It is common knowledge that the rhythms of university life are influenced to this day by long-standing conventions relating to the needs of a predominantly rural economy and by ancient pagan and Christian traditions. One of those rhythms is not on an annual but a multi-year cycle: since 1986 (the year I began my first job as a lecturer) an exercise to judge the quality of research at UK universities has been held every five to seven years. As we embark on a new decade we are in one such auspicious year: 2020 is not only a leap year but a REF year. This is the year in which we will make our submission to the Research Excellence Framework. Much depends on the outcome; not only £40m of annual income from the academic year 2021-22, but our reputation for the quality, range and volume of our research. So how do things stand? Just as a reminder, we are aiming to achieve a position of 12th in the country in terms of our research power this time, which is arrived at by multiplying our grade point average (GPA) by the number of full-time equivalent staff included in our submission. In terms of the necessary outputs the position is looking strong, especially since there is still time before we make our submission in the autumn for further outputs to appear, and the position on quality is also positive. We will be submitting far more staff in REF 2020 compared with REF 2014; what we don’t know is how many staff other universities will be submitting compared with last time. Our research base has seen significant growth, but so doubtless has that of others. Again there is potentially still time before the 31 July census date for the position to improve, and the Disglair research leave replacement staff programme has been very beneficial. The big challenge for all UK research universities at this stage will be to optimise impact and environment statements, which will have a considerable influence on the outcome. Our preparations in this respect are proceeding well but there is still more to be done and I’m grateful to all those who are working hard to maximise our chances as an institution.
One of the challenges that face us is how to collaborate effectively on research. Given the amount of medical and health-related research we do, our joint work with the NHS is of particular importance. In an increasingly competitive environment we must ensure that we continue to attract government and industry investment to Cardiff and Wales. Recently The Academy of Medical Sciences published an interesting and useful report entitled Transforming Health Through Innovation: Integrating the NHS and academia. This report recommends (p. 20) that university vice-chancellors and health board chief executives should establish an integrated research office function between NHS R+D offices and university research offices, with the aim of providing a single function that crosses both organisations. I am delighted to report that in collaboration with Cardiff and Vale University Health Board (CVUHB) we are opening just such an integrated research support service. The integration project has been in gestation for some time and will be complete by October. The Joint Research Office (JRO) is of significant strategic importance, forming a single point of contact for both academic and clinical staff that will reduce bureaucracy and diminish the need for protracted negotiations between our organisations. The establishment of the JRO, along with the future production of a joint research strategy, will formalise the research relationship between Cardiff University and CVUHB, and support our ambition to be world-leading in clinical and biomedical research and innovation.
On the matter of the industrial dispute, you may be aware that the University and College Employers Association (UCEA) made a proposal on 27 January to end the dispute with the Universities and College Union. How that proceeds will of course be a matter for national negotiations on both sides but we at Cardiff University will continue to engage positively with the expectations set out in the proposal around casual employment, workload and mental health as well as pay gaps in relation to gender and ethnicity. The proposal contains a range of constructive suggestions for addressing these important issues and in consultation with our own union representatives we want to pursue them in a way that both meets the aspirations of Cardiff University staff and allows us to continue to deliver our mission as a University. On pensions, I am very grateful to the members of our own USS Actuarial Valuation Technical Group, particularly Dr Richard Baylis, Professor Huw Dixon and Dr Woon Wong of Cardiff Business School, Professor Simon Rushton of the School of Psychology, Professor Frank Sengpiel of the School of Biosciences, and Mr Dave Atkins of University IT. Their work complements that of the national Joint Expert Panel (JEP), whose second report we welcome and regard as a very constructive way forward. We will certainly be pressing for the JEP2 proposals to be taken forward by the USS Trustee and hope that it will be possible to reach a position that is acceptable to the Pensions Regulator as well as the UCU, university employers and the Trustee.
Earlier this month we had a Town Hall meeting on the dispute for staff and one for students, which you can see here if you were unable to attend. We had helpful discussions on a range of issues including workload. One of the items that I was able to report on was a recent UEB debate on how, in practical terms, we can genuinely put students first and the opportunities that could be available to reduce burdens on both students and staff by considering (in consultation with external examiners) how we do assessment. If we were able to reduce assessment by 50% and make assessment practice in cognate modules consistent across the institution (which does not seem impossible), we may simultaneously able to improve the learning experience for students and help make workload more manageable for hard-pressed staff. Given the constraints we are experiencing we need to work together as a University to explore possibilities like this.
Talking of students, our Students’ Union (SU) President, Jackie Yip, reminds me that the spring elections for sabbatical positions are just round the corner. We have a lively democratic process in our SU and I would appreciate it if you could encourage students to take part by voting in due course or indeed by standing as candidates. Our close working relationship with the SU is critical to the student and staff experience and I know they will appreciate our support. On a slightly different note, please also consider celebrating the work of staff, students and tutors to improve the student experience at Cardiff by nominating them for an Enriching Student Life Award. I know that nominees and recipients are hugely appreciative of this kind of nomination, which you can submit here.
Earlier this month I joined our First Minister, the Rt Hon Mark Drakeford AM, in planting a tree at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Glantaf to launch Phoenix Trees for Schools Wales, a complementary project to the Phoenix Trees for Schools Namibia initiative which is already running in Africa. The aim is to plant a million trees and to engage the younger generation in recognising the importance of taking action now, for reasons that will be apparent to all. The project is intended in due course to extend to Zambia, and it was striking how committed the school students were when we addressed them and enlisted their help in planting the symbolic first tree. This approach in turn is complementary to Regrow Borneo which I mentioned in my November email, and it is absolutely right and proper that the University supports the excellent work of champions such as Professor Judith Hall of the Phoenix Project and Dr Benoit Goossens of the Danau Girang Field Centre in Borneo in their contribution to our Civic Mission and our research and education activity. Both of these projects, along with a whole series of other environmental initiatives, information and activities, will be represented at our Sustainability Week, which is planned for the week of 2-6 March. It is anticipated that external groups such as Welsh Water, Dr Bike, Repair Café Wales, and one of the Cardiff Zero Waste shops (Iechyd Da) will also be on hand. Plans include a Citizens Assembly where members of staff can discuss all matters relating to sustainability, as well as a discussion on zero carbon farming organised by the Sustainable Places Research Institute. Please look out for details in due course and contact Professor Mike Bruford, our Dean for Environmental Sustainability, if you would like to offer support.
In other news, recently we achieved a top-three position in a new league table entitled ‘Research to Riches’, which ranks how well universities perform in converting their research into successful companies creating high-value spinouts. We were surpassed only by Queens University Belfast and Cambridge University in the list compiled by Octopus Ventures, one of Europe’s largest venture capital funds. The usual health warnings apply when considering rankings, but I think this does reflect the excellent work done by our staff, students and professional services colleagues in collaboration with external business partners to ensure that our research expertise is converted to practical applications and commercial value.
Warm congratulations are due to all those colleagues who received an award in the New Year Honours. Professor Sophie Gilliat-Ray of the School of History, Archaeology and Religion, received an OBE for services to Education and Muslim Communities in Britain, while Professor Ian Weeks, Dean of Clinical Innovation for the University’s College of Biomedical and Life Sciences, was awarded an OBE for services to knowledge transfer and medical innovation. Professor Phil Jones of the Welsh School of Architecture received an OBE for services to architecture and decarbonisation, while Professor Timothy Walsh, of the School of Medicine, was awarded an OBE for services to Microbiology and International Development. His work on antimicrobial resistance (AMR; the problem of vital antibiotics ceasing to be effective) has recently been recognised by an MRC grant to establish an AMR surveillance system throughout Vietnam in collaboration with Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust Center in Hanoi. Last, and definitely not least, it is a matter of great pride that our Community Gateway Partnerships Manager, Ali Abdi, received a BEM for voluntary service to the BAME community in Cardiff. Ali joined the University’s Community Gateway team in October 2015 and has been both a key link between the University and the Grangetown community and a key member of this highly successful Civic Mission engagement project.
Finally, at this stage there is little to add to what I said last December in relation to the new Conservative government. A reorganisation of Whitehall departments and a significant reshuffle have been heavily trailed to take place at the beginning of February and so I expect to return to those matters in my next email. Clearly, the plans for UK research policy and funding will be of key interest, and there will be much activity around our future relationship with the European Union once talks begin on March 3 with a legal deadline for agreement at the end of the year. It is difficult to imagine that there can be a fully comprehensive trade agreement by that date, but it should be possible to agree our participation in both Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ if there is willingness on both sides to do so, and it should also be possible to reach agreement on enough vital matters to avoid the kind of cliff edge that we repeatedly appeared to be facing during the course of 2019. Domestically, our priority must be to secure a settlement on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the replacement for EU structural funds) that is not disadvantageous to Wales or to Welsh universities.
For the moment, of course, it is notable that 11pm on the last day of January 2020 is the point at which the UK formally ceases to be a member of the European Union. On 24 June 2016, the day after the EU referendum, I had this to say in an email to colleagues: ‘We are fortunate to live in a democracy where the will of the people can be ascertained and respected. Whether that be through a general election or, as in this case, through a referendum, we work with and through the consequences of momentous political decisions and ensure that we achieve the best possible outcomes for the University, our students, staff and stakeholders. We have been here for over 100 years and have been through many changes. We are an adaptable, ambitious and successful organisation. That will not change: I am confident that in this new world we will seek the best advantage not only for the University, but for Wales, the UK and the world. Our important task now is to unite, seize the opportunities that present themselves from exiting the European Union, and continue to build on our many successes.’ All that I would add is that the will of the people has now been ascertained both by a referendum and by a general election: our task for the coming years remains as important today as it was in 2016.
With best wishes