Charlie Jeffery:"I've stuck my neck out as Vice-Chancellor"
The Vice-Chancellor speaks about strikes and the University's response to Covid-19.
Over 50,000 university staff started their industrial action nationwide this week and the University of York’s Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery used the opportunity to speak with Nouse to call on all parties to put forward a “set of ideas onto the table so they can be discussed.” Recently, the UCU (University and College Union) shared proposals which have sought to avert the strikes, suggesting that Jeffery’s opinion that all sides need to be aware of “the distance which needs to be bridged” has resonated. Unless the dispute is resolved, staff will be participating in strikes from Monday 14 to Friday 18 February, on Monday 21 and Tuesday 22 February and on Monday 28 February, Tuesday 1 and Wednesday 2 March.
Jeffery said he “recognised that students have had a really tough time” but insisted that his approach has always “been to do what we can to minimise the impact.” As a Vice Chancellor who wishes to be perceived as “pretty invisible to students”, behind closed doors Jeffery wants students to know that he is fighting their corner. Jeffery recalled: “I’ve stuck my neck out as Vice-Chancellor which other Vice-Chancellors haven’t been happy with, particularly by criticising the approach of the pension fund.”
Going forward, the VC said: “I am encouraging USU locally to get a proposal into the mix – I heard some ideas about 10 days ago but these have not yet been put into the formal process.” The UCU put forward new pension proposals on 26 January as part of efforts to prevent industrial action and on 10 February the USS trustee confirmed the union’s proposals were “viable and implementable.” The trustee therefore reported that there is “no impediment to implementation of alternative compromise proposals put forward by UCU.” The likelihood of a resolution bringing the forthcoming strikes to an early end is unclear.
Nouse pressed the VC to guarantee students that their summer examinations would not include content affected by the strikes. Jeffery was unable to promise students that disruption will not compromise their ability to complete assessments, although he did assert that “If something is not taught it can’t be examined.” Expanding further on this point, the VC suggested that decisions relating to examinations remain at the discretion of the Exceptional Circumstances Committees. Jeffery said the necessary steps to judge whether content should be examined include asking “Can the material be delivered in another way” and “Can an alternative way of learning be delivered for that subject.”
A major responsibility of the Vice-Chancellor is setting and reviewing the University’s Covid-19 precautions and Nouse therefore asked why the University had not followed the government’s lead in lifting the ‘Plan B’ restrictions. Jeffery said: “We have been careful to weigh things up on the basis of our own evidence and analysis.” The restrictions were extended because of the “local circumstances”, with student cases peaking at 238 on 25 January. The current measures will continue to stay in place until Friday 11 February, although the VC hinted these could soon be relaxed due to the number of cases dropping to below 20’.
In the past, the Vice-Chancellor has argued students received “a good experience” in terms of their online education during the last academic year. Jeffery was not willing to accept the suggestion that he was out of touch with students’ experience of education during the lockdowns and heaped praise on his colleagues for their “wonderful examples of being innovative.” As the government has gradually eased restrictions, Jeffery highlights that “We have offered more in person than many universities have. “We have been at the forefront of delivering as much in person as we possibly could.”
Students forced to self-isolate last year became familiar with the ‘brown paper bag food parcels’ which were neither nutritious nor value for money. When asked for an explanation as to why students in isolation were offered unhealthy and inadequate meals the VC said: “We were thrust into a situation nobody has ever been in before. “We had to improvise very quickly and at that first stage perhaps we weren’t providing the nutritional depths we should have been.” However, the VC pointed to the University’s existing deal with Morrisons as evidence that provisions for those isolating on and off campus has improved.
Jeffery said: “One of the really remarkable things was doing a deal with Morrisons. It was difficult at that moment to get supermarket deliveries, but we persuaded Morrisons to set up a special system for students in York.” Inspired by the University of York, the scheme has since been rolled out nationwide.
The University of York has recently promoted the education it provides as existing for “public good.” The University of York’s website boasts of the institution’s founders having a “strong social purpose”, and Jeffery drew on how the University’s “collaborative approach” to the pandemic demonstrated this.
Jeffery revealed: “From the first cases in York, we were in the meeting rooms with public health officials from the council and the city leader.” Everyone involved from the council to the University had a “shared purpose” and “trusted each other.” The Vice-Chancellor was proud the University was home to “one of the big community centres in the city” and the opening of a PCR testing centre on Wentworth Way can be explained by “working collaboratively from the very outset.” The Vice-Chancellor emphasised that giving back to residents in York was a “very obvious thing in the end, we had a big sports hall.” Part of the “collaborative approach” was inviting local schools such as Fulford school to take advantage of the University’s testing centre on West Campus.
Nouse asked Charlie Jeffery whether there was a main message he would like to communicate to students and he said the following: “We will do what we can to minimise the effects of industrial action” and “I would like to call on all parties in the dispute to find a resolution.”