Talk to us before you talk about us, says Sheffield v-c

Russell Group's chair asked for heads-up on media bombshells. John Morgan writes

March 25, 2010

The vice-chancellor of a Russell Group university has written to the mission group's chairman to complain about statements he made in the media, providing further evidence of internal divisions.

Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, asked Michael Arthur, the chairman of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, to consult before making future statements affecting Sheffield.

In January, Professor Arthur co-wrote an article with Wendy Piatt, the Russell Group's director-general, warning that funding cuts risked bringing the sector "to its knees".

The article followed an interview last September in which Professor Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, suggested that 300 jobs could go at Sheffield.

Minutes of a Sheffield executive board meeting on 19 January note both articles, adding: "It was agreed that the vice-chancellor would write to Professor Arthur to request that prior notification should be provided of media statements affecting the university."

Minutes from another executive board meeting held two weeks later note that Professor Burnett "reported on a recent meeting of the Russell Group, at which there had been discussion on the approach to be taken with respect to media communication, following concerns expressed by a number of members".

A Russell Group spokesman said: "The comments in the Sheffield minutes refer to a request that directors of communication at Russell Group universities be informed about forthcoming comment and articles in the press. This is Russell Group policy, but we recognise that sometimes it has not been carried out.

"The director-general and the chair agreed to make sure the policy is followed strictly in future."

A Sheffield spokeswoman said that Carrie Warr, its director of external relations, "discussed concerns with the director of communications at the Russell Group, and the university's request for greater shared involvement in future communications was noted".

Other Russell Group members are also known to have been unhappy about January's article. One vice-chancellor described the comments as "completely over the top".

The Sheffield minutes also reveal that the university is halting an £8.4 million refurbishment of one of its buildings amid fears over national capital funding cuts.

The executive board agreed that the Jessop Edwardian project, which was to house a "learning hub", should be halted. The hub will now go ahead at an alternative site.

The minutes note that the "estimated cost of required maintenance works across the campus was in excess of £2 million, and that operations in the buildings concerned were already being affected. The further backlog in ongoing maintenance of the university's estate had an estimated cost of £35 million over the next five years, with an additional £10 million of minor works.

"The funding position for capital beyond 2011 was unclear and would be likely to be affected by government cuts."

Last week, the Higher Education Funding Council for England confirmed capital funding cuts of about 15 per cent for 2010-11.

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