I hope you had a relaxing break over Easter, were able to enjoy the glorious weather and, perhaps, forget for a while the tribulations that we are all undergoing at the moment. As I write, the extension of the lockdown for a further three weeks has just been confirmed by the UK government, although this was widely expected and indeed announced in Wales before Easter. I know that lockdown affects people in different ways and there will be a wide disparity of experience, but the government is coming under some pressure to give a hint of when it will end, or at least when the measures might be relaxed. Ministers are reluctant to do so at present, largely because nobody knows for certain and we must wait for the data on transmission, infection and mortality rates to indicate when that might be possible. Some people find it frustrating to be told that we must be guided by the science, but that surely is a better basis for decision-making than the whims and prejudices of political leaders.
The reality is that without effective treatments for Covid-19 or the development of a vaccine followed by a mass inoculation programme, it is not possible at the moment to predict when normal life will be resumed. Once the epidemic in the UK is under control, which the lockdown will achieve through lowering the transmission rate below the critical threshold, it should be possible to introduce cautious measures to relax the present confinement to a degree. Activities that do not require people to gather at close quarters in numbers and can be conducted whilst observing social distancing protocols are imaginable, as are the continuation of familiar hygiene measures or even the introduction of heightened measures such as the wearing of face masks in public. There has been talk of ‘segmentation’, where demographics and groups that are demonstrably at lower risk would face fewer restrictions than those at higher risk, whilst those at highest risk remain protected. It may become easier to travel again but significant restrictions could remain, especially internationally. All this lies in the future, and for now we must continue to observe the lockdown as it exists.
It is nevertheless helpful to consider such possibilities as we think about what the medium-term future may hold. We will need to consider how to combine remote learning with, for example, restrictions on the numbers of people who can be physically present on campus, all the while being aware that a renewed strict lockdown could be re-imposed if outbreaks occur despite social distancing, widespread testing, case isolation, contact tracing and so on. In essence, we need to be prepared for all eventualities and together we need to think through the implications of this in the coming months. As time goes by we will, of course, have more and more information to work on, both about the virus itself and how it operates, and on what measures to combat its spread have proved effective. As we consider how we will need to adapt our strategic approach to these circumstances through reviewing The Way Forward 2018-23, the additional information will enable us to be increasingly clear about what our priorities should be. Similarly, as we plan for student recruitment, teaching activity and research in the coming academic year we will have to take broad range of possibilities into account and be prepared to be flexible and agile in order to deal with challenges that we cannot at this stage predict with any certainty.
Meanwhile we continue to do everything we can to reassure our students. As I have mentioned before, the Covid-19 student check-in call service has been a huge success and we have received lots of very positive feedback on it. You set up and launched the service in less than two weeks, allowing us to let our students know we are there for them and to provide a regular friendly call which I know they value highly. On their behalf let me say a big-thank you to everybody who has worked on this and continues to make it the success it is.
You may also be aware that we have instituted a no-disadvantage policy for our students, so that (providing we comply with the requirements of professional and regulatory bodies) no student will be disadvantaged by undertaking assessments remotely. They can improve their overall mark for the year but not make it worse. This is addressed in our new ‘safety-net’ policy, which addresses both the disruption caused by Covid-19 and, where applicable, the disruption caused by strike action. It has been produced through collaboration across the University, is a great example of what is possible even under these remote working conditions and will serve the University and, most importantly, our students well. I’m very grateful to everybody involved for the hard and complex work that went into devising the policy.
Finally on this, I have written to our international students to assure them of our support, and drawing to their attention to a letter from Michelle Donelan MP, Minister of State for Universities in England. I have stressed that this information needs to be read in consultation with official advice from Welsh Government, but it is good to see our governments reassuring international students that they are valued and will be supported. You can read the Minister’s letter here.
It is heartening but not surprising to learn that our excellent Students’ Union is not letting coronavirus get in the way of their annual celebration of the contribution of Cardiff University staff and students to student life. While the usual Enriching Student Life Awards dinner cannot be held of course, I am pleased to see that the staff and student nominees are being released over the next week, and that the winners of each category will be shared on the 30 April. The nominations are made by students themselves and are an inspiring reminder of the richness of the student experience here at Cardiff. I’ll come back to this in a future email once the winners have been announced.
In other news, just before Easter we took the decision to cease treating the coronavirus crisis as a major incident (a sudden emergency that requires emergency action) and to put in place a more sustainable structure that takes account of the new realities we face and the likelihood that they will prevail for some time. As part of that we have created new strategy and operational groups that will tackle the specific issues we face, and these will be shared on the intranet and in further communications next week. In brief, they cover education and students, research, our infrastructure (both the campus and IT) and admissions and recruitment, and have in the first instance a 6-month operational focus. Each area will link in with existing structures so that our governance remains robust, but adapted to the changing world we face. The groups include Professional Services staff working collaboratively with academic colleagues. Please bear with us as we put all this in place; we will share in greater detail as soon as we can. As this work progresses we will be looking longer term at The Way Forward 2018-23 and seeking ways of engaging more widely still on ideas for our future.
Some of you will also be aware of major national developments in response to the extremely difficult challenges that universities face. As I wrote in a column in the Western Mail this week, Cardiff University remains in a strong position to weather this storm but the longer the uncertainty continues the more difficult it will become for us all to navigate.
Only last week, Universities UK said that the pandemic threatens to cut overseas student numbers sharply, warning that it will put some universities in financial danger. This could cause extreme instability unless UK and Welsh Governments can offer additional support to help universities emerge from the crisis able to take on the new challenges that will inevitably ensue. Universities UK has worked with the Russell Group to draw up a document on achieving stability in higher education post Covid-19 that has been agreed by representatives of all four nations and sent to all four governments. The highlights of the proposed package are measures which will:
- address immediate losses in income and cashflow and allow universities to keep operating;
- ensure that universities can maintain the UK’s research excellence, capacity and training of PhD students;
- provide protection from cuts to courses which supply public sector workers such as health workers and teachers and provide opportunities for retraining/reskilling for people whose jobs are affected by COVID-19;
- ensure applicants for 2020-21 have as much choice as usual about what and where they study;
- encourage and enable international and EU students to choose to study in the UK as planned.
Clearly, the UK governments and all the devolved administrations face unprecedented challenges at the moment and we must be realistic about what we can expect. However, it is important to remember that universities will play a key role as the country emerges from the coronavirus crisis, as in due course it will. We will be critical to the provision of skills, vital research, innovation and community work in a post-virus world, and we will need to work hard to get our case across to the public and to politicians.
Finally, I am very sorry to have to tell you that since I last wrote on 9 April we have lost two further members of staff to Covid-19. These awful events bring home the reality of what we are facing in this crisis. Our hearts go out to their families, and our thoughts are with them at this terrible time.
With best wishes,