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Swansea University vice-chancellor confident students will start term in September

THE vice-chancellor of Swansea University said he was pretty confident that most new students would start their courses as planned in September.

The university has around 18,500 undergraduates and 3,700 postgraduates, who provided half the institution’s £352 million income in 2018-19.

Professor Paul Boyle said: “My best guess is that most students thinking about going to university will do so, in the end.”

Concerns have been raised about young people’s appetite for the undergraduate life, given less face-to-face learning due to coronavirus restrictions and a potentially limited student experience, to start with at least.

Professor Boyle said there would inevitably be changes, but that feedback from current students to online learning had been “extremely positive”.

He said: “All of our staff have been so professional. The staff and students have really stepped up.”

Last week, reports of a potential cap by the UK Government on English students coming to Welsh universities caused dismay in some quarters.

Wales’s Education Minister Kirsty Williams said she was “deeply concerned” about a cap, saying that it would cut across an approach being developed in Wales to retain stability in the higher education sector.

Prof Boyle said he felt the measures being put forward by the Department for Education were broadly in line with recommendations made by a group representing all UK universities in response to the coronavirus crisis.

“To be fair to the UK Government, they are trying to act quickly,” he said.

“Now we are looking into the detail.”

Overall he reckoned Swansea University would be able to recruit as many students as last year, maybe a little bit more.

But the picture with international students, who comprise 18% of the student body but contribute much more in tuition fees, was less clear.

“Inevitably, the international flow of students is very difficult to predict,” said Prof Boyle.

Different countries have different travel restrictions, although Prof Boyle said Australia had introduced specific measures relating to international students.

“We are modelling different scenarios – from what we thought international numbers would be, down to 50%,” he said.

“Some universities are modelling lower than 50%.

“In a few months’ time we will have a much better sense of this.”

Last week the university said it would be opening in September as planned, with teaching in person and online.

University accommodation, it said, will be available as normal with some social distancing measures in place. This could mean flats for eight people having half that number.

But Prof Boyle said the coming year will be challenging financially.

“We have taken steps to try and reduce our budget,” he said.

This included reducing staff recruitment and cutting expenditure for things like travel and hospitality, although that has decreased anyway due to the restrictions on movement.

Prof Boyle said income was down because the university had decided not to charge students accommodation costs for the summer term.

He said no steps had been taken to freeze pay, which is agreed at a national level.

The 55-year-old said no major project had been put on hold, although a new semiconductor research building at the Bay Campus may potentially be delayed a little.

He added: “We are pulling together a new estates strategy, which will be completed in a few months’ time.”

Prof Boyle formally took up the vice-chancellor post last July.

It has been a difficult period for the university following the sacking of former vice-chancellor Prof Richard Davies and two other members of staff for gross misconduct. A fourth employee was suspended but subsequently resigned.

It is understood these actions related to a £200 million life science and wellness village project being taken forward by Carmarthenshire Council for Llanelli.

Asked if the university would like to get back on board with the project, Prof Boyle did not directly answer, but said any potential project which met robust and transparent governance criteria, and also interested the university, would be grounds for discussion.

He added: “I joined the university at a particular time.

“This project has had something of a history. I’m aware that Carmarthenshire Council are keen to progress with it.

“It has clearly been challenging for both institutions to manage their way through it.”

Prof Boyle said he believed the university, which employs around 3,300 people, had a major impact on the region’s economy, especially in engineering and life sciences.

“We have 40 to 50 industries co-located with us,” he said.

“Our university was started up 100 years ago by industrialists for industry, and that has maintained itself.”

He said this was on top of the cultural, heritage and language work it did.

Universities Wales, which represents Welsh universities, said they contribute £5 billion to the Welsh economy and support nearly 50,000 jobs.

“It is a greater proportion in Wales than in England,” said Prof Boyle.

He used to lecture geography in Swansea the early 1990s, living in Brynmill.

It is an area of the city with a large proportion of shared student houses, which can rub residents up the wrong way.

“I’ve worked in many different universities, and the work that’s done here in the community is really good,” said Prof Boyle.

“Of course there are some problems with students – but it seems extremely well managed.

“A lot goes to ensure the relationship with the community is really strong.”

He said the university contributed financially for extra waste collection at the end of the academic year, and also had its own volunteers to collect rubbish.

Professor Boyle, who lives at Swansea Marina, said the university’s high score among students for its overall student experience was a big plus.

It came 12th for best social life out of 116 UK universities in a 2018 survey, with Cardiff University ninth. Swansea was 47th for academic experience, ahead of Cardiff.

Prof Boyle said the natural environment around Swansea and the various sporting and other activities on offer were a big draw.

“Having a strong student experience is what will see us through this,” he said.

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