Queen Margaret University Court - CONFIRMED Minutes of the meeting held on 7 October 2020

University Court 

Confirmed minutes of the meeting of the University Court held at 3.00 pm on 9 December 2020 by Video Conference.


Court Members  Court Members

Linda McPherson (Acting Chair)

Carolyn Bell

Elaine Acaster OBE

Dr Maria Giatsi-Clausen

Professor Richard Butt

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


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)

Steve Scott

Director of Campus and Commercial Services

Professor David Stevenson

Acting Dean, Arts, Social Sciences and Management


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.

Particular welcome was extended to Professor John Harper, attending his first meeting of the Court following his recent appointment to the lay membership (minute 7.3 refers). John thanked the Chair for the very warm welcome, noting that he looked forward to being able to contribute to the work of the Court and the University.

Apologies were NOTED from Frank Lennon, Elizabeth Porter and Andy White.

Conflicts and Interest

There were no conflicts of interest declared. In the interests of transparency, Dr Arturo Langa advised that he had been working with Price Waterhouse Coopers in a professional capacity (Paper Court (20) 35 makes reference).

Determination of Other Competent Business

There was no other Competent Business identified.

Chair Report

The Chair reported that she had been unable to attend the most recent meeting of the Committee of Scottish Chairs (CSC). However, she would update members on any matters of interest once the minutes from that meeting became available.

Since the previous meeting of the Court, the Chair had convened the appointment committee progressing the arrangements for the appointment to the Chair of Court vacancy, an update on which would be provided to members (minute 7.1 refers).

Principal's Report

The Principal presented a detailed update on key developments since the previous meeting of the Court (COURT (20) 29). Matters discussed included the following:

(a) Semester one adaptations

The University had met its stated objective of delivering high quality teaching and research throughout the first semester, as well as providing support to students, both on campus and online. The Principal expressed his sincere thanks to academic and professional services, Students’ Union and Trades Union colleagues for their on-going creative and collegiate response to the challenges posed by Covid-19. He paid tribute also to the hard work and resilience of the student body, noting that students’ generosity of spirit under these testing circumstances had been appreciated especially. The survey on teaching and learning which had been recently conducted by the Students Union confirmed that students were appreciative of staff efforts to deliver a blended learning experience. The results demonstrated also that the majority of students expressed a preference for some element of face-to-face delivery, where possible.

(b) Festive period arrangements

The University was participating in the UK-wide programme of mass asymptomatic testing for Covid-19 as part of the efforts to ensure that students who wished to change household over the Festive period were able to do so safely. The Principal extended particular thanks to the University Secretary, and to Ruth Magowan, former Court member, for their leadership in establishing the testing centre within the very short time- scale provided. He also thanked campus services colleagues, and the student testing workforce for their important contributions. An equivalent programme of testing would be in place for semester two.

It was expected that an increased number of students would remain on campus over the festive break compared to previous years. Arrangements were in place to ensure student access to a range of support services and facilities during the ‘closure’ period.

Staff from Student Services and the Registry would offer dedicated telephone support and a staffed on-line helpline, while the Learning Resource Centre would remain open, as would Maggie’s bar and café on identified selected dates.

In recognition of the enormous effort from staff, and their significant flexibility in adapting to the different ways of working required this year, an additional three days’ break had been allocated over the festive period. Importantly, actions had also been implemented in response to a recently conducted staff survey on the impact of the changes arising from Covid-19. This included actions to support and promote staff wellbeing. A full report would be published shortly, including further consideration of support for home working.

(c) Semester two update

The Scottish Government would publish shortly its formal guidance on a staggered return of students to campus following the winter break. Scottish universities had provided detailed comment and advice to inform the potential arrangements, with a particular focus on the logistical challenges presented by the suggested stagger. The implementation of the guidance would result in a number of undergraduate programmes being delivered online post-Christmas, rather than on campus. Undergraduate placements and other practical activity at the start of semester two would continue as planned, in line with the exemptions provided within the staggered return. Postgraduate pre-registration students were also expected to be able to start as planned in January 2021.

