggested that medium and longer term issues, including the post- Covid landscape and the SFC review, should be the main focus of the Strategy Day on 29 September 2021.
(i) James Hutton Institute
The Principal advised Court that he had joined the Board of the James Hutton Institute, noting, amongst other matters, the synergies between the University and the Institute in key areas, including food science.
In discussion members covered a number of matters as follows:
- Recruitment: Members commended the exceptional work undertaken by the Recruitment and Admissions Teams to promote the University’s academic portfolio and to process applications. Admissions and academic staff were thanked also for their enthusiastic engagement with conversion activities, including Offer Holder Days. Noting that European and Scottish students were no longer within the same fee category, members acknowledged that there would need to be an emphasis on recruiting an increased number of Scottish students compared to previous years.The Principal acknowledged the business critical work being undertaken on recruitment, advising that the University had invested in additional recruitment resource in the past year.
- Blended learning: Members were interested to learn more about the proposed balance of online and face to face learning in 2021-22, and the implications of that for student wellbeing. The Deputy Principal reiterated that, where possible under the prevailing COVID restrictions, learning experiences would be delivered face to face, although the balance of remote and campus activity would differ across programmes, depending on the extent of practical learning experiences. As reported previously to Court, recent surveys indicated a strong student preference for in-person learning. However, students also greatly appreciated the flexibility associated with online recorded lectures. Most of all, students reported the need to be involved in social interaction. Key mitigating considerations for a safe and healthy campus environment for both staff and students included levels of occupancy and ventilation.Welcoming this, members commented on the complex and highly pressurised nature of decision making around this, and on the need to protect staff workload when considering the balance of learning experiences and planning for the new academic year.
- Strategy Day: Members suggested some issues of particular interest that might inform the agenda for the Strategy Day on 29 September 2021. A number of these had been noted earlier in the meeting, and included equality, diversity and inclusion, health and wellbeing, Scotland’s Fair Work agenda, and freedom of speech. In recognition of the limits placed on the agenda by the time available during one day, it was agreed that a digest of sector developments be issued over the summer in preparation for the Strategy Day, and that there would be scope to follow up on outstanding issues by creating sufficient time at subsequent Court meetings.
Members again extended thanks to the Senior Leadership Team and wider staff community for the exceptional ongoing work and achievements during the pandemic.
Quarter three update and management accounts/financial outturn forecast for 2020-21
Court RECEIVED and NOTED the quarter three update and management accounts to 30 April 2021, and the financial outturn forecast for 2020-21 (COURT (21) 22).
The Director of Operations and Finance reported that the year to date position after nine months showed a favourable variance of £1.1m against the initial budget. It was expected that this position would continue for the remainder of the financial year. Additional income from SFC grants (including grants for Covid support) and tuition fees had impacted positively on the budget, but this was offset by loss of other income, largely summer 2021 commercial income. The expenditure for the year was forecast to be a little higher than budget, reflecting expenditure associated with the additional SFC Covid grants. Recent confirmation had been provided that an insurance claim of £250k
for business interruption would be paid, and this would improve the forecast outturn position for the year accordingly, leading to a deficit that should be less than £1m.
Financial forecast and budget 2021-22
Court RECEIVED the financial forecast and budget for 2021-22 (COURT (21) 23).
Members were reminded of the pre-Covid financial strategy to return to breakeven by 2021-22 with a view to reaching a 3% surplus by 2024-25. The impact of Covid had resulted in an expected two year delay in reaching breakeven being reported to Court in June 2020. Since then, the position had improved, and increased funding forecast for 2021-22 meant that the position in the following year was better than previously anticipated. As reported earlier in the meeting by the Principal (minute 7 above refers), the Senior Leadership Team had discussed at length whether the University should aim to reach a breakeven budget for 2021-22. However, a number of factors, including ongoing uncertainty around commercial income resulting from the pandemic restrictions, had influenced the recommendation to Court to set the budget at a deficit of £650k but with a forecast a return to breakeven in 2022-23. The £650k deficit would provide a contingency and allow for modest targeted investment. Whilst a deficit budget was proposed, it was advised that this would generate a net positive cash flow after servicing the bank loan. 2022-23 would hopefully see a return to a more standard year, with commercial income at usual levels.
The Finance and Estates Committee (FEC) had considered and endorsed this strategy at its meeting on 25 May 2021. Whilst the net position had improved in the interim by around £500- £600k (due to additional SFC grants announced in the final grant letter, but offset by reductions in income estimates from research grants), SLT had proposed to continue with the agreed strategy, and this approach had been endorsed by the FEC Convener. Since the FEC meeting, an approach had been made to Barclays and, following further discussion, Barclays had indicated provisional agreement to a further covenant relaxation for 2021/22.
Court APPROVED the proposed budget for 2021-22 with a view to moving to breakeven in 2022-23. It was NOTED that the budget would form the basis of the financial forecasts return to the Scottish Funding Council. Members NOTED further that SLT would revisit the Income Strategy last reviewed by FEC in September 2019, and would report back on that review at the September meeting of FEC.
The Chair thanked the Director of Operations and Finance for the detailed explanation of the rationale for the proposed budget. Court commended the Senior Leadership Team on the proportionate and measured approach to setting the budget and the exceptional financial control exercised during the pandemic.
Key Performance Indicators
Court RECEIVED the third quarter Key Performance Indicators (KPI) report (Court (21) 24).
Introducing the paper, the Head of Planning reminded members of the recently updated arrangements for reporting on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Under the process agreed by the Court, the SLT had a remit to consider the full set of KPIs and determine which of these should be reported to the Finance and Estates Committee (FEC) and to the University Court. FEC subsequently had a remit to consider and approve the quarterly draft KPI report, with areas flagged, as required, where the Executive was seeking advice on their inclusion in the report to the Court.
