report by Peter Evans

The Court's meeting on 20 May was its second annual 'away-day' - or retreat as it should perhaps more properly be called, since the vernacular conjures up images of a day-trip to the seaside. This year's event was held in West Park Hall in the University, which offers substantial practical advantages over a remote location.

The main thing to report is that - well, there is actually nothing to report - not by way of decisions at any rate, since this was an informal meeting whose main purposes were to review progress on a range of strategic planning issues and to prepare the ground for key decisions on capital planning and resource allocation. Such decisions will be taken at the June Court, following further meetings of the PRC and Finance Committees. The retreat allowed Court members to discuss these matters in greater depth than is normally possible at a regular business meeting.

The programme took the form of a series of presentations from the Principal, Deputy Principals and other senior managers, with time allowed for discussion on each topic. In the morning there were sessions on strategic planning, when the increasingly onerous reporting requirements of SHEFC, creating a 'compliance culture', were noted; on the outcome of the RAE and future research strategy, including the sobering message that improved grades across the sector actually meant diminishing rewards; and on estates, comprising an overview of the various SRIF and other projects, potentially amounting to a staggering total spend of 57m over the next five years.

That session on the capital programme also included a presentation by Mike Coughtrie and Rob Watt, providing a preview of the report of their review group on the state of the University's IT network. With the help of expert external advice, the group had concluded that the system was 'broken', largely due to insufficient investment over many years and excessive departmental autonomy in the network's configuration. The Court found this analysis compelling and, while the detailed report has yet to pass through the committee system, a substantial cash injection over the next two years at least seems very likely.

After lunch the Court moved on to an overview of the residences strategy, in the light of the recently completed review by external consultants. Against a background of soaring costs for compliance with the houses in multiple occupancy regulations, the Disability Discrimination Act and other legislation, as well as for upgrading work to meet current market expectations, proposals have been prepared to achieve a balanced programme of disposals, refurbishment and new build. Crucially, in line with developments elsewhere in the sector, the funding demands could be met through a 'sale and sell back' arrangement with a third party (the Scottish equivalent of lend-lease). Further detailed work is required on this aspect of the proposals and internal consultation was promised.

The main programme for the retreat was concluded with further presentations on commercialisation, which set out the University's aspirations in the local and Scottish context; and on financial sustainability and the budget for 2002/03, incorporating a comprehensive financial analysis which some Court members, at this stage in the afternoon, found rather hard work. It was noted that the figures presented were still a work in progress.

Towards the end of the day there was a short formal meeting of the Court for essential business, e.g. approval of the appointment of new professors and heads of departments. One particularly significant matter was the disaggregation of the faculty of science & engineering into a faculty of life sciences and a faculty of engineering & physical sciences from 1 August 2002. Detailed constitutional amendments submitted via the Senate were approved by the Court, which also granted the requisite budget-holding powers to the two new deans, Professor Peter Downes and Professor Michael Davies. Following the sad and untimely death of Professor Geoff Hunter (about which the Principal spoke separately), the Court agreed to appoint Dr Martyn Ward as acting dean of science & engineering until 31 July. By now exhausted from its labours, and also because much of the content had been covered earlier in the day, the Court approved the reports of the April meetings of the PRC and Finance Committees almost without comment.

Two years on from the formal review of the operation of the Court, the day's proceedings ended with a short session on the organisation of Court business and support for Court members. Proposals were accepted for improved input to the Court's deliberations through the use of key institutional performance indicators, a revised approach to risk management and reports from the central services monitoring group. The Court was less enthusiastic about having its own performance appraised, either on an individual basis or holistically. The ensuing discussion highlighted the continuing difficulty of achieving an appropriate balance between concentrating on strategic issues - the main interest for lay members - and detailed reporting through committees to satisfy the desire of academic members to be kept fully informed at that level as well. Various suggestions were made and the chairman pledged further initiatives in this area. At which point, with a general consensus that the day had been profitably spent, the Court retreat for 2002 was brought to a close.

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