COVID-19 has been a challenge for everyone in Essex and the University is no different. This year has been tough, but as 2021 approaches, we are also looking at the best way to bounce back – and in particular to continue to support the local communities of which we are part.
We adapted during the first lockdown to protect the health of students and staff and to minimise the impact on learning. Our overall income was reduced by £12.6m, as we saw footfall on our campuses drop and summer bookings cancelled and we did the right thing by reimbursing students who vacated their University managed accommodation.
We put in place some really tough cost saving measures, suspending all but essential building expenditure, furloughing staff where necessary and limiting our operational costs. I'm proud our staff rose to these challenges and did an exceptional job. In just days we moved all teaching and assessment on-line, then continued supporting over 1,600 students who stayed on our campuses and in the summer awarded degrees to our final year students. One of the most painful decisions taken was to postpone our July graduation ceremonies, which are the absolute highlight of our year and the capstone of our students’ time at the University.
Given all the uncertainty, we felt it right to plan for the whole of our new academic year to be delivered on campus if possible, but on-line if necessary, and we accompanied this with a phased return of students to our campuses. We are now investing more than £10m in on-line teaching and support services and making our campuses COVID-19 secure. We also established our own testing centres and, to date have administered over 10,000 tests to staff and students. We've backed this up with rigorous and speedy contact tracing, ensuring students and staff are supported to self-isolate immediately. On our Colchester Campus we currently have 3 positive COVID cases and none on our other campuses (as of 9am on 4 December). We report our figures on a daily basis on our COVID-19 Dashboard.
I am delighted we have managed to recruit strongly with over 6,000 students starting this autumn in person and on-line. This means our community is over 17,000 students and we expect to grow to a new record following our January intake.
While the second lockdown and Tier 2 restrictions have meant that only essential in-person teaching is now taking place with the majority of teaching and support delivered on-line, we are working to ensure student learning is protected. We are keeping everything under regular review, with the hope that next year more students will be able to return safely to our campuses.
Notwithstanding some high-profile press coverage, the overwhelming majority of students have acted responsibly to protect their friends and the wider community. When students have breached COVID restrictions we have fully supported Essex Police actions. Less widely reported is that this year saw a record number of 1,315 students volunteering with the Students' Union across 80 one-off and 16 on-going projects. I am proud of our students and the really positive impact that they make.
We have also pivoted our research to respond to COVID. This includes our data scientists working with the local NHS Trust to help manage hospital resources and our world-leading 'Understanding Society' study focusing in on the impact of the pandemic. We have also brought Colchester Borough Council, Essex County Council and other partners together for projects to address COVID issues in our communities.
We have not let COVID stop our on-going support to businesses – forging new partnerships to help Essex business drive forward innovation. Our University Enterprise Zone's 'Space to Grow' programme has delivered training to nearly 600 business people and one-to-one investment readiness sessions to over 100 business founders.
We will always focus on work for the social and economic benefit of our Colchester and Essex communities, both now and during the challenging period of national recovery ahead of us. The University of Essex was founded 'in', 'by' and 'for' the people of Essex. We want to continue to honour this core part of our purpose.
This article originally appeared in the Colchester Gazette.
Vice-Chancellor, University of Essex
Anthony has been the Vice-Chancellor since 2012 and is a Professor of Politics and International Relations. His research focused on European and British foreign and security policy, and for four years Anthony was the Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union.