The main updates from the second quarter report were as listed below:
- The estimated tuition fee income of £14.8m was £0.6m higher than the quarter two estimate, and £1.15m above budget.
- The gross income from research and knowledge exchange was estimated to be £2.8m, which was £0.14m above budget.
- As expected, income from student accommodation was forecast to be below budget.
- Student numbers remained on track to be above target in all categories. No significant changes had been introduced to the recruitment for targets for home/RUK/international students as a result of the change in EU fee status. However, a review would be undertaken, once final student numbers were known, to consider if this balance should be changed going forward.
- Figures on access had not changed significantly since the quarter two update. The University continued to meet the core Commission on Widening Access target of having students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds representing at least 10% of full-time first degree entrants. Targets would be subject to further discussion with SFC as part of the development of the 2021-22 Outcome Agreement.
In discussion, members considered the particular challenges affecting direct entrant students in 2021-22. As a result of the Scottish Funding Council’s temporary removal in 2020 of the cap previously associated with controlled numbers entering level one, there were now fewer places available for students to enter levels two and three with advanced standing. This matter was subject to ongoing active discussion as part of theUniversity’s Outcome Agreement negotiations with the SFC. As a smaller institution, QMU had been relatively more affected by the removal of the controlled numbers cap. It was hoped that there could be some leeway to accommodate more articulating students in 2021-22. It was noted that the University continued to develop innovative partnerships with the college sector to support flexible pathways in line with the broader strategic commitment to widening access to under-represented groups.
Further broader discussion around the KPIs would take place at the Strategy Day on 29 September 2021. Giving his early impressions of the refreshed approach, the Principal noted that he had found it helpful to work with a more focused and streamlined set of KPIs.
Land Development Update
Court RECEIVED an update from the Director of Operations and Finance on progress with the Full Business Case (FBC) seeking City Deal funding for the innovation hub (Court (21) 25).
Following the extraordinary Court meeting on 27 April 2021, the FBC had been signed off by the Chair of Court and FEC Convener, and submitted and approved by both the UK and Scottish Governments, and by the City Deal Joint Committee. A formal funding letter was expected shortly from the Scottish Government, which would be issued to the City of Edinburgh Council (CEC), with a back-to-back letter then going from CEC to East Lothian Council (ELC). The City Deal Project Management Office (PMO) had confirmed that the FBC was approved and that funding of £30m was also approved. The template grant letter provided to Court set out the standard conditions relating to default and recovery of grant. Both governments and ELC were keen to make an announcement, but had been asked to delay any communications until after the Court meeting, thus allowing Court the opportunity to review the final terms and conditions of grant.
In discussion, members covered a number of matters, including governance arrangements and the process for transfer of funds between the UK government, Scottish government, CEC, ELC and the joint venture. There was particular discussion around external communications, with members noting the opportunity to showcase theUniversity’s particular expertise in food science, as well as the wider expertise in research, innovation and entrepreneurship. Noting that he would wish to have greater clarity around funding and the joint venture arrangements before promoting the Innovation Hub as a catalyst for wider development, the Principal sought delegated authority from Court for the SLT to take decisions on the communications strategy.
Court APPROVED acceptance of the offer of grant, based upon the information set out in Paper Court (21) 25, on condition that the terms and conditions included in the final offer of grant did not differ in any material aspect from those set out in clause 14 of the template provided to the University Court in support of Paper Court (21) 25. In response to the Principal’s earlier request, approval was also granted for SLT to take decisions on communications around the Innovation Park without further recourse to the Court. A firmer timeline for the development of the Innovation Park would come to a future meeting of the Court.
Mainstreaming Report and Equality Outcomes
Court HOMOLOGATED Chair’s Action taken to approve the publication of the University Mainstreaming Report and Equality Outcomes, and the Equal Pay Audit.
The University Secretary advised that the report, which had been published by the deadline of 30 April 2021 as part of the University’s public sector duties on mainstreaming equality, reviewed progress since the previous report in 2019, and established evidence based equality outcomes for the coming four year period. The Equality Pay Review, which adopted the EHRC definition of a significant pay gap, this being over 5%, set out the gaps and mitigating actions. The Mainstreaming Report and Equality Outcomes, and the Equal Pay Audit had been developed under the auspices of the Equality and Diversity Committee. Thanks were extended to HR, the SU and Trade Unions, and to other contributors to the review process for their constructive participation.
Court NOTED an analysis of complaints handled under the University’s Model Complaint Handling arrangements during the period January 2019 to December 2020 (Court (21) 26).
Finance and Estates Committee
Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Finance and Estates Committee held on 25 May 2021 (FEC (21) MINS 03). There were no matters brought to members’ attention.
Audit and Risk Committee
Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Audit and Risk Committee held on 1 June 2021 (AUDIT (21) MINS 03). One clarification was noted, this being an adjustment to minute 2 to note that Carolyn Bell had been unable to attend remotely as planned due to technical issues at the University.
Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Senate held on 5 May 2021 (SEN (21) MINS 02). There were no matters brought to members’ attention.
Health and Safety Committee
Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Health and Safety Committee held on 8 June 2021 (H&S (21) MINS 02). There were no matters brought to members’ attention.
Equality and Diversity Committee
Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Equality and Diversity Committee held on 15 April 2021 (EDC (21) MINS 03). There were no matters brought to members’ attention.
Dates of Future Meetings
The University Court would meet on the following dates in Session 2021-22:
29 September 2021 (Strategy Day – timings to be confirmed) 24 November 2021 at 3.00 pm
23 February 2022 at 3.00 pm
27 April 2022 at 3.00 pm
22 June 2022 at 3.00 pm