The Principal welcomed the on-going commitment from staff to maintaining and building upon the quality of teaching delivered in semester one. It would be important to reflect on the effectiveness of adaptations put in place during the pandemic, and to be open to the prospect that a number of the learning and teaching practices implemented in response to Covid-19 could be retained longer term.

(d) Recruitment for 2021-22

There had been excellent attendance at recent on-line Open Days. Whilst still relatively early in the UCAS application process, undergraduate applications and offers were up by some 20% on the same time last year. As projected, there had been an inevitable and significant drop in EU applications (other than from Ireland). However, this was being offset by an increase in Home, Rest of UK and Irish applications. A decision from the Scottish Government on tuition fees for students from the Republic of Ireland was awaited, but, along with other institutions, the University would consider a number of strategies to retain numbers, including scholarships. It remained too early in the postgraduate application cycle to make an informed judgement on the likely September intake, but the pattern was much the same as for undergraduate applications. The Principal expected to be in a position to provide a further update to the February meeting of the Court.

(e) Financial position

The underlying outturn position for 2019-20 (at a deficit of just over £1m) was in line with the previous forecast, and just above the original pre-Covid budgeted outturn. The final reported position had been affected by sizeable adjustments to the valuation of land and buildings and to pension provisions. Although the 2020-21 forecast had improved from a deficit of £3.8m to a deficit of £2.3m since the summer, this continued to represent a significant shortfall on pre-Covid expectations. The key element in determining the final outcome would be the extent of the semester two student intake, along with the extent of the recovery of commercial income during the remainder of the financial year. The cash position remained relatively strong. Further detail on the financial position would be provided later on the agenda (minutes 8.1 and 9 refer).

(f) Scottish Funding Council review of coherence and sustainability

The report on the first phase of the SFC’s review of coherence and sustainability in Scotland’s colleges and universities had been published shortly after the October 2020 meeting of the Court. Members had been provided with a copy of the review report as an item for information, along with papers for the meeting. The review flagged up potential opportunities, as well as threats, within a generally challenging environment for future Higher Education funding. A key theme running through the report was the need for increased collaboration, both between universities, and between universities and colleges and other bodies. The University was well placed to respond to this agenda, being involved currently in a wide range of collaborative work, including in research and in a range of partnerships with Further and Higher education providers locally and nationally. Discussions to identify additional opportunities were already established between HE and FE Principals, and between other senior colleagues from both sectors.

(g) Research activity

Final preparations for the University’s submission to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) were being progressed under the auspices of the REF Strategy Group and the Research Strategy Committee, The submission would be considered by the REF Strategy Group in February 2021, for final submission to the REF by 31 March 2021. As reported to members at the previous meeting, the European Commission had awarded the University the 10 Year European HR Excellence in Research Award in recognition of its commitment to the 2019 Concordat for Researcher Development.

(h) Land development

Good progress had been made in reaching agreement with East Lothian Council on the commercial aspects of the Innovation Hub development. The Full Business Case to support the bid for City Deal funding was also now well developed, and this would be brought to the Court for consideration and approval in due course (minute 12 below refers).

(i) Key Performance Indicators

Following the helpful discussion at the previous Court meeting, the Principal had reflected further with senior colleagues on proposed KPIs. Updated proposals on an appropriate suite of KPIs would be presented further to the Court (minute 10 below refers).

(j) Personal appointments

The Principal had recently accepted two non-executive appointments; as a trustee (and Chair Designate) of the Queen’s Nursing Institute (Scotland), and to the Board of the British University in Egypt, a long-standing partner in Cairo. Sir Paul continued to serve as a Council member of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

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. On behalf of the University Court, the Chair extended particular appreciation to the University Secretary and to Ruth Magowan for their work on the testing centre. In discussion, members covered a range of matters including the following:

  • EU student funding arrangements: As noted earlier, the number of applications from EU students had declined sharply for undergraduate UCAS courses, which would no longer be funded for students not domiciled in Scotland. Universities were in discussion with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council to identify possible alternative funding methodology. The University’s Academic Planning Board had considered the impact on tuition fees at its most recent meeting, with particular consideration given to incentivising international recruitment.
  • Student retention: The continuing importance of student support mechanisms and responsiveness to individual circumstances was recognised as critical to student persistence. Student retention was being monitored carefully and kept under close review, taking account of the many factors arising from Covid-19, including the decision to cancel Highers and Advanced Highers for the second consecutive year in 2021.
  • SFC review: It was suggested that the SFC phase one review report would provide an important topic for strategic discussion by the University Court. The outcomes from phases one to three should be considered against the broader context of Brexit and the forthcoming Scottish election.

Minutes of the Previous Meeting

The unconfirmed minutes of the Court meeting held on 7 October 2020 (COURT (20) MINS 05) were APPROVED as an accurate record, subject to an amendment to minute 14, provided separately in writing to the Chair and Secretary, and to the addition of the following sentence: ‘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’.

Matters Arising form the Minutes

7.1 Minute 15 (a): Nominations Committee: Appointment of Chair

Court RECEIVED an oral report on progress with the arrangements for the election to appoint to the vacant post of Chair of Court. Two candidates were eligible to stand for election in January 2021. The election time-table, which extended over a maximum of 15 days, would launch in the week commencing 11 January 2021, with candidates being announced to the electorate on 13 January 2021. As members were aware, the electorate consisted of all staff and matriculated students of the University at the census date of 1 December 2020, as well as all Court members. The ballot was being conducted by Civica (previously known as the Electoral Reform Society), a third party organisation appointed to conduct the electronic election. As part of the election process, both candidates would participate in open meetings with the electorate. It was planned that the successful candidate would attend the February meeting of the Court in an observer capacity.

7.2  Minute 15 (b): Nominations Committee: Lay Court membership

Court NOTED the appointment, under delegated powers approved by the Court, of Professor John Harper for a three-year term of office commencing on 1 December 2020.

7.3  Minute 15 (c): Nominations Committee: Appointment to Standing Committees of the University Court

Court APPROVED the recommendation that Robert Pattullo be appointed to the vacant position of Convener of the Audit and Risk Committee.

Year End Update

8.1 Financial statements for the year ended 31 July 2020

Court RECEIVED a report on progress in finalising the financial statements for the year ended 31 July 2020 (COURT (20) 30).

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) deadline for submission of financial statements had been pushed back to 28 February 2021 in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing additional work to be undertaken on the going concern assessment. In the meantime, the SFC return submitted by the original deadline of 30 November 2020 showed the outturn position for 2019-20 and the updated forecast for 2020-21 as set out in subsequent paper on the Quarter one update (Minute 9 below refers).

As advised earlier by the Principal (Minute 5 refers), the underlying deficit for 2019-20 was just over £1 million, representing an improvement of £200k from the Quarter three forecast. A key factor leading to this improvement was a reduction in staff costs, which had reduced by £573k. However, other operating expenses had increased by £386k. The University remained within £100k of the initial (pre-Covid) budget deficit of £959k and compliant with bank covenants. The reported increase in pension liability was largely attributable to an increase in the Lothian Pension Fund provision of £15.4 million. Information received recently indicated that there would be no increase in employer contributions before April 2024. This provided a welcome degree of certainty. After adjustments, the overall deficit after pension adjustments and revaluation adjustments was £10.9 million (compared to surplus of £17.2 million in the previous year). Cash balances had increased by £700k over the year.

An audit closure meeting was planned with Ernst and Young for 10 December 2020, following which there might be a revision in figures, particularly with regard to the treatment of the £1.4m received in August 2020 from Persimmon, which could be recognised in the 2019-20 financial year. A joint meeting of the Finance and Estates and the Audit and Risk Committees would take place in January 2021 to review the updated financial statements, with particular focus on the going concern assessment. Ernst and Young would attend the meeting. Work was also being undertaken on scenarios and stress testing (including reverse stress testing).

The Chair thanked the Director of Operations and Finance for the detailed report. Court NOTED the draft outturn position for the year ended 31 July 2020, and the work being undertaken to enable Court to make an assessment of going concern. The final audited statements, along with information required for Court to undertake its review of going concern, would be provided to the Court at its meeting in February 2021.

8.2 Key Performance Indicators Quarter four update

Court RECEIVED an update on the fourth quarter KPI report for 2019-20 (COURT (20) 31). Financial details had been covered in full earlier (Minute 8.1 refers). Other key points captured in the report were as detailed below.

  • Reliance on SFC funding was 44%. This increase had not been flagged as concerning. It reflected the University’s success in securing additional funded places, and the relative reduction in other income from student accommodation and vacation letting in the final quarter of the financial year.
  • Continuation figures in general, and for SIMD20 in particular, were below target, with the latter showing 87.3% compared with the target of 92%. This would be evaluated as part of the Outcome Agreement process.
  • Graduate level employment was reported as 73%, placing QMU in the bottom quartile of Scottish universities. It was explained that the figure was taken from information published in league tables, which was calculated from experimental data derived from a revised destination of leavers’ survey (the Graduate Outcomes Survey). The overall graduate employment figure was not available. Additional league table data would become available in spring 2021, with longitudinal data updated annually. It was noted that the graduate participation rate had fallen from around 80% under the previous survey methodology, to around 50%, and that this had likely had an impact on the results. Notably, there had also been a higher response rate from programmes with a lower graduate level employment rate historically, as defined under the Standard Occupation Classification codes.
  • Both the gross income and net contribution from research and knowledge exchange were below target. Covid-19 had impacted in this area, as a number of projects had been paused.

Quarter One Financial Update

Court RECEIVED a report on the financial position for the three months to 31 October 2020 and on the updated forecast outturn for financial year 2020-21 (COURT (20) 32).

Introducing the report, the Director of Operations and Finance advised that there were no major concerns emerging in quarter one. The year to date position against revised budget showed a favourable variance of £63k, reflecting a higher SFC grants figure offset by a lower level of research activity, as well as savings in pay and non-pay costs. However, it was noted that an element of the year-to-date variances resulted from timing differences between quarters.

There had been a small improvement in the forecast outturn for the year, with the forecast deficit now sitting at £2.158m. An increase was forecast in tuition fee income, as well as an increase in other costs, mainly related to Covid-19. Key factors with potential to affect the position in semester two were student recruitment and retention following the winter break, as well as the impact of Covid-19 on summer 2021 commercial activities. It was expected that there would be greater certainty around these factors in the February update to the Court.

Key Performance Indicators

Court RECEIVED a paper on the development of key performance indicators for 2020- 21 (Court 20 (33)).

At the previous meeting, it had been agreed to adopt a revised set of quarterly KPIs with a sharper focus on measuring those activities with the greatest impact on the University’s ability to achieve its strategic goals. Following the discussion at the Court meeting, the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) had given further consideration to the proposed set of KPIs. In particular, the SLT had noted that reporting on some KPIs at an early stage in the academic year, and particularly after the first quarter, was of limited usefulness.

The SLT intended to review further the establishment of a set of KPIs to assess progress in delivery of the University Strategy, and which would enable Court to gain a clear view of such progress. In particular, the inclusion of additional lead indicators would be considered, such indicators providing management with early sights of the need to take action. It was planned that a further proposal on KPIs would be brought to the February meeting of Court (having first been considered by the Finance and Estates Committee). Current KPIs would continue to be monitored, and the Court would be informed of any areas of concern as a matter of course. This approach had been discussed and endorsed by the Finance and Estates Committee at its meeting on 26 November 2020.

An update was provided to Court on student numbers in quarter one, reiterating the following key points highlighted earlier on the agenda (Minutes 4 and 8.1 refer):

  • There remained a significant degree of uncertainty regarding projected fee income for 2020-21. The position would become clearer once the actual uptake of offers for January 2021 was confirmed.
  • Applications for 2021-22 showed a decline in applicants from the EU. The Scottish Government had not yet confirmed the fee status of Irish students from 2021-22. This had potential to affect the fees mix on QMU’s healthcare programmes in particular.
  • Whilst a number of programmes would be able to compensate for the shortfall in EU students through recruitment of Scottish students, this might prove problematic in others, based on historic application rates. Specific consideration was being given to these programmes for 2021-22 recruitment.

Court NOTED the quarter one update and commended the SLT on the oversight of finances and maintenance of a satisfactory financial position against the backdrop of the coronavirus emergency. Members looked forward to a further update on the wider development of the KPIs. It was confirmed that the SU Sabbatical officers would have an important role in the review and oversight of the KPIs once these were established.

Risk Management

Court RECEIVED proposals to complete a review of the University’s risk management processes and to review the University’s updated corporate risk register (Court (20) 34)).

Introducing the paper, the Head of Planning reminded members that an audit of the University’s risk management processes in early 2020 had resulted in a positive report, with a number of areas of good practice identified. One area identified for improvement was the development of a fully comprehensive risk management process, including a risk escalation process. Following the audit, the Audit and Risk Committee (ARC) had initiated a comprehensive analysis of the process of assessing risk. The corporate risk register and an outline draft of a risk management strategy had been considered both by ARC and the Senior Leadership Team. Court NOTED the following key points arising from these discussions:

  • The development of the risk management strategy presented an opportunity to revisit the corporate risk register, and to enhance alignment with the Strategic Plan.
  • Consideration should be given to a more detailed matrix to assess risk impact and capture more fully the impact of mitigating actions.
  • The corporate risk register should consider both risks associated with threats to the University and risks associated with active decisions being made and opportunities being considered by the University.
  • In the context of considering risk associated with active decisions and opportunities, consideration should be given to separating out the Innovation Hub/City Deal project as a distinct risk.
  • The planned workshop on risk appetite should be based around the strategic goals in the University’s refreshed Strategic Plan.

Court NOTED the risks in the current Corporate Risk Register and the rationale for their categorisation. Disruption caused by Covid-19 had been identified as the single biggest risk affecting the University. An update on progress would come to the following meeting of the Court in February 2021.

(Secretary’s Note: Draft proposals will be reviewed by the Audit and Risk Committee on 26 February 2021, with further update reported to the University Court on 31 March).

Land Development Update

Court RECEIVED an update on the Land Development Project (Court (20) 35)). The paper provided an update on progress with the Full Business Case (FBC), a draft of which had been submitted recently to the City Deal Project Management Office. A timeline for finalising the FBC was included as an Appendix. Other key project activities included the Master Development Programme, development of the A1 junction, and the Commercial Zone. The overall budget for the Hub was confirmed as being £36m (including any irrecoverable VAT) with no capital contribution from QMU. A workshop held on 30 October 2020 had developed a set of agreed principles which would, in turn, enable a heads of terms for the QMU Innovation Hub and Edinburgh Innovation Park to be created.

Court welcomed the significant progress towards project activities, as well as the outcomes from the heads of terms workshop. Responding to a question about the impact of the coronavirus on the commercial site, the Director of Campus and Commercial Services confirmed that the development was progressing in line with expectations for operating circumstances post-Covid, taking account of anticipated risks.


Court RECEIVED the minutes of the Senate held on 28 October 2020 (SEN (20) MINS 04). There were no matters arising.

Finance and Estate Committee

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Finance and Estates Committee held on 26 November 2020 (FEC (20) MINS 04). Matters arising had been discussed elsewhere in the meeting.

Audit and Risk Committee

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Audit and Risk Committee held on 24 November 2020 (AUDIT (20) MINS 04). Members NOTED the positive outcome from the recent audit of governance arrangements.

Equality and Diversity Committee

Court RECEIVED the minutes of the meeting of the Equality and Diversity Committee held on 29 October 2020 (EDC (20) MINS 03). The Principal advised Court of the recent successful ‘lightning talks’ event, through which staff and students had shared their approaches to decolonising the curriculum. Work would continue to progress this important University and sector wide priority.

Date of Future Meeting

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

10 February 2021 at 3.00 pm 31 March 2021 at 3.00 pm 23 June 2021 at 3.00 pm

The Strategy Days were noted as having been originally planned on campus on 3 and 4 February 2021. However, it was suggested that this arrangement be revisited, as coronavirus restrictions were unlikely to permit a face to face meeting until later in the year. The Senior Leadership Team undertook to consider further the timing and format of the Strategy Days.

(Secretary’s Note: The Strategy Days on 3 and 4 February 2021 were cancelled and members notified accordingly).

The Principal recorded his continuing appreciation of the extent to which Court members had been constructive, challenging and supportively engaged over the year. On behalf of the Court, the Chair encouraged University staff and student members to continue to call on the services of Court members, where appropriate.