The security services have been warning for some time that we could expect an atrocity at some point, but the awful news from Manchester this month still came as a major and distressing shock, and I know that you would wish me to express our collective sympathy for those caught up in the attack. This event, and that in Westminster at the end of March, remind us that the divisions in our society are in some cases unimaginably deep, and that we must as an institution think through the part we can play in helping to counter their effects as part of our civic mission. As we draft our renewed strategy, which was open for consultation during the latter part of this month, we are considering how best to respond to the strains on social cohesion that we have observed over the past decade. There are no easy solutions, but I know that in a range of areas across the University colleagues will be able to contribute to framing the problem and looking for ways to mitigate it. Our Crime and Security Institute will doubtless play a prominent role, but there is still much to be done in terms of health inequalities, policy formation and other subjects in which we have leading expertise.
The political news this month has of course been dominated by coverage of the general election. One of the difficult issues that has thrown up is delay in the Brexit negotiations and an increase in tension between the UK government and the European Commission. The election has not only caused a roughly seven week delay in the commencement of talks, but it also led the government to withhold its agreement to an important tranche of EU funding until the election is over. This in turn caused consternation in the Commission and led to something of a war of words. As I realised during a visit to Brussels earlier this month, delay is the last thing we need in these negotiations. Because of the long lead-in times for grant applications we could find ourselves needing to know as early as this autumn what arrangements for the remainder of the Horizon 2020 programme will be post-Brexit, and a similar point applies to Erasmus grant applications. At present it is not clear how we will cope with this, and there is nobody to ask because of the election. As soon as we have a new government and therefore ministers and civil servants to communicate with, I and other vice-chancellors will be pressing these points.
In terms of policy, if a Conservative government is returned we can expect no great changes compared with what we already know to be the case, especially since the Higher Education and Research Act was passed into law just before the dissolution of Parliament. The Conservative Manifesto does, however, contain a notable escalation of language and intention in terms of visas for international students. There is a specific line on toughening the requirements for students coming here from abroad and for students to form part of the policy of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands. It is to be hoped that the new government, if it is indeed Conservative, will think through the consequences of such a policy. Recruitment from the EU is likely to fall over a three-year period by many tens of thousands — perhaps by 90,000 students — and if that is to be accompanied by a reduction in international students generally there is the potential for considerable disruption in the UK higher education sector. If the election results in a Labour government (and we do seem to have returned to more of a two-horse race with greater policy distinctions between the two main parties, even though polling indicates that a Labour victory seems unlikely), then the pledge is to abolish fees and re-introduce maintenance grants at the earliest possible stage. The Welsh Government is already committed to introducing generous maintenance grants for those who need them most, and if fees were abolished in England, then Wales would receive public money to fund a similar programme here if that was what was wanted. The priority for universities would then be to ensure that funding levels remain sufficient, and there would be a question to resolve around student numbers and whether it would be possible to continue with no cap on numbers.
In other news I was delighted to see this month that Professor Yves Barde has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. This is a distinguished honour and I would like to congratulate Yves, who, you may remember, was our first Sêr Cymru Professor. My congratulations also to Professor Anita Thapar, who was awarded the Frances Hoggan medal by the Learned Society of Wales for her work in child and adolescent psychiatry.
Finally, we received the very sad news this month that Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister, had died. Rhodri was a great friend to Cardiff University, and a regular visitor who was always willing to lend his support to the University’s development, its students and staff. Rhodri was a strong advocate of higher education and research in Wales, and the naming of the University’s Morgan-Botti Lighting Laboratory after him reflects his endeavours to work with partners from elsewhere in Europe to bring this world-class facility to Wales. Rhodri had that unusual ability to combine extreme cleverness with a relaxed and friendly matter. Whenever I met him he always seemed to have been extremely well briefed; I don’t think he necessarily had been but he was just very interested, informed and well read. I know he will be much missed and our thoughts are with his wife Julie and their family.
With best wishes