Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – February 2020

Colin Riordan

Dear colleague

By the time this email has been translated and circulated, anything I say about Covid-19 (novel coronavirus) may have been overtaken by events, so fast-changing is the position. In such times it is always difficult to steer the right course between over-reaction and complacency, but I did want to reassure you that from a University point of view we have convened a contingency group that meets regularly to consider the advice from Public Health Wales and Public Health England, and includes expert contributions from within the University. I’m sure you are aware of the advice to wash hands regularly (the same advice that is always given during the flu season), and to catch coughs and sneezes in tissues that should then be disposed of and followed again by thorough hand-washing. Travel advice will change with events and should be consulted while planning any trip. You can find the Cardiff University update page here, and of course we will pro-actively inform you of any important developments. At this stage there is little more to be said than please be sceptical of unsubstantiated rumour and heed advice from reliable public health sources.

One unfortunate by-product of the spread of coronavirus has been disturbing incidences of prejudice against people who may appear to originate from one of the affected areas. This kind of behaviour is in all cases wholly unacceptable, and it is important that we support colleagues, students or indeed anyone who has been adversely affected in this way. While none of the public health advice here has touched on the wearing of masks, they are of course simultaneously an essential item for health professionals on the front-line of the virus epidemic in China and in short supply for obvious reasons. A group of colleagues in the University are fund-raising for one of our partners, Hubei Cancer Hospital in Wuhan, to help purchase N95 respirators, which offer clinical-grade protection to medical staff who are currently caring for excessive numbers of coronavirus-infected patients. If you would like to show your solidarity and support, please do so here.

Closer to home, the people of Wales continue to suffer from the devastating effects of Storm Dennis. I know that our students are offering active support through the Students’ Union volunteering programme, but I am also aware that some colleagues may have been directly or indirectly affected themselves. If that is the case, you might like to know that Care First — who provide our Employee Assistance Programme — are able offer support to any staff affected, whether emotional support in the case of anxiety or loss, or practical advice via the Citizens Advice Bureau. The latter would include financial advice, legal advice or information about insurance and support on how to make a claim. You can find out more here or by calling the 24-hour helpline on 0800 174319.

The industrial action we are presently experiencing is taking place against a background of constructive progress being made, not least in the national talks on pension issues. Since January, UCU, UUK and USS have been taking part in tripartite talks chaired by Joanne Segars, chair of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP), which was established by UCU and UUK to find a route forward after the suspension of the 2018 dispute. This is the first time that all three parties involved have held joint discussions, which have been productive and are scheduled to continue. As I said last month, Cardiff University and its staff group of experts support the recommendations of the JEP and I hope that these recommendations will be acceptable to the USS Trustee, in order to avoid further increases in contribution rates. The question of cost-sharing is a separate one; as you may know, the 35:65 ratio to share the cost of the defined benefits scheme between employees and employers was the result of an agreement between UCU and UUK to resolve the 2011 dispute. It remains the default position in the Scheme rules. UUK did make an offer on this in line with the recommendations of the JEP’s first report in an effort to avert the present dispute, but the offer was rejected and UCU has not made any proposal beyond their ‘no detriment’ position, which in effect means abandoning this long-standing agreement on the Scheme rules alongside substantial extra costs for universities.

On pay and conditions, for which the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) is responsible on the employers’ side, there is general agreement that contractual matters and pay gaps must be addressed, and the employers are more than willing to do this. As I said last time, on 27 January the employers put forward a set of proposals for consideration, and it is to be hoped that the continuing talks between UCU and UCEA will allow these issues to be progressed. While UCEA has no mandate to re-open last year’s pay settlement, I believe that the recent proposals can provide a basis to conclude the 2019-20 dispute. This in turn would enable constructive engagement by both parties in the 2020-21 pay round, which would normally be commencing in the next few weeks.

A recent open letter from UUK and UCEA gives a helpful summary of how things stand, and we will continue to encourage all parties to seek an early conclusion to the current industrial action for the benefit of our students and staff. The progress being made is genuinely encouraging and I believe there is every hope that a route out of the impasse can be found if there is a will to do so.

