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Vice-Chancellor news

Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff

25 August 2020

Dear colleague,

As one colleague observed to me earlier this month, ‘2020 is the gift that keeps on giving’. The dramatic u-turn on A-level grades that took place just as the main phase of confirmation and clearing was closing has introduced an extraordinary level of uncertainty and movement in universities throughout the UK. Given the demands of an unprecedented emergency, it would have been much better last March to have set aside concerns about grade inflation for one year, and made the decision to trust the assessment of teachers earlier in the process. That would have given everybody certainty and time to plan. Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do to change policy at this very late stage because of the manifest unfairness of the original outcome. Now that A-level results have been revised we will need to spend some time working through the numbers to arrive at a new estimate of how many enrolments we might expect in a few weeks’ time. We will have to take account of a range of variables, such as the removal of the hastily-arranged student numbers cap in England but its retention in Wales, and the capacity of different parts of the University to cope with an unexpected influx of students, if that is what happens.

What are the consequences for Cardiff University? Helpfully, despite the chaotic process, we now know enough about the demand from domestic undergraduate applicants to be reasonably sure that we will recruit sufficiently well in that category. Home postgraduate is also looking positive, although it is a little early to say. The position on international undergraduate applications is more mixed, and although it is not as different from previous years as we might have expected, we are seeing significantly smaller numbers in some key areas. The important question is whether the applicants who have accepted an unconditional place from us will want to come or, perhaps even more pertinently, will be able to come, given the restrictions on travel and the ever-changing positions of governments across the world as they adjust their policy response to take account of the progress of the pandemic. We will have to wait and see how things develop. The biggest imponderable remains international postgraduate applicants. We are preparing meticulously for the arrival of our students, with their health and safety and that of our staff as our highest priority. By introducing our own testing facility and working closely with the NHS and public health authorities, we hope to give an additional level of reassurance beyond the familiar measures of social distancing, face-covering, hygiene and disinfecting regimes. By testing our own population we want to be able to have a continuously updated picture of the prevalence of coronavirus (we expect it to be very low given current rates) and of its development. This will be of huge benefit to the wider population in Cardiff as well as our own students, and international students will know in advance how seriously we take their health and safety here at Cardiff University. Nevertheless, even at the best of times it is difficult to make accurate predictions about levels of international postgraduate student enrollment and we must continue to be cautious about this. It makes a big difference because last year we enrolled almost 3000 students in this category.

The upshot of all this is that post-clearing, I would expect our financial projections for the coming year to improve somewhat, although a major area of income is still very much at risk. The reality is that we won’t know for sure until students have actually enrolled, which this year will be later than usual because we are giving more latitude to allow applicants and returning students more time to plan. We must therefore continue to plan for pessimistic scenarios without making hasty decisions that could not easily be reversed. Once we are as sure as we can be of what the year ahead holds financially, we will be able to take whatever measures are necessary to secure our financial sustainability. It is worth noting that we should soon receive the detail we need on the support that UK government is offering (see the announcement here), and I am hopeful that the Welsh government will take account of the position we now find ourselves in as regards student recruitment, especially so far as strategically important and expensive subjects such as Medicine and Dentistry are concerned. Unfortunately the reaction thus far to COVID has been to reduce our grant by 2.4% compared with last year, which has been doubly difficult given that we had been expecting the long-anticipated increases in line with the Diamond review to begin coming through in order to help rectify shortfalls in previous years. Clearly, coronavirus has imposed huge demands on the public purse, and we have supported the national effort both financially and through our expertise, facilities and equipment. But the A-levels debacle has highlighted the value that applicants and their families place on a university education, and we will need support in order to deliver on that.

Before I finish on this topic, a huge thank you to everybody involved in this year’s recruitment and admissions cycle, even though it is nowhere near over yet. I visited our call centre on the day the original results were issued to applicants, and was deeply impressed by the smoothness of the operation, running with a combination of social distancing (including face-covering, hygiene, etc.), remote working and teams distributed across the campus. It was exemplary and extremely successful; so much so indeed that I gather some of the ways of working may be retained even when social distancing and so on is no longer necessary.

