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Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – October 2019

1 November 2019
Colin Riordan

Dear colleague

Now the new academic year is properly underway it seems appropriate to reflect on the challenges for 2019-20 in terms of our academic endeavour, particularly because we have two major reviews of our academic quality to prepare for. One of these is the Research Excellence Framework (REF), with which you will be familiar and to which I will return in a moment. The other may be less familiar to you but it is in certain ways no less important: Quality Enhancement Review (QER), which is conducted by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). This is the first iteration of this process, which was mandated by the 2015 Higher Education (Wales) Act 2015. You can find out more about it here, but briefly, the purpose of QER is to demonstrate that our educational provision is of the appropriate academic standard and quality against baseline regulatory requirements, as well as to opine on how we use information and evidence to shape our strategic approach to enhancement of the student experience. This may not sound very dramatic, and indeed the judgments reached do not appear to be designed to set the heart racing, consisting as they do of three possible verdicts: meets requirements, meets requirements with conditions or does not meet requirements. However, it is very important that we do everything we can to ensure that we do meet requirements. The consequences of not doing so can be extremely severe, since we require a successful QER outcome to be granted a Fee and Access Plan and to retain our Tier 4 sponsor licence, without which we would be unable to recruit international students. In early December we will be submitting two reports (one self-evaluation and one on how we meet requirements) while the Students’ Union will be submitting their own report. The QAA Review Team will make two visits to Cardiff, one in early February and one in early March 2020, before publishing their conclusions some weeks later. This whole process is going to require considerable effort and commitment on our part and it will be very important for us all to support those directly involved as necessary; I’m grateful to everybody working on this.

Just over a year from now, on 27 November 2020, we will be submitting our dataset for REF 2021. The census date for all staff with significant responsibility for research is 31 July 2020, the assessment period for the over 120 impact case studies that we will need to produce spans 1 August 2013 to 31 July 2020, underpinned by research in the period 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2020, while environment statements, including for the first time an institutional statement, will need to encompass the period 1 August 2013 to 31 July 2020. I could continue in this vein but it would be easier for you to read about REF 2021 here if you would like to; suffice it to say that this is a huge, complex and vital operation requiring a major team effort. While we have made excellent progress, 99% of eligible staff having submissible outputs, there is still time for further outputs to emerge and every further 4* item will help to improve our grade point average which in turn will help to maximise our research power. The impact case histories I mentioned earlier are also vital; it is important that time is made available for colleagues working on them and indeed on any further outputs that are likely to be included. We have appointed impact case officers in each College who are working with the Deans of Research, Heads of School and of course the researchers on whose work the case histories are based. I’m sure there is no need for me to stress the importance of REF and I’m grateful to everybody working to maximise the quality and volume of our 2021 submission.

At our recent senior staff conference we discussed both QER and REF, but also devoted a session to the climate emergency and to the pressing issue of racism. I make no apology for returning to either of these issues, particularly the latter, since the Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently published its frankly devastating report on racial harassment in UK universities. The main charge is that universities have been oblivious to the extent of racism on campuses and I have to say that I recognise this description, which has been confirmed to me by a number of colleagues with personal experience of this, some of whom kindly joined us at the senior staff conference to discuss these issues and think through how we should respond. On behalf of the University I welcome this report and can assure you that we will be considering it carefully at University Executive Board and in due course at Council. Acknowledging the issue and talking about racism is very important, but we also need to take steps to remove barriers to promotion and improve representation in leadership positions by creating a supportive environment that will allow all staff to succeed in their roles and ambitions. I should also say that by highlighting one type of discrimination in the form of racism, in no way should we divert our attention from other forms of discrimination, whether in the form of a legally protected characteristic or not. We do, however, have a duty to keep the issue of racism at the forefront of our thinking because it is a profound problem that will not be solved through short-term measures. I should say that I must apologise for an error in my September email when I said the steering groups that have been set up to address these concerns are jointly chaired by a UEB member and a BAME colleague. In fact the overall steering group is chaired by Michelle Alexis, the student group by Jeff Allen and the staff group by Abyd Quinn-Aziz; UEB members (including me) are very supportive of this work and grateful to all the group members for the focus they are giving to these important matters.