Turning to academic matters, I am very pleased to be able to report that research awards for the first two quarters of this academic year total almost £100m, which is the highest ever recorded and around £30m more than the previous year’s first two quarters. At the same time during the period the total number of awards is the lowest recorded in the last four years at 440, which means that our strategy of focussing on a smaller number of higher value awards is bearing fruit. Particular congratulations are due to the School of Social Sciences, where Professor Simon Murphy, Professor Donald Forrester and Dr Luke Sloan each won awards totalling more than £5.3m between them, which is an extraordinary achievement in their subject area. In the School of Medicine, Professor Ian Jones, Professor John Chester and Dr Andrew Fry are each in receipt of awards totalling more than £17.3m altogether, in areas ranging from mental health to cancer and genetics. This again is an outstanding achievement, and all, plus all those who contributed to the winning of all awards across the University, deserve our warm congratulations and thanks for all the effort that has gone into these signal successes.

This academic year we are seeing a remarkable increase in student applications, which on the latest figures are up overall by 25.4%. Home undergraduate applications are up by 13%, as against a small decline across the sector of 0.6%. I hasten to add that this does not mean that we will be increasing student numbers by that amount; what it does is to allow us to select the most appropriately qualified candidates and match them to their preferred programmes. It also shows that Cardiff University is popular with both international and home undergraduates at a time of unprecedented uncertainty in relation to future models of immigration and funding. We should be in no doubt that there are universities in the UK that are experiencing the reverse, and I am quite sure that a growth in applications is a better position to be in than a decline. At the same time it is important that we have sufficient staff to teach and provide the broader support, along with the necessary facilities. That is indeed the case, and it is worth noting that in terms of student-staff ratios we continue to occupy a favourable position both within the sector (25th out of 121) and within the Russell Group, and also that this year we have improved our position by two places within the Russell Group in terms of UCAS tariff. It is not easy to steer a course between financial sustainability, manageable student numbers that are properly resourced and ensuring the right level of quality, but the data we have show that we are doing this.

After some delay it was confirmed that as a consequence of the reshuffle, the post occupied by Chris Skidmore as Minister of State for Universities and Science would be divided into two roles. The new universities minister is Michelle Donelan in the Department for Education and the science minister is Amanda Solloway in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The advantage for us is that there will be a minister wholly focussed on science, which is a UK-wide competence, and therefore Ms Solloway will be our minister here in Wales too, although as a Parliamentary Undersecretary of State, she is a rung lower than her predecessor, and unlike all the UK science ministers since 2010, will not attend cabinet. Ms Donelan will only relate to us tangentially or by various consequences of English higher education policy, although she does have responsibility for the international education strategy and the Student Loans Company, both of which have an impact on Welsh universities.

On Brexit, both sides have now published their negotiating mandates and they are very far apart.  Reading the UK mandate, which can be found here, there is an explicit commitment to seeking association to Horizon Europe, but the signal on Erasmus+ is more equivocal (see p. 23). It is not out of the question but it is clear that the UK will not extend the transition period beyond the end of this year, that time is very short to reach agreement, and indeed that the government has declared its readiness to terminate negotiations if insufficient progress has been made by June. In the light of this, and of the gap between the two positions in terms of alignment, free movement and the role of the European Court of Justice, I feel that universities need now to engage with a positive agenda to help shape a new future for research and academic exchange that encompasses the world. While association to Horizon Europe and participation in aspects of Erasmus+ may be desirable and goals to which the government subscribes if they are in the UK interest, they may not be achievable. We need to make the argument strongly for international research and talent per se, because the crucial point is that these are priorities worth funding. There is much at stake here and fighting past battles will not help us. We are critically dependent on and owe an obligation to our colleagues and students both from Europe and around the world so we must continue to argue the case that international collaboration requires significant investment from the UK Treasury, and we will need to work with UK government priorities if we are to achieve that, whether that is through EU instruments or domestic alternatives.

Finally, earlier this month it was announced that Professor Gary Baxter will be completing his term as Pro-Vice Chancellor for the College of Biological and Life Sciences this summer. Gary has been an outstanding colleague and I very much enjoy working with him. Much as I appreciate all he does for us in his present role I do understand his desire to return to research after a very long stint as Head of School and then as PVC, and we will shortly be launching the search for his successor.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan