CONFIRMED minutes of the meeting of the University Court held at 3.00 pm on 7 October 2020 by Video Conference.

PRESENT

Linda McPherson (Acting Chair)

Elaine Acaster OBE

Carolyn Bell

Professor Richard Butt

Professor Graham Caie CBE

Colin Cox

Karen Cullen

Dr Maria Giatsi-Clausen

Sir Paul Grice

Cynthia Guthrie

Dr Arturo Langa

Ruth Magowan

Ken McGarrity

Chiara Menozzi

Melanie Moreland

Robert Pattullo

Sarah Phillips

Elizabeth Porter

Dr Eurig Scandrett

Andy White

IN ATTENDANCE

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)

Steve Scott, Director of Campus and Commercial Services

1 WELCOME AND APOLOGIES

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.

Apologies were RECEIVED from Dr Andrew Scott.

Advising that this was the final meeting for two members of the University Court, the Chair extended sincere thanks and appreciation on behalf of the Court to Professor Graham Caie, CBE, Lay member, and to Ruth Magowan, Senate appointed member, for their outstanding contributions during six years of service.

Throughout his tenure, Graham’s contributions to the Court had been informed by his extensive external engagement, his strong international perspective and in-depth understanding of research and quality assurance. As a member of the Equality and Diversity Committee, Graham had contributed to the University’s widening access, student mental health and well-being agendas. Appointed to the role of Convener of the Audit and Risk Committee in 2017, Graham would chair his final meeting of that Committee on 24 November 2020.

Ruth was due to stand down from Senate on 30 November 2020, having served the maximum six year period, which meant that her period of service on the Court ceased also. Court had benefited considerably from Ruth’s expertise and experience, including through her membership of the Nominations Committee, and more recently, her membership of the Principal appointment committee. Members were advised that an election to fill a number of vacancies on the Senate would be conducted shortly, and that Senate would conduct an election amongst all its members thereafter to appoint to the vacant Court role.

In response to the Chair’s comments, Graham expressed his appreciation for the opportunity to contribute to the development of the University, including most recently, in relation to the 2021 REF submission. He thanked the Senior Leadership Team and wider University community for their hard work and support, and wished the University well for the future. Ruth thanked the Chair, the Secretary and wider Court membership for their support over her six year tenure, citing in particular the welcoming and supportive approach to the conduct of meetings, discussion and decisions.

2 CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

There were no conflicts of interest declared.

3 DETERMINATION OF OTHER COMPETENT BUSINESS

There was no other Competent Business identified.

4 CHAIR’S REPORT

The Chair reported on her attendance at the most recent meeting of the Committee of Scottish Chairs (CSC). CSC members had considered the on-going challenges arising from the coronavirus emergency, and an update on the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) review of teaching provision and research activity across the college and university sectors. There had been a healthy response to the SFC’s initial call for evidence on the coherence and sustainability of tertiary education and research during the coronavirus crisis, EU exit transition, and beyond. It was anticipated that an outcome of the first phase of the review would be available by the end of October 2020, although that was subject to confirmation. The review was expected to conclude by summer 2021.

5 MINUTES

The unconfirmed minutes of the Court meeting held on 24 June 2020 (COURT (20) MINS 03) were APPROVED as an accurate record.

The unconfirmed minutes of the Extraordinary Court meeting held on 2 September 2020 (COURT (20) MINS 04) were APPROVED as an accurate record, subject to amendment of a minor typographical error.

6 PRINCIPAL’S REPORT: CORONAVIRUS EMERGENCY

The Principal presented members with a detailed update on the University’s business recovery during the period of the Coronavirus emergency, which included progress in student recruitment for 2020-21, commentary on the wider higher education context, and an assessment of the financial impact.

Members were reminded that the immediate aim of the University’s business recovery planning was the delivery of a safe and successful academic year, with a rich learning environment, achieved through a flexible and creative approach. Longer term business recovery planning, i.e. beyond Academic Session 2020-21, was being undertaken in parallel, founded on the University’s strategic goals and values, and with a focus on financial health as critical enabler for resilience and long term success. The Principal paid tribute to the continued excellent and constructive engagement with the Students’ Union and Trades Union colleagues throughout the business recovery planning process.

Members were advised of the following key matters in particular:

Blended learning

Programmes continued to be delivered through a combination of online and face-to-face learning experiences. Requirements for physical distancing had resulted in the majority of learning experiences being delivered remotely. On campus teaching was possible for small groups, and had been incorporated for all levels, with particular emphasis on the first year student experience. The Principal highlighted the significant academic and social benefits of face-to-face interaction, and the University’s on-going commitment to the blended model, rather than full distance learning delivery. Despite the ongoing challenges, staff continued to respond flexibly and creatively to the circumstances. Students had similarly adapted well. Early student feedback in semester one demonstrated that students were appreciative of the efforts to incorporate face-to-face learning wherever possible. Blended learning would continue to be the default in semester two, building on good practice emerging in semester one, and with the benefit of additional planned investment in technology.

Campus environment

As reported previously to Court, strong safety measures were in place, including an enhanced cleaning regime, one way systems, and other adjustments to support physical distancing. Whilst numbers were significantly lower than usual on campus, the Principal was pleased to report a good atmosphere. All key services and facilities were operational on campus, albeit with necessary modifications. These included Student Services, the Learning Resource Centre and catering outlets. The Students’ Union was also open, making a vital contribution to student welfare and the wider student experience.

Student occupancy levels in the residences were relatively high, at just over 90%. The University was working closely with the NHS Lothian Health Protection Team to respond appropriately to incidences of Covid-19. Thus far, cases had been comparatively low. Support for isolating students was being provided on a case by case basis, taking account of individual needs and with excellent support from the Res Life Team. On-going engagement with students was vital to help the University understand and be better placed to respond to their needs. Recent live discussion forums with the Senior Leadership Team had been very positive, confirming good student understanding of the restrictions and adaptations.

Recruitment and retention

Recruitment figures were largely positive, although some uncertainty remained around final numbers and fees mix at this stage in the matriculation cycle. Undergraduate entry levels were around 6% above the planned intake, with a small number of programmes having over-recruited following adjustment to Scottish Higher results. Taught postgraduate numbers would be confirmed in semester two, following the January start date for a number of programmes, including pre-registration healthcare programmes, which had been deferred from September 2020. Retention rates were also encouraging, with an indicative progression figure, at this stage, of 91%. In line with usual practice, withdrawals and deferrals would continue to be subject to close monitoring over the course of the year.

Financial update

The Principal provided headline information on the current financial position. The 2019-20 estimated outturn deficit remained unchanged from the June 2020 forecast of c£1.2m. The forecast deficit for 2020-21 was £2.3m, this being an improvement on the £3.8m June 2020 estimate. There remained considerable uncertainty over 2020-21, especially in relation to taught postgraduate fees and income from residences and commercial income, including summer language schools. Further detailed information provided under Minute 7 below.

External context

The Senior Leadership Team continued to engage extensively with the Scottish Government, and with other agencies and initiatives, both to support Scotland’s recovery from the coronavirus emergency, and to influence and respond to other national and sector priorities. The Principal extended his thanks to Senior Leadership Team colleagues in particular for their sustained and impactful external contribution, as well as sincerely thanking the many other colleagues working externally on behalf of the University.

As reported previously to Court, the University had made individual and joint submissions to the Scottish Funding Council review of the coherence and sustainability of teaching provision and research activity. There was also extensive work ongoing across the University to develop new and existing partnerships internationally, nationally and locally. Such partnerships increasingly took the form of collaborative activity with universities and colleges.

Detailed consideration of the impact of Brexit had not been included within the presentation, as it was difficult to make any concrete plans until such time as further detail became available from the Scottish and UK governments. However, members were reminded that Brexit was included within the University’s risk register, and advised that further updates would come to future meetings of the Court.

Following the Principal’s presentation, the Student President and Student Vice-President provided an overview of work being progressed through the Students’ Union, together with an update on the student experience from their perspective. Both reiterated the importance of a strong partnership between the University and Students’ Union, noting that this provided a necessary channel for the student voice to be heard at all levels.

Members were advised of positive feedback from students on the opportunities for face-to-face learning, and that the Students’ Union had also delivered a blended programme of welcome activities designed to help students develop networks, and to support good mental health and wellbeing. Societies had largely returned successfully, with good student engagement, although mostly online. Maintaining a sporting presence presented particular challenges, due to the evolving regulations and guidance. The University had funded a Compliance Officer role to assist in ensuring that a return to individual and team sports was managed safely. The Student Vice-President expressed his personal thanks to the University for this investment. The Students’ Union continued to work in partnership with other HEIs to share experiences and pool resources, where appropriate.

The Chair thanked the Principal for his 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.

7 FINANCIAL UPDATE

7.1 Year ended 31 July 2020 outturn

Court RECEIVED an update on the draft financial outturn for the year ended 31 July 2020 (COURT (20) 21).

Speaking to the paper, the Director of Operations and Finance advised that the draft underlying outturn position, prior to adjustments for pension provision movements and revaluation of buildings, was a deficit of £1.207m. This represented a slight improvement on the quarter three forecast outturn, and was within £250k of the original (pre-Covid) budget deficit figure. The position remained compliant with all covenants.

Key changes since quarter three were identified as follows: the reclassification of some items between research and other income; provision of some additional SFC grant income; a small amount of additional tuition fee income; a reduction in staff costs due to higher recovery through the furlough scheme and non-filling of some posts (including summer seasonal staff); and additional non-staff costs on research projects and on Covid-related costs. Pension provision adjustments were expected to result in a significant negative movement, although this would not affect the short-term cash position. Discussions were underway regarding potential property revaluation adjustments, an update on which would come to a future meeting.

The Chair thanked the Director of Operations and Finance for his presentation, acknowledging the sustained and successful efforts across the University to remain within the pre-Covid budget.

7.2 Financial forecast 2020-21

Court RECEIVED an update on the financial forecast for 2020-21 (COURT (20) 22).

Speaking to the paper, the Director of Operations and Finance advised that the forecast deficit had reduced from the previously reported position of £3.8m to £2.3m. The most significant factor contributing to the deficit reduction was the estimated increase in tuition fee income, based on the most up to date student numbers. Additional funding was expected as a result of the Scottish Funding Council’s temporary removal of the cap previously associated with controlled numbers. Additional research funding had also been secured. However, this was matched by an increase in cost. The projected cash flow position continued to comply with the bank covenant for the 2020-21 period, an important factor being the receipt of £1.4m from Persimmon in respect of infrastructure costs. The forecast included a limited allowance for strategic investment, for example to support the delivery of blended learning.

Early consideration was being given to the 2021-22 forecast. However, this was highly dependent on the 2020-21 outturn and associated factors, including semester two postgraduate recruitment, retention of students in accommodation, summer language school business, and more generally, the path of the coronavirus pandemic. A further update on the 2020-21 and longer term forecasts would come to the December meeting of the Court.

Members discussed the forthcoming audit, and in particular the requirement for the Court to form a view on the appropriateness of the use of the going concern basis of accounting in the preparation of the University’s financial statements. The Director of Operations and Finance reported that discussions were in progress with Ernst and Young, and that he expected to have a detailed draft submission available for the December meeting of the Court. The submission would also be subject to scrutiny from the Finance and Estates Committee and the Audit and Risk Committee. Whilst it was expected that the University could meet the deadline, it was advised to members that the SFC had allowed additional leeway due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in particular the requirement for additional audit work on the going concern matter.

8 KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS

8.1 Fourth quarter report 2019-20

Court RECEIVED the fourth quarter KPI report for 2019-20 (COURT (20) 23). Key points captured in the report were as detailed below.

  • Financial sustainability: Most indicators under this section were being finalised as part of the detailed outturn for 2019-20. Fundraising and development figures for this update provided the full year position, which was above target.
  • Student recruitment: Queen Margaret University’s share of SFC funded places had increased to 2.1%, and was now above the baseline. This was due to additional places for Initial Teacher Education, Nursing and Paramedic Science.
  • Quality: Most indicators were close to target. The student/staff ratio had moved to over 19:1. This figure was not significantly higher than comparable post-92 universities
  • Student experience: The National Student Survey satisfaction rate was just below target at 83%, and up 1% from 2019.
  • Staff and human resources: Staff turnover for the year was 11%, this being just above target. The annual absence level was below target at 2.2%.

8.2 Proposed suite of KPIs

Court RECEIVED and APPROVED a proposed suite of KPIs to be monitored by the Court (COURT (20) 24).

Speaking to the paper, the Head of Planning explained that the proposed KPIs had been derived from the ‘Our Targets by 2025’ section of the Strategic Plan. As such, they would focus on progress towards high level strategic goals, rather than operational matters. More operational KPIs would be subject to consideration and monitoring by the Senior Leadership Team. However, where issues of concern were flagged up by one or more of the summary KPIs, Court members would be able to seek more detailed reports on any operational issues preventing the KPI from being met. An example was given of the National Student Survey results, which were considered in detail through the academic governance arrangements, with only the top level satisfaction score being reported routinely to the Court, this being the metric most commonly cited externally and included in league table methodology.