As I say we also devoted some of our discussions to the climate emergency, which is not only a major public issue, but also very high on the list of concerns of students and staff. As you know we have a broad range of research in this area, some of it carried out at the Danau Girang Field Centre, our research station in the Borneo jungle of Sabah, Malaysia.  Professor Benoit Goossens leads the research there into biodiversity, conservation and reforestation. The latter is a key element in the climate change debate; while the climate emergency requires drastic cuts in emissions, helping felled forest to regrow also plays an important role. The Danau Girang Field Centre is taking practical steps in this respect and if you want to help or get involved you can do so by supporting their tree-planting project, Regrow Borneo, which forms part of their research into how to restore the damage that has already been caused.

Right at the end of last month we received some excellent news about another major issue facing society. The Wolfson Foundation is generously supporting the establishment of a pioneering research centre which will investigate and develop new ways of reducing anxiety and depression in young people. Funding of £10m will allow us to create the Wolfson Centre for Young People’s Mental Health, co-directed by Professor Stephan Collishaw and Professor Frances Rice. This is a huge achievement and a very important initiative and I should like to record the gratitude of the University to the co-directors and their team, and to TJ Rawlinson and the team in Development and Alumni Relations. Cardiff University is at the forefront not only of research into mental health but also the practice of how to deal with the issues faced by this and all universities. We are developing a whole university strategy on mental health and I hope to talk more about that in a future email. In the meantime, we are in the very fortunate position through the Wolfson donation to work in partnership with colleagues in Swansea University as well as with Welsh Government, NHS Wales, University Health Boards and schools across Wales to make a real difference in the lives of young people.

On another health-related matter, Public Health Wales has highlighted a mumps outbreak in Cardiff. Staff and students should ensure routine vaccinations are up to date; please look out for symptoms.

Every two years we carry out a staff survey, and the next one is due to go live on 4 November. Please do take part, and if you want to find out more about the actions we have taken to improve cooperation and the ways we support others since the last staff survey you can look here.

Back to academic matters, earlier this month we held an event in London along with our partner universities Bath, Bristol and Exeter to mark the 5-year anniversary of GW4. We had an excellent day, with more than 100 invited leaders from industry, government, funding bodies and academia coming together to recognise GW4’s collaborative success over the past five years and hear about our future initiatives. Professor Kim Graham spoke in her capacity as chair of the GW4 Board, and we heard from a range of speakers from our partner universities and organisations. It was great to hear that since GW4 was established, we have invested more than £2.8m in 87 collaborative research communities across the four universities, generating £37m in research income, and that the GW4 partnership is leading on over 30 externally funded doctoral training programmes that are highly collaborative, involving a range of academic and non-academic partners. The GW4 Alliance allows us to share access to large-scale equipment and facilities such as Pre-clinical In-vivo Functional Imaging facilities across the institutions, including a Micro PET/CT scanner based in Cardiff’s PETIC facility and a 3T large animal MRI scanner based in Bristol’s Translational Biomedical Research Centre.Our large-scale collaborative GW4 successes include forming the GW4 Water Security Alliance, the largest water research consortium in the UK, led by Professor Isabelle Durance of Cardiff University. GW4 is a great example of regional collaboration that enhances our ability to collaborate here in Wales and gives us the chance to prevail when competing with much larger rivals elsewhere in the UK.

Finally, as I write it has become clear that there will be a general election in December in the light of the extension of the UK’s membership of the EU to the end of January. The campaign will doubtless be robust and there is much at stake. Please can I ask all colleagues to be as supportive as possible of those staff and students who are citizens of other EU countries and who may be feeling destabilised by the uncertainty and the tone of some of the public debate. As a University we are being as supportive as we can in practical terms, but on a human and individual level I hope we can be helpful too.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan