It’s always good to end the calendar year on a positive note so it was a relief (without counting chickens) to see that the government did manage to agree transitional arrangements with the European Commission and Council in December as hoped. The document is quite short and understandable and reveals the welcome news that the status within the UK of citizens of other EU states will be protected until the UK formally leaves the EU, which means that there will not be the potential for retrospective changes as had been feared. Very importantly for universities, the document says that we will continue to take part in both Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ until the end of the present EU budgetary period on 31 December 2020. The implication, since confirmed by comments from the Commission, is that to all intents and purposes, UK universities will continue to participate substantially as we do now for a further 20 months beyond the leaving date. I would therefore encourage all academic colleagues to continue to apply to European funding programmes so that we can make the most of our continued participation. This is hugely helpful in that it will give us more time to consider and negotiate what the position will be after that date. There are many questions to be asked and answered, but my strong feeling is that there is both goodwill and broad agreement on both sides concerning continued UK participation in EU research mechanisms into the future and so there is still hope that we can maintain at least some of the present benefits, so long as a way round some of the many obstacles (such as the question of free movement) can be found.
The latter months of the year also saw the long-awaited announcement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on the final decisions concerning the rules for the next Research Excellence Framework (REF). The announcement contained no great surprises, and the stipulation that 100% of staff who are substantially contracted to undertake research should be submitted chimes well with the strategy that we have pursued for the last five years, which has been to aim at a high Grade Point Average through a selective submission to REF 2014, and then to raise the numbers of staff submitted, aiming at the levels we submitted in 2007 (around 1,200) whilst retaining the high quality we achieved in 2014. The 100% rule is very much congruent with this approach. Other decisions are tweaks to the original proposals on which HEFCE consulted. The minimum output per researcher is to be one, with a maximum of five per researcher, such that an overall institutional average of at least 2.5 is achieved. This is a more logical approach than the original concept of minima and maxima of zero and six respectively, and will still achieve the aim of allowing a more nuanced profile of the institution’s overall research outputs to be constructed. The ratio of impact case studies to numbers of staff returned is also very sensible, and will help institutions to focus on the quality of case studies. One item I would like to highlight is the continued requirement for outputs to be deposited in an open access repository no later than three months after the earliest date of publication if they are to be eligible for submission. It is extremely important that all colleagues who are publishing outputs intended to be eligible for REF add them to our institutional repository (ORCA) as soon as possible after they have been accepted for publication, and certainly within the timeframe outlined above. We absolutely must ensure this happens consistently so please do take note.
Another excellent piece of news this month was that Cardiff University is among the 23 that have been selected to join the Home Office visa pilot that previously has only encompassed Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and Bath universities. This will much improve the experience of international students who apply to Cardiff, and will make it easier for them to work here after concluding their studies. We are one of only two universities in Wales being included in this second phase of the pilot — the other being Trinity Saint David at their Swansea campus — and I’m delighted that both Cardiff University and our international applicants will be able to benefit from this new process, which is one of a number of welcome signs that the approach to international students is undergoing significant positive change in the UK. A big thank you to all those who have contributed to our excellent record on visa applications — which was central to our inclusion — especially Glyn Lloyd (International Student Support Manager) and June Davies (Points Based Immigration Officer), both of whom do a wonderful job for us and for our applicants and students.
External validation of this kind is very important, and we have been fortunate in the last few weeks to garner a number of accolades that are not only testament to our commitment as a University, but represent significant personal achievements for those involved. I’m delighted to say that we have been awarded a highly prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for pioneering research into vision problems in children with Down’s syndrome conducted by the Down’s Syndrome Vision Research Unit led by Dr Maggie Woodhouse. It is great to see this important work recognised, representing as it does a real improvement in the lives of children with Down’s syndrome, who often have a range of eye disorders that have been difficult to diagnose accurately and correct for. Meanwhile, at the Times Higher Education Awards this November we won the International Collaboration of the Year award for the Phoenix Project, which focuses on Namibia and is led by Professor Judith Hall, and the Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community for the work of the CAER Heritage Project, which is led by Dr Dave Wyatt and involves the communities of Caerau and Ely — especially local schools — in archaeological research into the important Iron Age hillfort that the team has been studying for some years. Many congratulations to both teams. The work of the Wales Governance Centre (WGC) on the issues arising from Brexit and from Wales politics more broadly has also been widely recognised. Professor Laura McAllister chaired an independent group of electoral and parliamentary experts that has considered some thorny but crucial questions concerning the make-up of the Welsh Assembly and the voting system by which the members are elected, particularly in the light of Brexit and the effect that will have on the democratic system in the UK. If the report’s recommendations are enacted (and inevitably there are substantial political considerations) then the consequences will be historic for Wales. I should also like to congratulate Professor Roger Scully of the WGC, who has been named Political Communicator of the Year by the Political Studies Association. This is a significant accolade and the first time it has been won by a researcher from Wales. The University also continues to have a substantial impact in Wales in terms of policy. Professor Emma Renold, of the School of Social Sciences, chaired the Sex and Relationships Education Expert Panel that was established in March 2017 by the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, to help inform the development of high quality sex and relationships education in the new school curriculum in Wales, finding that while biology has its place, there needs to be greater emphasis on emotions, gender equity, minority rights and relationships. Again, this is very important work that could have wide-reaching beneficial effects.
I don’t deny that 2017 has been a difficult year. On top of the travails of the Brexit process there has been a string of unfavourable media reports on universities in the UK. We continue to struggle with the USS pension, while student support and university funding have become major political issues in England just when we felt we had found a sustainable solution in Wales. That said, we at Cardiff University can be proud of what we have achieved. Our major role in the landmark gravitational waves discovery; entering the world top 100 and the UK top 10 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities; being named The Times and Sunday Times Welsh University of the Year; once again being the highest-ranked university in the Stonewall top 100 index of UK employers; winning one of the six Centres of the UK Dementia Research Institute against stiff competition: these are substantial and gratifying achievements alongside those outlined above. I should like to thank and congratulate all those involved.
I know also that there are many more achievements than those I have mentioned here. This university is a big place with over 7,000 staff and over 30,000 students. What we achieve together is a huge team effort, and, as ever, let me thank on behalf of the University all those colleagues who will be on hand to keep things going over the holiday period, both to ensure that essential services are maintained and to support the many students who will be remaining in Cardiff.
To all of them, and all of you, I wish a happy and peaceful Christmas and a prosperous New Year.