Meeting updates

Political landscape, School engagement and the Cardiff Innocence Project recognition

Read a message from the Vice-Chancellor sent to staff today (28 May 2021).

Dear colleague

May has been a notable month for political events across the United Kingdom, seeing as it did elections to the Senedd in Wales, to the Scottish Parliament and to local authorities in England, as well as the by-election in Hartlepool. In addition, the Queen’s Speech was held, marking the new session for the UK Parliament and outlining the UK government’s programme of legislation.

The Senedd result and the First Minister’s decisions as he formed his new government are of particular interest to us of course, as is some of the legislation in the Queen’s Speech that relates to universities and research. The return of a Welsh Labour government was undoubtedly a triumph for Mark Drakeford, and from our point of view, supplied an immediate level of certainty over what we can broadly expect over the next five years. The Welsh Labour manifesto commitments on universities include legislation to create a new funding and regulatory body to cover all post-compulsory education, and to create a new medical school at Bangor University in North Wales. In my view, we in the Welsh sector are fortunate that the new Minister for Education and the Welsh Language is Jeremy Miles, who is a very worthy successor to the excellent Kirsty Williams. Jeremy managed the Brexit brief and his previous role as General Counsel with great aplomb and will be more than a match for the complexities of the Tertiary Education and Research Bill and other matters in the Education brief. It is helpful that the Minister for Education is also the minister responsible for the Welsh language, which is central to Cardiff University and perhaps the most important feature of our distinctive identity as the only Russell Group university in Wales.

Research and innovation are critical to Cardiff University of course, and while they are not devolved matters there is nothing to prevent the Welsh government from engaging with them. In the new government R&I (including life sciences) will lie within the remit of the new Minister for the Economy, Vaughan Gething, along with regional development and Shared Prosperity Funding. The latter funding is the UK replacement for European regional development funding, which has formed a significant source of public funding for Cardiff University (via the Welsh European Funding Office) for many years. The big difference is that this money will be distributed directly to Wales by the UK government rather than being devolved to the Welsh government from Brussels, as was previously the case. Engaging with the economics ministry (as well as lobbying the Westminster government) will therefore be important, although QR funding — the research funding that is based on REF performance, at present around £40m p.a. for Cardiff — will remain with the Education ministry. Clearly, it will be important for the two ministries to work together as the Tertiary Education and Research Bill makes its way through the Senedd, and we will need to take account of the interactions as we give our views on the process. You are doubtless aware that Eluned Morgan has replaced Vaughan Gething in the high-profile position of Minister of Health, and again there will be a need for us to engage on matters relating to the new North Wales Medical School and our myriad interests in the area of health more generally, including health and care research, which will remain under the Health purview.

The Queen’s Speech contains a range of Bills that will directly affect universities in England, and some of them will have indirect effects on Wales. Foremost among them is the Freedom of Speech Bill, which has been extensively covered in the media and gives increased powers to the Office for Students but also legal rights of redress to anybody who feels they have been prevented from speaking by a Students’ Union (SU), which are of course charities and not regulated by the Office for Students (the Charity Commission is responsible for them, as it is for Welsh universities such as ours). The provisions will apply only to universities and SUs in England, but the other bill that is central to universities will apply UK-wide. The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) Bill, which creates an agency specifically devoted to ‘moonshot research’ to fund projects that seek solutions to grand challenges or aspects of them, and specifically allows speedy, risky, end-to-end research to be undertaken, was the brainchild of the Prime Minister’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, who as I write is launching broadsides against the government in which he played a leading role, and indeed at times against himself. It remains to be seen how the new agency might fare without his support within government, but the fact that it is in the legislative programme at this stage shows that it is a high priority manifesto commitment and should offer opportunities for us and other universities. Unfortunately, this new agency is being established against the background of a serious reduction of support for international research resulting from the cuts to Official Development Assistance (ODA)funding, which is already affecting Cardiff University to the tune of more than £1m. There are other pieces of legislation in which universities will have an interest, but perhaps the biggest issue of all is the likely resurrection of the Augur recommendation around university fees, and the strong possibility that in order to divert funding to vocational education as part of the proposed Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, home undergraduate tuition fees in England could be capped at £7,500. This would obviously have very significant effects on the funding model in Wales and will doubtless be a matter that we will wish to discuss with government here.

The startling reflections of Dominic Cummings on the government’s handling of the Covid crisis reminded me of a much more positive occasion when I visited the School of History Archaeology and Religion last month, where I learned that Dr Mansur Ali, who is a member of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, working with Muslim Doctors Cymru, the British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA) and the Muslim Council of Wales (MCW), has been leading community interventions on the COVID-19 vaccine in order to offer reassurance and help to reduce hesitancy. I’m sure you are aware that a considerable amount of misinformation has been in circulation on social media and by other means, and there has been clear evidence of increased hesitancy in BAME communities, not helped by distrust of government given some of the issues that have been publicly discussed recently. Dr Ali has played a key and leading role in addressing these issues, and contributed significantly to an interpretation of the issue of vaccines in terms of Islamic law in an interesting document entitled ‘Top Ten Questions Imams and Scholars Get Asked About Vaccines’ issued by the British Board of Scholars and Imams (BBSI). I found this document to be an exceptional example of how to communicate complex ethical, legal and scientific matters in a way that would be accessible to its readers, and I was very impressed to learn of yet another way in which we at Cardiff University are contributing so significantly to Covid recovery, and that our contribution is so multi-dimensional.

This month I also made a virtual visit to the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, where I heard a fascinating presentation by Dr Panos Paris on digital video assessment, which showed how the pandemic has driven innovation in teaching and learning as it has in so many other ways. Watching clips of students undertaking the assessments was highly instructive and I would recommend getting in touch with Dr Paris if you are thinking of undertaking that type of assessment in your own teaching or wish to compare notes. Amongst the many interesting initiatives, I learned about was the introduction of student digital champions who are helping to co-create resources that will meet the needs of students. On a virtual visit to the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences I attended a staff webinar and heard about the very encouraging results of the complete re-organisation of the curriculum that the School undertook as part of Transforming Cardiff. During an in-person visit to the School of Engineering I heard a progress report on a genuinely exciting and ambitious reform of the first year curriculum, reducing 27 modules to three, and introducing problem/project based learning in a way that made me feel I’d quite like to apply myself.

While it is gratifying to see the excellent initiatives being undertaken across the University, and the huge commitment and dedication of our staff, I am aware that this has been a very tough academic year and it isn’t over yet. It’s going to be very important for everybody to do the best they can to make use of their annual leave and get a decent break before the next academic year begins. I would encourage all line managers to be proactive about this and check that everybody is doing so, as well as organising activities in such a way as to ensure it happens.

Finally, a couple of years ago we held an alumni event for Law graduates in London, at which our excellent Innocence Project students and staff made very well received presentations and mingled with the highly engaged alumni, who were kind enough to host and give presentations in turn. I discovered then how successful the Innocence Project is at delivering its stated aims of conducting pro bono casework, research, and advocacy on the topic of miscarriages of justice. Our students undertake investigations and take suitable cases all the way through the appropriate legal process. There are thirteen student team leaders, leading on thirteen different cases of serious criminal convictions, where their clients maintain their innocence. The offences range from murder to serious sexual assault. The Cardiff Innocence Project remains the only university Innocence Project in the UK to have helped overturn cases at the Court of Appeal. Supervised by our outstanding staff, our students’ success in overturning two wrongful convictions as well as carrying out research and advocating for change was recognised earlier this month at the Student Pro Bono Awards 2021, winning in the Best Contribution by a Team of Students category. This is highly prestigious recognition at UK national level, and the award was presented by the Attorney General, the Rt Hon Michael Ellis MP QC. Our excellent students, Abdallah Barakat and Charlotte Reeves, accepted the award on behalf of the 95-strong student team, which is led with outstanding elan by Dr Dennis Eady and Dr Holly Greenwood. Huge congratulations to all involved.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan
Vice Chancellor