Thursday, July 18, 2024

University of Canterbury rises to pandemic challenges

In a year full of extraordinary challenges, the University of Canterbury (UC) found opportunities, accelerated plans to provide a more accessible, flexible education and contributed innovative research to help protect New Zealand from COVID-19, says Vice-Chancellor Professor Cheryl De la Rey (pictured).

Professor De la Rey said last year the University, like the rest of Aotearoa New Zealand, had to swiftly adapt to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, managing the consequences of closed borders and fluctuating alert levels. 

“Our COVID-19 response has reinforced the University as a place where we stand by our community in times of need and rally together to provide solutions,” she said.

“It also emphasised that our top priority must always be our people, both students and staff.”

Professor De la Rey says the unusual situation led to an accelerated implementation of the University’s Strategic Vision for 2020 to 2030, Tangata Tū, Tangata Ora. One of the key goals of the strategy is providing education that is accessible, flexible and future focused, and she says that became even more relevant last year.

She said UC academics stepped up and found new ways to teach online and support students when, at short notice last March, more than 18,000 students and over 3000 staff stayed home for the health and safety of our community.

Despite disruption during the year, students gave a higher rating – 89% – for teaching quality in 2020, up from 87% in 2019.

UC also boosted accessibility of education by launching a number of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other distance learning courses.

With the goal of helping students thrive, UC provided hardship grants, wellbeing support, and data plans and laptops during last year’s lockdown, using funding from the Government as well as its own resources.

Professor De la Rey says while it was a year of uncertainty, there were also positives.

“The University community showed commitment and innovation as we navigated the unpredictability of the year together, while affirming our commitment to providing high-quality learning, teaching and research, and engaging with the wider Aotearoa community.”

The University was also able to launch new programmes to boost student wellbeing and success, such as the Takere scholarship programme for first-year Māori and Pacific students and the ACE (Analytics for Course Engagement) system to identify and assist first-year students needing extra help.

Showing their willingness to engage with the wider community and lead high-impact research, UC academics have also used their expertise to progress COVID-19 research and solutions over the past year, she says.

UC School of Mathematics and Statistics, Professor Michael Plank and Associate Professor Alex James provided important advice to the Government using statistical modelling relating to transmission of the virus.

They, along with data scientist Senior Lecturer, Dr Giulio Dall Riva and three graduate researchers, were part of a national team of academics recognised this month with the prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Prize.

Distinguished Professor Geoff Chase from UC’s College of Engineering led a team that developed ground-breaking ventilator technology now offered free to hospitals around the world to help improve care for COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

Despite the impact of closed borders, UC reported only a small deficit in its core activities after managing to reduce spending overall while continuing to drive successful learning and teaching.

The pandemic led to a fall in enrolments of full-fee international students and triggered $1.9 million in unplanned expenditure, according to the Annual Report.

However, this was balanced by UC’s efforts to make savings across the board and the University reported a deficit for the year of $575,000 for its core activities.

Restricted interests, which can only be used on limited types of expenditure such as scholarships, returned a surplus of $13.7 million. The University finished the year with assets of $1.8 billion, including $190 million in cash.

UC did not receive any wage support from the Government under lockdown provisions, and general and academic staff numbers remained relatively steady in 2020 with direct salary costs slightly higher than in 2019.

Domestic student numbers were almost exactly on budget, and last year was UC’s most successful for securing external research income, with over $112 million awarded.

Read Te Pūrongo ā-Tau | Annual Report 2020 here

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