Another big thank you is due to everybody involved in the online graduation celebrations that I mentioned in my last email. As soon as it’s possible we will offer all our graduates the opportunity to return to Cardiff for a more conventional in-person graduation ceremony, but that may be some way off and we didn’t want to let this important moment pass without marking it through the virtual means at our disposal. As has been the case throughout the COVID crisis, everybody came together wonderfully to make this possible. The video contributions were outstanding, from Heads of School, to the Student Union representatives who spoke and read eloquently, to the Waun Ddyfal choir’s lovely music, to alumna Alice Roberts (BSc 1994, MBBCh 1997, Hon 2019) who gave a superb and heartfelt address to graduands, to a beautiful alumni video rewritten specially for virtual presentation. Hundreds of colleagues from across the University contributed warm and moving Flipgrid video congratulations. The whole of the Graduation Working Group contributed to this special programme, and Richard Martin of the university’s Film Unit was particularly heroic, tailoring each ceremony especially for its school and students. With more than 10,000 views of the various videos to date and numbers still climbing, the virtual celebrations must be counted a great success. Our graduating students have told us how glad they were to mark their special moment in this way. Thank you to everyone involved in these celebrations. Most of all, and on behalf of the whole university, my warmest congratulations to Cardiff’s Class of 2020 and their supporters. We look forward to catching up in person when it’s possible once again.

It’s important to recognise that our academic success as a university has continued despite all the difficulties and constraints imposed by the global pandemic, and it is particularly pleasing to see the success our researchers have had in securing research grants across all three Colleges. It is impossible to list all of them of course, but some of the outstandingly successful researchers include Professor Anne Rosser, Professor Meng Li and Dr Mariah Lelos from the School of Biosciences, who were awarded a prestigious £2M Medical Research Council (MRC) Programme Grant for their work on cell therapy in Huntington’s disease. Also in Biosciences, Professor Tom Connor obtained two grants, both from the MRC: one was for CLIMB, a cloud infrastructure for big-data microbial bioinformatics (£580K), the other for the MRC COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (with £1M coming to Cardiff). I’m also delighted to report that we have had significant success with the European Commission in the last few months, especially since it looks increasingly likely that from next year this source of funding will be closed to the UK for new applications (all secured grants will be honoured). Those include the DOWN2EARTH project, involving Professor Owen Jones from the School of Mathematics and Dr Michael Singer, Dr Mark Cuthbert, and Dr Daniel Hobley from the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, who will develop community climate services focused on water scarcity in the Horn of Africa Drylands. Another European Commission award, led by Professor Roberta Sonnino and Professor Paul Milbourne from the School of Geography and Planning, is called FOODTRAILS and will support the implementation of new urban food systems in response to food insecurity. These two awards will bring in £1.5M to the University, enhancing our collaborative opportunities with a range of international academic institutions and other organisations. Anthony Bennett from Engineering was successful in his £1M fellowship application to EPSRC for research on scalable semiconductor quantum light sources, augmenting our compound semiconductor research. It was also pleasing to see continued success in the UKRI Future Leader Fellowship scheme with Andrew Logsdail (Chemistry) and Elliott Rees (Medicine) being awarded fellowships. Finally, Professor Huw Davies and Dr Morten Anderson (the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences again) won just £3.7M from the NERC (with £800K of this coming to Cardiff) for their exciting project investigating the development of state-of-the-art 4D computational models of mantle flow.

Sorry if I have unjustifiably missed anybody out, but this has genuinely been a collective and record-breaking effort. Research awards in the last academic year totalled £150.4 million, the first time the University has broken the £150 million barrier. It was a particularly strong year in terms of Research Council funding (£37 million) which shows we are making real progress in an area where we have tended in the past to underperform. Huge thanks and congratulations to everybody involved in this magnificent effort.

Finally, and with apologies for the long email this month, I want to return briefly to a matter I raised above. Soon we will be welcoming students back to Cardiff in numbers once more, and we will be expecting adherence to COVID-secure guidelines. As part of that we will be asking everybody who comes on to campus to adopt the Cardiff University COVID-19 Community Commitment, which stresses the importance of mutual respect, courtesy and consideration. In tandem with our existing Dignity and Study at Work policy, we want to offer a welcoming, inclusive and safe environment that will address negative discriminatory behaviours including those based on stereotyping and prejudiced attitudes. Working together, we will each need to take personal responsibility for the potential effect of our own behaviour on others in these extraordinary circumstances. Just as extraordinary as the circumstances has been the willingness to go the extra mile to secure the future of this great university, its students and its staff, and I am sure that we will be able to continue in that vein as we take steps to re-open our campus safely.

With best wishes, Colin Riordan