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Vice-Chancellor news

Covid restrictions, supporting our students, thank you to staff

13 July 2021
Dear colleague

I am writing my monthly email to all staff a couple of weeks earlier than usual, but will write again towards the end of August rather than leaving it until September, as had been my pre-pandemic practice. Since the usual academic rhythms have been disrupted, the natural caesura of graduation week is missing this year again, and ceremonies are being conducted online. I will reflect on all of that next time, once the cycle is complete, but I know that a lot of effort and time has gone into ensuring that the virtual celebrations are successful right across the University.

The hope is that we will be able to return to in-person graduations next year, giving an opportunity for previous cohorts to catch up if they wish, which will make for a rather different approach to graduation. That will need to be carefully planned, and it may be some time before I can update you. Of course, throughout covid we have become used to recognising that plans sometimes have to be changed for public health reasons, often at short notice, so we will always ensure that there is a back-up alternative. That goes for our general planning for next year of course, and as I write we are expecting another announcement by the Welsh Government on the nature of covid restrictions in the coming weeks and months. As I said in my last email, within the University we are likely to be moving to a position where we are able to make more use of our facilities, but whilst retaining some of the less disruptive measures that help to reduce transmission risk. The approach in Wales has generally been a little more cautious than elsewhere and it has served us well. My feeling is that although universities in England will no longer be legally constrained or directed by the government to adopt risk reduction measures, many will continue to keep some covid-secure measures in place simply because that is the responsible thing to do at this stage. There are still many unknowns; the level of population immunity we will see in the autumn for instance, vaccine coverage and efficacy, the potential emergence of new variants that could  change the balance of risk, the extent and severity of long covid, the effects of the NHS backlog plus other seasonal illnesses and a host of other variables that we cannot predict at this stage. Our aim is to find the right balance between allowing university life to proceed as normally as possible, whilst monitoring risks and changing the level of precautions as necessary.

Meanwhile we can reflect on the outstanding level of support we have been able to provide to our students during the course of the year. As well as increased welfare and academic support, which has been very considerable, we have been able to support our students financially too, especially those in the greatest need. This has been made possible by extra help from the Welsh Government — who have been exceptionally supportive of students and universities — coupled with our own resources. £6.3m has been disbursed in the form of one-off payments to students who have suffered hardship as a result of additional covid-related costs, while more than £400,000 has gone towards providing students from low income backgrounds, and those in hardship, with laptops and peripherals to enable them to take part in remote teaching and learning. Vulnerable students were eligible for further payments, as were students with disabilities. Our Financial Assistance Programme — which remained in place as usual — contributed over £1.2m in hardship payments, whilst over 2000 students received rent rebates this year at a cost to us of almost £1.8m, which is in addition to the £8m returned or not charged the previous year when the University was accessible only to very few people and almost all of our students were unable to use their accommodation as the country locked down. Achieving all of this under time pressure was in itself a considerable task and I would like to express my gratitude to Ben Lewis, Director of Student Support and Wellbeing, for all his work on this along with his teams, and in particular to Amy Close, Head of Advice and Money, and Christine Werrell, Head of Disability and Access Support and their teams in Student Support and Wellbeing, as well as the teams in Registry and IT who were critical in delivering all this.  I think we can be proud of the many ways we have been able to support our students, not least financially, during a period that has had a huge impact on years of their lives that in normal times are formative rites of passage.

None of this, of course, would have been possible without the extraordinary and selfless efforts of colleagues across the University, and at University Executive Board (UEB) and in other committees we have discussed at length how best to recognise the unparalleled commitment that all our staff have shown, whatever their role. We decided that it was very important to reintroduce the promotion processes and outstanding performance schemes that we unfortunately had to pause when it appeared that we may be facing financial disaster earlier on in the pandemic. This seemed only fair and it is pleasing to see those processes taking place. However, enormous credit is due to Ms Katie Hall, Unison Branch Secretary, who wrote to me at the beginning of this month arguing that while OCAS and Celebrating Excellence are very welcome schemes, all staff who have worked on campus (Katie was referring to Residences staff in particular) have gone more than the extra mile, for a much longer period than originally envisaged, and that in the interests of natural justice they should all be rewarded. We discussed this at some length in UEB and encountered some difficulty in distinguishing between the types of staff who should be in receipt of such a one-off payment. Many academic staff have come on to campus in order to teach of course, and when working from home many people have had to juggle childcare and home schooling with long days on Zoom. The truth is, just as the pandemic by definition affects the whole world, it has affected all our staff. We were persuaded that a one-off payment to all staff would be the right response, and that £250 per person, paid at the end of this month, would be an appropriate amount. I was able to present this initiative at our most recent Council meeting, and members were universally supportive. It has been a uniquely difficult year, and there will doubtless be more tribulations to come before the pandemic subsides into the background. That is why I want to finish this email by reiterating my heartfelt thanks to all staff of Cardiff University.
With best wishes

Colin Riordan