Many of the targets in the Strategic Plan considered the University’s relative position. Whilst performance relative to the sector was captured in the proposed KPIs to be monitored by Court, absolute target measures had also been included, with suggested milestones and baselines. Targets for some of the KPIs still needed to be developed following specific pieces of work in the Delivery Plan, which had been delayed as a result of the pandemic. These were expected to become available no later than the February 2021 meeting of Court, in line with budgetary planning. It was confirmed that some projections would be updated annually, for example student numbers, which necessarily influenced overall income projections.

Given the flexible nature of the Delivery Plan, there would be scope to review the KPIs on an on-going basis, if it became apparent that they were no longer appropriate, or could be expressed better, or that new KPIs were required. There would also be opportunity to develop the overall approach and balance of strategic and operational oversight, as required.

9 LAND DEVELOPMENT

Court RECEIVED an oral update on the land development project. In his previous report to Court, the Director of Campus and Commercial Services had updated members on preparation of the Full Business Case (FBC) associated with the City Deal.  Reports from the Consultants PwC on the status of the FBC had been positive, and a sub group of the Finance and Estates Committee had also considered and commented on it.  Work on the FBC proper had been paused, with the outputs being used as the basis for discussions between the University and East Lothian Council on the commercial structure that should be put in place by the partners to enable the Innovation Hub and the wider Edinburgh Innovation Park to develop. These discussions had been protracted but were now moving towards a conclusion. As a result, the University and East Lothian Council were intending to submit a draft of the current FBC to the City Deal Project Management Office for initial consideration and feedback.

A more detailed report on progress with key activities would be provided to the next scheduled FEC and Court meetings in November and December respectively.

10 SCOTTISH FUNDING COUNCIL UPDATE

10.1 Annual Statement on Institutional Review Activity

Court HOMOLOGATED Chair’s action to approve the Annual Report to the Scottish Funding Council on Institutional Review Activity 2019-20 (COURT (20) 25).

The Chair commended the report to members as a comprehensive overview of institution-led quality review activity and continuous enhancement of the student experience. Responding to a specific question about a decline in student satisfaction with timeliness of assessment feedback, the Deputy Principal explained that the reasons for this were under active consideration, with industrial action emerging as a factor. More positively, student satisfaction with other aspects of assessment and feedback had not experienced a similar decline.

10.2 Statement of Assurance

Court HOMOLOGATED Chair’s Action to approve the University Court Statement of Assurance to the Scottish Funding Council (COURT (20) 26).

11 RESEARCH EXCELLENCE FRAMEWORK

11.1 Concordat on Researcher Development

Court RECEIVED the Annual Report on the University’s Compliance with the Concordat on Researcher Development (COURT (20) 27).

Speaking to the paper, the Deputy Principal advised members that the University had been one of the first universities in the UK and Europe to be awarded the HR Excellence in Research Award by the European Commission in September 2010. The University had also been one of the first UK universities to sign up to the Concordat in October 2019. The 2019 Concordat provided impetus to drive the research agenda forward through systemic change, to share good practice and to ensure that the highest standards are applied consistently throughout the UK. Importantly, it sought to address the issues of most concern to researchers, such as the prevalence of fixed-term contracts and enforced mobility. The HR Excellence in Research Award badge had been developed to acknowledge institutions’ alignment with the principles of the European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for their Recruitment.

The Annual Report had been submitted in support of retention of the HR Excellence in Research Award and to support compliance with the 2019 Researcher Development Concordat. It was a requirement for all signatories to the Concordat to produce an annual report to their governing body or equivalent authority, including strategic objectives, measures of success, implementation plan and progress report. The Deputy Principal highlighted the importance of the Concordat as a means of valuing the contribution of current staff, and of attracting new staff. Whilst there was a particular focus on contract researchers, the report also demonstrated the University’s commitment to the wider research community, covering a wide range of themes including integrity, wellbeing, networking and career planning.

The Court welcomed the Annual Report and actions therein, noting the significant challenges facing contract researchers. In discussion, members noted some of the key actions, including mentoring, support in identifying funding, and facilitating access to wider external research networks, including the Scottish Graduate Schools for Arts and Humanities (SGSAH) and Social Sciences (SGSSS).

11.2 Research integrity Statement

Court RECEIVED and NOTED the University Research Integrity Statement (COURT (20) 28).

12 SENATE

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the Senate held on 2 July 2020 (SEN (20) MINS 02).

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the Extraordinary meeting of the Senate held on 30 September 2020 (SEN (20) MINS 03).

13 FINANCE AND ESTATES COMMITTEE

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Finance and Estates Committee held on 28 September 2020 (FEC (20) MINS 03).

The Convener advised that, whilst the financial position remained challenging, it was encouraging to note the positive updates, as reported earlier by the Director of Operations and Finance (minute 7 refers).

14 AUDIT AND RISK COMMITTEE

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Audit and Risk Committee held on 25 September 2020 (AUDIT (20) MINS 03). The following matters were brought to members’ attention:

  • Student Experience Strategy audit (minute 4.1 refers): The audit report confirmed that the Student Experience Strategy was well-established and clearly aligned to the University’s objectives, and that key areas of the student experience were addressed in the form of annual action updates. One low risk area for improvement had been noted in relation to identifying completion dates to monitor the progress of all actions within the annual update. This was being addressed.
  • Rebranding of Scott-Moncrieff to Azets (minute 4.3 refers): It was noted that there were no changes to the service levels or agreements currently in place because of the change in name.
  • Outstanding audit recommendations (minute 5 refers): It was noted that Covid-19 had delayed progress relating to information security. As part of the progress, a multi-level authentication process was being trialled, and would be rolled out to all staff this year.
  • Risk management (minute 6 refers): The planned risk appetite workshop, which would be facilitated by Azets, had been rearranged as an online session. The risk management workshop would form part of a more extensive review of the University’s risk strategy. The Committee noted that a paper had been tabled on risk but requested that a full discussion paper be presented to the Committee firstly proposing the current risk appetite, thresholds and tolerances and any amendments or changes required in the short term and secondly proposing an approach to reviewing and implementing a fuller risk management policy and framework for approval in 2021.

15 NOMINATIONS COMMITTEE

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Nominations Committee held on 28 September 2020 (NOM (20) MINS 02). The following matters were brought to members’ attention:

(a)        Appointment of Chair (Minute 4.1 refers)

At the advertised closing date, further application had been received for the advertised vacancy for a Chair. Subject to the Appointment Committee agreeing that the applicant satisfactorily demonstrated that they met the relevant criteria to be entitled to stand as a candidate, it was planned that an election would be conducted by the end of the calendar year.

(b)        Lay Court membership (Minute 4.2 refers)

The Committee had considered an application for Lay Court membership and had agreed that the applicant met fully the criteria to progress to the next stage of the appointment process. The applicant would be invited to meet with the Committee, the precise format of the meeting to be discussed and agreed with the candidate, and to comply with current restrictions on physical distancing. Delegated approval was sought from the University Court for the Committee to appoint to one of the lay member vacancies, subject to satisfactory discussion with the Committee.

Court AGREED that the Committee be provided with delegated authority to appoint to one of the vacant places.

(c)        Appointment to Standing Committees of the University Court (minute 4.2 refers)

Court APPROVED the recommendation from the Nominations Committee that the following members, all of whom had confirmed that they would be content to do so, should continue to serve on the respective committee for a further 3 term of office.

  • Ken McGarrity, re-appointed to the Finance and Estates Committee.
  • Sarah Phillips, re-appointed to the Health and Safety Committee.
  • Elaine Acaster, re-appointed to the Audit and Risk Committee
  • Carolyn Bell, re-appointed to the Audit and Risk Committee.

16 HEALTH AND SAFETY COMMITTEE

Court NOTED the minutes of the meeting of the Health and Safety Committee held on 25 June 2020 (H&S (20) MINS 03).

Court NOTED the minutes of the meeting of the Health and Safety Committee held on 24 September 2020 (H&S (20) MINS 04). Members’ attention was drawn to the discussion concerning the potential resurrection of the Stress Risk Assessment Working Group, meetings of which were suspended in March 2020 due to Covid-19 related restrictions. The Committee had agreed that the Working Group would re-commence its work in due course, although a meeting would not be scheduled in the short-term in acknowledgment of concerns about staff workload.

Members were advised that individual stress risk assessments continued to be used to support staff members experiencing work-related stress. In parallel with this, staff workload was being kept under review. The Senior Leadership Team had encouraged staff to identify tasks that could be delayed, reduced or stopped altogether during the pandemic. Further, staff had been advised of flexibility in relation to timetabled face to face contact hours on campus, and notified that there was an additional staffing budget which could be used to supplement staff resource where Covid-19 related adaptations had increased staff workload.

17 DATES OF FUTURE MEETINGS

Dates for Ordinary meetings of the University Court were provided as set out below:

  • 9 December 2020 at 3.00 pm
  • 3 February 2021 – time tbc
  • 31 March 2021 at 3.00 pm
  • 23 June 2021 at 3.00 pm

The Strategy Days would take place on 3 and 4 February 2021.

Contact the Quality Team