Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – March 2017

Dear colleague

Now that the Prime Minister has invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty the clock is ticking, and it won’t be long before serious negotiations are underway. As I understand it, the difficult questions we face around our participation in future EU research funding and collaboration mechanisms, and around student and staff mobility, will not be among the immediate priorities, but will come into play later in the process. The immediate priority for us will be to secure the position of citizens from other EU countries in the UK and of British citizens in other EU countries. Universities UK has been lobbying hard for this to be resolved as soon as possible and there are hopeful signs that both sides want that to happen. It is heartening to see that in the Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk the status of EU citizens receives priority attention and it is to be hoped that the European Commission, Parliament and Council will reciprocate. If you are interested in the UUK position you can see FAQs here and a statement of priorities here. I should say that in a broader sense the status of the UK border with the Republic of Ireland once we have left is of the utmost importance; we must not forget that the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace after 30 years of strife depended in many ways on a recognition that in practical terms the border between north and south could be disregarded because of our two countries’ EU membership. Though it does not affect Cardiff University directly, I mention this matter because of the very serious consequences if it is not handled with the urgency, delicacy and spirit of compromise that will be required in the negotiations. In other words, there are very big wheels turning and we in universities, while defending the interests of our staff and students, and of our organisations more broadly, must remain aware of the bigger questions at stake.

That said, we do have particular questions to address, and on that note I am grateful for your responses to my last month’s email. It is easier to make arguments at the various Brexit committees on which I sit if I can refer to the views expressed by colleagues at my own university and I will certainly be doing that. In February I talked about the prospects for Horizon 2020 and its successor programme FP9, saying that participating in FP9 would be the most desirable outcome but not at any price. One of the responses I received was by way of saying that FP9 is so important that there really is no viable alternative or conceivable scenario where the price is too high. I can certainly conceive of such scenarios; for example if the financial cost of participation was so far beyond what we presently receive from European funding (approximately £1bn p.a.) that it cannibalized other research funding such as that for research councils or QR. Any loss of the latter would be extremely difficult to deal with at a time when we actually need more support for blue-skies research. Similarly, there may be a price to be paid in terms of influence: if we are contributing billions we surely would not wish to sit on the sidelines with no ability to shape the programmes, the frameworks or the strategy. Retaining a measure of influence must figure in our negotiating stance. Tactically, if we go in saying that we have no real alternative then we are inviting the Commission and the European Council to strike a very hard bargain. Having said that, I am very grateful to colleagues for making telling points concerning regulation and data protection in clinical research and also the ability to work at scale that the EU offers. These are among the array of reasons that so many of us argued to stay in the EU; but since we are leaving, we need to ensure that we do either retain these non-monetary advantages or replace them in another way. I know there is an awareness of these matters in government but I will take your responses as a prompt to be pressing them further at the next opportunity.

You have also been making helpful suggestions as to how we respond more broadly as a university; two colleagues, for example, have suggested particular sites for a European Union presence for Cardiff University that might help us to stay engaged post exit. A campus would be a big undertaking, but an office, legal entity or research presence, or perhaps some specialized Masters-level teaching may not be, and we are considering our options on that matter at the moment. It may well be that there is an advantage to making such a move before the exit date and so we will expedite the necessary options analysis and decision-making process. For the avoidance of doubt, we are exploring options rather than committing to a presence in a European Union country at this stage. To sound a note of caution, it appears that the widely reported intention of Oxford University to establish a campus in Paris may have been something of an exaggeration.

In other news, I have this week spent time getting to know two of our flagship engagement projects better. On Monday I went to the Grange Pavilion that has been refurbished as part of our Community Gateway Project, and met members of the various sub-projects, which included ‘Shop and Work Locally’, ‘Safer Grangetown’, ‘Road Safety’, ‘Healthy Grangetown’, ‘Provision for Young People’, ‘Friendly Communities’, ‘Communication without Barriers’, ‘Community Meeting Places’ and ‘Green Spaces’. Those titles are mostly self-explanatory but what underlies all of them is that students and staff from Cardiff University are working with local community leaders, young people and indeed anybody from the local community in Grangetown who is interested, on an equal basis. There is a strong emphasis on excellent communication and on local agency — that is, local people directing their own affairs with wide consultation. The impression I formed is that we as a university have been able to facilitate activities that might not otherwise have happened and have brought disparate existing projects together into a more coherent whole as well as creating new ones. The people of Grangetown have been self-organising for many years; next year Grangetown Community Action celebrates its 40th anniversary and throughout that time has been publishing a free sheet called Grangetown News. This provided a helpful bridge to one of our other flagship projects, Community Journalism, and the Community Gateway project has added a further pillar to the strengths that local people as a group already have.

These projects will now be funded for a further five years, as will the Phoenix Project, our co-operation with the University of Namibia (UNAM). Indeed I write these words from Namibia as I visit our partners here to discuss further co-operation and sign a new agreement. The Phoenix Project, under the energetic leadership of Professor Judith Hall, has also been a real success. The overall project encompasses more than thirty sub-projects spanning a range of disciplines from medicine to maths and from computer science to translation studies. Namibia is a relatively young country; a stable democracy with huge ambition but much to do in terms of healthcare provision, prosperity and wellbeing. We work together with our excellent partners at the UNAM to build capacity in a whole range of areas. Key projects include training anaesthetists to deal with trauma victims in a way that much reduces risk and, with the help of Medical Research Council funding, providing trauma packs that police officers attending road traffic accidents will be trained to use. Although the official language is English, Namibia is multilingual with a range of recognised languages, and we are running a headline collaborative project in translation, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, that will allow more effective communication between different linguistic groups. Colleagues from Cardiff have been supporting training in the use of Python open-source software which will allow students at UNAM to create their own bespoke applications tailored to Namibia’s needs. As with other flagship projects, this is a mutually beneficial partnership: Cardiff colleagues have been winning research grants and learning from their work in Namibia, while our students benefit from opportunities to gain experience that would otherwise be unavailable to them. This summer, for example, the Global Opportunities programme working with the Phoenix Project will allow Cardiff students to work with their UNAM counterparts in Namibia, holding a two-week aspirational and inspirational workshop for disadvantaged children. The workshop aims to co-create a Heart Health campaign for Namibia, building on the long tradition of public health innovation that is a defining feature of the history of medical research in Wales. I know we don’t have solutions to all problems, but the Phoenix Project, which is supported by the Welsh Government as part of its Wales in Africa programme, is a great example of what we can do when we deploy our resources and expertise without prioritising our own immediate narrow interests.

Britain is asked by our government to be ‘open to the world’. Cardiff University is, and will continue to be. As the Brexit process is managed the most important thing to keep in mind is what we are here for as a university: ultimately it is to make the world a better place, and however high-minded that may sound, I believe that we are doing that and will continue to do so.

Finally, congratulations are due to Professor Rudolf Allemann, who is stepping down from his role of Head of the School of Chemistry to become Pro Vice-Chancellor for the College of Physical Sciences and Engineering. I’m very much looking forward to working closely with Ruedi and wish him all the best in his new role.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan