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Vice-Chancellor news

Thank you and considerations for next year

17 December 2020

Read a message from the Vice-Chancellor, sent to staff today (17 December 2020).

Dear colleague

As I write we have just completed our final all-staff webinar of 2020, attended by more than 2,000 colleagues. First of all thanks very much to everybody who was able to attend, even if for part of the session, and if you missed it and would like to catch up you can do so here. The question that aroused by far the most interest was on what the prospects for home-working will be in the future. The first thing to say is that for the rest of this academic year we will proceed as planned. The combination of our ability to monitor the virus through the Cardiff University Screening Service, the COVID-19 adjustments we have made to our buildings and the behaviours with which everybody is now so familiar has allowed us to continue our activities as a University in as safe and effective a manner as possible. Unless directed otherwise by Public Health Wales or Welsh Government, we plan to continue for the rest of this academic year with the tried and tested approach of blended learning for students and remote working for staff who are not involved in in-person teaching or other activity that requires a presence on campus.

As we all know, through the crisis we have learned about the new ways of working that video-conferencing and other technologies make possible. It would not make sense to say that the way we have been compelled to work through the pandemic should continue indefinitely, not least because I know many people, me included, miss the in-person contact and ability to gather together that makes university life what it is. While it is still too early to tell what level of restrictions may or may not be in place by next September, I would say that while the balance will shift from remote working to in-person working, there will continue to be more opportunities to work remotely after the pandemic is over, and we will be engaging with you in the New Year on that matter.

The webinar presentations themselves focussed primarily on Brexit (briefly), student registrations in this academic year as well as recruitment for 2020/21, and the financial position. On Brexit, as you will be aware the negotiations continue, if on a rather uncertain footing. I would say the prospects for UK participation in Horizon 2020 and/or Erasmus+ are not strong, but the major issues of level playing field and fishing rights will need to be solved before there is any prospect at all of our participation in those programmes. Meanwhile the government has prepared domestic alternatives, which is comforting to know, but there is no real detail publicly available as yet.

When we consider where we thought we might be at this stage early on in the pandemic the news on student recruitment is very positive. Everybody has worked extremely hard and with exceptional commitment and team spirit to ensure that we achieved the best possible outcome. Broadly, we are at around 108% of registrations for home students and 75% for international students compared with last year. There is still a chance of further improvement on the international side in January, but the effects of these levels of recruitment (and some other compensating effects, notably in returning students) are far more positive than we imagined might be possible back in March and April. The assumptions that appeared realistic back then implied a huge drop in income that would have necessitated drastic cut-backs in a range of ways. Thank goodness that has not come to pass, and while the budget recently approved by Council still envisages a very significant loss of £32.4m, that is a sum that we can absorb through the reserves that we have prudently built up in previous years.

We will need, collectively, to spend some time in the next few months on considering how best to take the lessons learned and new ways of working that have emerged during the crisis into the post-pandemic period, and to recognise that it may take longer than we think to reach that point. As we now know, the resurgence of coronavirus infections in Wales and other parts of the UK has already led to the introduction of stricter measures (in Wales, Level 4 restrictions from 28 December), so we must accept that there will be some difficult weeks and months to negotiate yet. Importantly, however, Welsh Government guidance makes it clear that a mixture of in-person and remote learning can continue even under level 4 conditions, as it did during the ‘firebreak’ earlier in the autumn.

What is particularly striking is that demand for study at Cardiff remains very high, and applications  for next year are holding up well (including a rise in international undergraduate applications) despite the very adverse conditions that prevail at the moment. Although we are seeing a drop in postgraduate international applications compared to last year, this follows two previous years of truly spectacular growth, and on the whole amounts to an encouraging sign that we may be able to recover relatively rapidly once the pandemic is past, or largely past.

On that note, the vaccination programme proceeds apace, and as I write the numbers inoculated in the UK are approaching 200,000. That of course is only the very beginning, and tens of millions will need to receive the jab for the available reservoir of infectable individuals to be sufficiently small that the virus cannot readily propagate in the UK. However, inoculating the 5% of the population – some 3.5 million people – who are the most vulnerable would reduce mortality by two-thirds because, sadly, those are the people least likely to survive COVID-19. There is much more to this pernicious disease than the mortality rate of course, but it does mean that we should start seeing some significant reduction in risk by the spring and early summer, even though it will doubtless be many months before things return to anything like where they were pre-COVID-19.

What this all adds up to is that even though the next few weeks look as if they will be disappointingly constrained, we can be optimistic about the prospects for 2021, at least so far as coronavirus is concerned. We can also be optimistic about the fact that lockdown has enabled all of us to recognise that the options for reducing our carbon footprint and achieving our climate ambitions are many-faceted and the opportunities much greater than previously thought. Academic colleagues and professional services staff have deployed the combination of in-person and digital teaching and learning to admirable effect and with outstanding professionalism, and it has been well received by our students.

There are reasons, then, to be hopeful, and I want to finish with a word of heartfelt thanks to all of you for coming together to address this crisis in such an exceptional manner. The outstanding communication, dedication and team spirit have been exemplary, albeit the sheer hard work exhausting, and never have we more deserved a restorative break over the festive period than in 2020. Our effort in 2021 must focus on how to ensure manageable workloads, and I know some of you will need to be on campus working to maintain systems and support our students during the vacation. We are very grateful to you specifically for that. But to everybody, thank you so much once again, and I wish you Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda; a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Whatever 2021 may bring, we can surely look forward in sincere hope for a brighter future.

With festive wishes, Colin Riordan