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Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – September 2016

30 September 2016
Colin Riordan

Dear colleague

We begin the new academic year in a very different world. The turbulence that followed the Brexit vote has largely settled for the moment, although the value of the pound remains lower than it was before. While this means that some library material and research equipment has become more expensive, on the whole it works in our favour since studying in the UK has become better value for international students. We have also had welcome confirmation that the Treasury will guarantee European funding for Horizon 2020 projects until 2023, and the same confirmation for the structural funds that we hope will help to support our large infrastructure projects. Student numbers from the European Union have not suddenly collapsed, which initially appeared a big risk, although we do need confirmation from the government that EU students who apply for 2017-18 entry will receive funding from the Student Loan Company for the duration of their studies, even if we leave the EU in the meantime. As you are aware the nature of our exit still needs to be determined, however, and there are many questions relating to the future of universities that will need to be settled. I have been appointed to two Welsh Government committees that will give advice on these matters; one concentrating on higher education and one with a broad remit to advise on the implications of Brexit for Wales more generally. The crucial question will be how much influence we can exert. I am confident that the First Minister and his colleagues will be a strong voice for Wales as the UK government prepares the  ground for negotiation, and we in the HE sector will feed in not only on matters relating to higher education and research, but also provide expertise to support Welsh Government where possible.

The end of this month also finally saw the publication of the Diamond review of fees and funding on which so much depends. You may be aware that I sat on this review which was established in the spring of 2014 and so have been closely involved in the discussions since that time. You can see the report here but the highlights are that the existing tuition fee grant would be replaced by a maintenance grant that is much more generous than the existing one. The student support system in Wales would be the most progressive in the UK, every student receiving at least £1,000 per year of study, while those coming from families with a joint income of less than £80,000 p.a. would receive more than that on a sliding scale up to £9,000 per year for the lowest earners. These non-repayable maintenance grants will be available to postgraduate taught students on the same terms, and part-time students will be eligible for funding in a similar way at an appropriate level. In all cases a loan would be provided for the costs of tuition fees, which remain capped in Wales at £9,000 for full-time undergraduates. This puts money in the pockets of students when they need it most, while they are studying, and they will not have to pay it back. At the same time universities will receive the funding they need to provide a high quality education for those students, including for high cost subjects, widening access and other student support, plus 450 PhD studentships across Wales. Quality-related (QR) research funding would be protected in real terms and there would be funding for strategic initiatives. If the whole package is accepted, then we can look forward to a brighter future for universities in Wales and for Welsh domiciled students wherever they choose to study. This is a very welcome development because we do face quite severe financial constraints in the short to medium term. It is unlikely that, if accepted, the Diamond reforms could be implemented before the academic year 2018-19, and the benefits will not accrue fully for another three or four years after that. In the meantime the pressure on costs will be greater than our capacity to increase income, so we are going to have think very carefully about how we manage in the intervening period.

I always like to report a success when we start the new academic year, but unfortunately this year I do have to dwell for a moment on things that have not gone so well. The results from this year’s National Student Survey (NSS) were disappointing, with a fall in overall satisfaction from 90% to 87%. This was a pity since we had moved gradually from 86% five years ago to 90% last year, and we will need to do some detailed analysis to find out why this was and what we can do about it. In terms of The Way Forward performance indicators, we dropped back from 17 schools with over 90% satisfaction to 12, and 4 schools with over 80% for assessment and feedback to 2. I cannot stress enough the importance of working together to improve this positions and we will be coming forward with an action plan in the near future. We also saw a drop in the QS world rankings from 122 to 140; again this is after several years of steady improvement. In the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide the NSS result really worked against us, as did a drop of 6 percentage points in the proportion of our graduates who are in degree-level employment or postgraduate study six months after graduating. Even though our ranking for student-staff ratios improved slightly, overall we dropped from 33rd to 46th, which we have to acknowledge is a deeply disappointing outcome. You may remember that when we do well in league tables I am always careful to insert a health warning because they can go down as well as up and this year’s results demonstrate the wisdom of that approach. What we now need to do is to understand in detail what has happened and how we put it right, and I will be focussing my energy on that in the coming months. To conclude this section on a more positive note, it’s worth remembering that last year we went up 26 places in the Times Higher Education world league table, breaking into the top 200 for the first time at 182nd, and we have retained that position this year too. It was heartening to see Business and Economics ranked in the top 100 for the first time at 93rd. All of that comes, of course, with a health warning.

In other news I was delighted to learn that Cardiff has been named as the lead partner for one of the 14 new ESRC doctoral training partnerships; this is not only evidence of the quality of our social science work but helpful in the context of our strategy of placing social science at the heart of our innovation system. In September we were honoured to host the new Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, Ms Kirsty Williams, who gave her first keynote speech since her appointment in May. In it she reminded universities of their obligation to help promote and improve social cohesion in Wales, particularly since the Brexit vote. This is a challenge we are delighted to accept, and I look forward to working with Welsh Government to ensure that our communities do feel ownership of their local universities in the coming years. Finally, four entries involving Cardiff University have been shortlisted for a Times Higher Award this year: GAMA Healthcare have been shortlisted for their work with Cardiff University in the new Most Innovative Contribution to Business-University Collaboration category, Languages for All has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Support for Students category, Community Journalism has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community Category, and the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences has been shortlisted in the category of Outstanding Contribution to Leadership Development. We wish them all luck and hope to be able to congratulate one or more in due course.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan