Message from the Interim Provost
On behalf of College and the Governing Body in these times of distress and worry, I send my very warmest wishes to the Worcester community – to our students, staff, Fellows, alumni and donors; to the school and sixth-form students involved in our outreach activities, and to our offer-holders for next academic year; to our local neighbours, and to our friends, near and far. I hope that you and your loved ones are well, and that if any of you are ill, you make a full and swift recovery.
The past weeks have been unlike anything College has seen in living memory. As the scale of the Covid-19 situation became clear, the normal end-of-term routine turned into something unprecedented: celebrations, sporting fixtures and exams were cancelled, alumni events postponed. Many finalists who had intended to spend the vacation revising in College changed their plans. The catering staff began serving take-away food only, and then the kitchens had to close. Today, all of the communal spaces in College are closed, and I write this from home because we have taken the decision to restrict access to the site to those whose presence is absolutely essential.
The Porters’ Lodge is still staffed around the clock, however, and the site remains operational, secure and safe. Around fifty of our students are living in College, either because they cannot get home or because College is their only home, and each day, a handful of key staff members are coming in to ensure we can continue to accommodate those students safely and legally. I want to say Thank You to those staff members here for your truly exceptional contribution.
Meanwhile, many of us are adjusting to doing our activities remotely. College is busy preparing for next term's remote teaching and exams. This will be a big change for academics and students alike, and teams all over College are working hard to ensure we can support them in this completely new situation – though it turns out that the traditional Oxford tutorial and small-group teaching adapt rather well to the latest technology. Many students have been in touch with us about the remote examining arrangements, and though they are concerned to know the detail and what it might mean for them, they also know that Worcester is committed to supporting each and all of our students as best we can.
Many students have financial concerns, and the College’s scholarships and financial support mechanisms – including the funds generously donated for student financial aid – will continue to operate as usual. We have also been able to assure students that they can cancel their accommodation contracts with no financial penalty if they are not in residence next term.
At this point, I also want to say Thank You to all our students for your patience and understanding at this time, and for your creativity and good humour, and to remind you that our outstanding welfare team are still very much available and working remotely. To the JCR and MCR presidents and committees, you have done amazing work over recent weeks to keep College operational, to say nothing of those of you who re-created the College in Minecraft.
Looking further ahead, we know that the recent announcements about A-Levels will have created uncertainty for those holding conditional offers of a place at Worcester next academic year. We are working with colleagues across the University to ensure that our offer-holders are not disadvantaged this year by the new assessment, and we will soon be writing to reassure them that their offers remain unchanged, and to lay out how we plan to support them during this period.
We have launched a website for secondary school students learning at home, and a new outreach YouTube channel for young people considering their options after school or sixth form college. Although we cannot currently bring school groups into college, our outreach projects with year 11s and 12s in our link areas continue in a virtual form, and we look forward to hosting visits to College as soon as it is safe to do so.
I know that colleagues are concerned about job security while many of our normal activities are suspended. College will be participating in the government’s Job Retention Scheme, and Governing Body has also been able to give our employees a guarantee that they will be paid their full salaries for the next six months, whether they are able to work or not. This guarantee also extends to staff on fixed-term contracts or employed through agencies for the duration of their work with us, and to many of our casual staff members who rely on their work for College and would normally be doing substantial shifts at this time.
The gardens and grounds, while closed to the public, are providing an essential space for our on-site staff and resident students to exercise during this period of confinement. For the rest of us who are unable to enjoy them at the moment, the Head Gardener's Instagram is giving us sight of College in the spring.
It is also humbling to see Worcester students and alumni making outstanding contributions to the effort to combat the virus. Chantal Edwardes (2019 Graduate Entry Medicine) is project-managing OxVent, a rapidly deployable ventilator for COVID-19 patients, developed by a multidisciplinary team of engineers and medics at the University of Oxford and King’s College London. A major philanthropic gift from the ever-generous Ben Delo (Honorary Fellow, and 2002 Mathematics and Computer Science) is making it possible for researchers to determine community infection rates of COVID-19 in the UK. Further generous support has been given from the Aitken Family Charitable Trust to Oxford’s Coronavirus Research Fund. And many of us are volunteers in the COVID-19 Oxford Vaccine Trial. Above all, I want to express my admiration and gratitude to those alumni working in the NHS and front-line services. The Worcester I know and recognise has a strong commitment to the common good, and so I'm sure you have your stories too: if you have time, we'd be delighted to hear them.
Writing this, I realise that so many of the things that make Worcester special are, despite the very significant challenges posed by the pandemic, continuing to thrive. I look forward to seeing you when seeing each other is possible again, and in the meantime, I send my warmest wishes,
Professor Kate Tunstall