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Created Feb 16, 2018
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Keith Burnett e-mail 2018-02-16

Dear colleague,

I would like to start this message by thanking all of those who have written to me following the news of my retirement. It has been very humbling to hear from my colleagues and it has certainly made me reflect again on what our University stands for and how this has driven me over the years in Sheffield.

Many of you will have heard me talk about the historic poster displayed in Sheffield's factories which made the case for the establishment of a university which would be 'for the people'. I have found this the most moving of documents because, in it, I have seen the hopes and efforts of those who came before us.

One of the people I particularly relate to is the young Welsh scientist and the Principal of Firth College, John Viriamu Jones, who later went on to found Cardiff University. Like me, he studied physics at Oxford. But Sheffield was where it began and where he made a passionate case for a broad and excellent education that made a difference to the lives of people in this industrial city. He imagined a university where students would not only learn mathematics, but where teachers would be trained and where medical research would be crucial to improving the health of local people.

Sadly Viriamu Jones never saw the university he had worked so hard to establish gain its Royal Charter. He died at the age of just 45 - but, having read this biography and diaries, I am absolutely convinced he would have recognised the spirit I have also seen in Sheffield during my own time as Vice-Chancellor.

Some of you have said that you are glad that I have tried to make a public case for the purpose of universities that challenges the idea that higher education is simply a private investment within a marketised system. In doing so, though, I have, of course, reflected for our own times the instincts which led to the establishment of this institution.

What does it mean to be a university 'for the people'? The founders of our University focused on putting the highest quality of education within the reach of the child of the working man; improving industry and the economy; and work which would directly benefit the health of local people through the understanding and treatment of diseases.

This is exactly what we do today, and what must still be our focus no matter how strong the pressures on us are. We would be foolish to think that current debates about reduced or cancelled fees and the cost of loans will not potentially lead to a real-terms reduction in funding to universities. There will, no doubt, also be far greater pressures of regulation with the establishment of the Office for Students, ranging from expectations around the subject level Teaching Excellence Framework to free speech.

In the face of this, what matters is that we do not retreat from public benefit, but make it even more the unique selling point (USP) of Sheffield, with the good we do translating not only to our local region but into the wider society and across the world.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in our Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health, where work with our NHS in areas such as neuroscience and cancer is fundamental to the lives of local people, and also to our global reputation. If ever anyone is to doubt the public value of our students and faculty, they have only to visit one of our local hospitals where they will meet medical students and consultants from around the world who are bringing the very highest quality of medical care and understanding to this northern city. Ask yourself why there is a specialist cancer hospital in Sheffield or how we can hope to attract world-leading academics from Harvard or individuals who have developed vital cancer drugs. It is because of what we believe a university is and who it is for.

Viriamu Jones would also recognise our work to improve the economy. Now, of course, the University itself is vital to Sheffield's prosperity. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), our constituency benefits from international students more than any other in the country, with those students learning in The Diamond building that their families helped pay for. The Faculty of Engineering has more than doubled in size since I became Vice-Chancellor. I truly hope that we will be able to create the same opportunities in our Faculty of Social Sciences through developing a dedicated interdisciplinary building for them, and other subjects might also be expanded in the years to come. Of course, money is a challenge, as it was too for Viriamu Jones, Firth, Earnshaw, Stephenson and those names we have come to know. But I feel sure that to secure our future we must focus hard on what really matters and prioritise around that.

We also see the impact of our work with industries. This week I welcomed to the University both the Conservative Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry, a former University of Sheffield law student, and Lord Sainsbury, the former Labour Science Minister who helped fund our fledgling Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) more than a decade ago. Both were astonished by the facilities they saw, the powerful impact on the regional economy and the potential of the young apprentices they met.

Does this work make us locally civic at the expense of being global leaders? Far from it. In fact, we are working with China's top Tsinghua University precisely because our founding spirit and determination to translate research with industry, drawing on the very latest in artificial intelligence (AI) research, is internationally relevant. From health to advanced manufacturing to technical education, our Sheffield USP which seeks to put knowledge at the service of the people is, ironically, precisely what identifies us as the very partner wanted by the world's leading institutions, companies and governments.

So it is a poster in a factory that has left us with what is, in effect, a manifesto for our future and, in a few lines, an outline of the values we hold close. It is also a source of real pride to me that our University is increasingly known as a progressive place with this commitment to public benefit at its heart, shared by our students and staff. It is what was seen by the BBC Today programme when it visited us recently and what made the CEO of McLaren say Sheffield is "the perfect place for us" with "a whole community committed to providing a terrific labour pool" of graduates and apprentices.

All of this is achieved by people committed to this work. Our University has been built over the past century by men and women who have shared this vision, but there are dangers. Recently, many of you have written and spoken to me about your concerns about changes proposed to the USS pension scheme and what this might mean in the long term. I have been asked to do what I can to help us avoid a protracted industrial dispute in which people who have dedicated their careers to research and teaching communicate the strength of their feelings through strike action.

My own position is that I very much hope that this can be avoided, and that changes which I believe are necessary to the scheme are made only as absolutely necessary with the very best advice and following full and proper consultation. I am also concerned the fact that the government supports pensions provision in post-92 universities and not in our vital research-intensive institutions acts as a kind of state aid to just one part of higher education. I have raised these issues this week with both the CEO of Universities UK and with the new Universities Minister, and remain hopeful that, even at this stage, there may be some hope that all sides will return to the table to seek a solution.

Beyond this, I would like to thank my colleagues for your ongoing efforts to the education and research that are so important to our students and to wider society. It is this commitment to learning and to teaching made relevant to the world which has been a continual thread in the history of our University, and which I trust will remain so in the years to come.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS President and Vice-Chancellor

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