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Vice-Chancellor news

COVID-19 measures, Stonewall, anti-racism

29 October 2021
Read a message from the Vice-Chancellor sent to staff today (29 October 2021).

Dear colleague

Whilst the vaccination programme has ensured that we are in a much better position than we were this time last year, I do recognise that many colleagues are still facing daunting challenges both domestically and at work. Several people have said it feels as if this academic year flowed more or less directly from the previous one, with any summer holiday already seeming a distant memory for some. Despite the improvements, then, as an organisation and as colleagues working together we are still affected by COVID-19 this year, and our prioritising of students and teaching will continue to make significant demands on all of us.

I think many of us have been surprised by the strong desire being expressed by large numbers of our students for as much in-person teaching as possible, although perhaps we shouldn’t have been. Be that as it may, it is clear that while we may recognise the clear pedagogical advantages of some types of teaching being conducted online (the interactivity and inclusivity of synchronous video classes plus what we have learned about guided independent learning, for example), it is not the case that all of our students see things that way. The challenge, then, is to keep a blended approach that preserves the advantages of diverse modes of delivery, and to convince all involved that such an approach may be better than the traditional mode of everything face-to-face, or of the COVID-enforced mode (in many cases, albeit for temporary periods) of everything online. As part of that it is extremely important that we don’t create more work for ourselves and that whatever the blended model is, it can be done safely whilst coronavirus still poses a threat. Above all it must meet everybody’s needs, both educationally for the students and in terms of staff capacity to deliver.

The good news is that the great majority of our students are vaccinated. 95% of our students have now completed enrollment, and as part of that, 87% responded to questions about their vaccine status, of whom only 3% preferred not to divulge their status. Of those that did, 86% have had one vaccine dose and 82% have had two doses, which will of course be more recent than the older age groups. We can expect that number to grow as second doses are administered. We are also offering international students the opportunity for a booster (if their vaccine is not recognised in the UK), and of course any student who is not vaccinated is offered an early opportunity to receive a first dose. The effects of this are clear to see. The rolling seven-day average of new NHS test-confirmed infections amongst our students at the time of writing (26 October) is four; on the same day last year it was 38. This year we have 48 students self-isolating for various COVID-19-related reasons; the equivalent figure in 2020 was 1,590. So we are not seeing the sudden and dramatic increase in infections and self-isolating students that happened in 2020, even though social and other facilities including night clubs are open and in use (with NHS COVID passes in operation). The evidence seems to suggest that the community infection numbers are largely being driven by children of school age, and in some cases parents are contracting COVID-19 via this route. I know this is having an impact on some of our staff, and you have my sympathy (I hugely admire the fortitude of those people who have been caring for school-age children throughout the pandemic). Importantly, however, as last year we are not seeing any signals that would indicate transmission in teaching settings in the University.

I should take this opportunity to remind you that the Welsh government has very recently changed its guidance on self-isolation. The new guidance reads: ‘Adults who are fully vaccinated and children and young people aged five to 17 will be asked to self-isolate until they have received a negative PCR test if someone in their household has symptoms or tests positive for Covid-19.’ Cardiff staff can use our accredited in-house Screening Service for this purpose if desired, or of course attend an NHS testing centre such as the one on Museum Place.

I also want to remind everybody that face coverings must be worn in all publicly accessible areas of the University and in classes, although they may be removed when speaking, to aid understanding. Staff are within their rights to remind students of this requirement, although some students may be exempt and should be prepared to indicate that if necessary. Mask-wearing is an important element in the suppression of the spread of the virus and it is important to get this message across. On a related point we are looking very carefully at the opportunities to improve our capacity to offer in-person teaching after Christmas by using lecture rooms to a greater level of occupancy than at present, given that the modelling is showing a possible steep decline in the rate of infections. The same may also apply to meeting rooms.  This is assuming that we do not see a new variant that would disrupt the trend shown in the models significantly. Once this work is complete we will ensure that everybody is kept fully informed.

Still on students, you will be aware of the disturbing incidence of confirmed reports of widespread drink-spiking, and the even more disturbing reports of spiking via injection. All the three universities in Cardiff, plus Cardiff City Council and South Wales Police are united in our condemnation of these abhorrent criminal acts, and have issued a joint statement in support of our students. We are working closely with our own Students’ Union on this, and recently I along with my fellow VCs met the Leader of Cardiff Council and his colleagues to reaffirm our commitment to the Community Safety Partnership, which includes South Wales Police, and to discuss how we can work more effectively together to keep Cardiff safe.

Moving to other important matters, you may remember that in my June email I referenced an exchange of open letters in relation to the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall. In that email I said that we would offer opportunities to the various groups to discuss their concerns, and we held a series of events to allow that to happen.

One striking feature of these events was that in all the groups there were members who felt hurt, and sometimes unsafe as a consequence of the stance they had taken. Some felt insufficiently supported, and/or that they were facing career or interpersonal difficulties that had only arisen because of these issues. I want to stress that the University will offer support to all members of staff and all students who face difficulties of this nature, in the awareness that the debate in wider society is highly polarised, passions run very high, and the University’s purview does not run into all areas that might be affected. Anybody who needs support or feels unsafe, however, should approach their line manager, or a colleague from Human Resources directly if preferred, and should be assured that we will exercise our duty of care to all members of our community.

Whilst the discussions stemmed from an initial letter on our relationship with Stonewall, all groups agreed that the issues under discussion ran deeper than the question of our association with a particular organisation. Over the summer, questions relating to gender identity, biological sex, rights and the law have become matters of often turbulent debate on university campuses and beyond. My priority is to ensure that Cardiff University can play its role in that discussion in ways that assure the safety and security of all participants while upholding and promoting freedom of speech within the law.

Let me be absolutely clear. We are unequivocal in our support of transgender people, who have the absolute right to feel safe, supported and able to express themselves at this University, and to enjoy the opportunities that Cardiff University offers to all, freely and without fear. We are proud that Cardiff has been considered a safe haven for members of the LGBTQ+ community. We do not believe that offering our protection and support to this community precludes or diminishes our protection of the rights of others. We protect and uphold the right of all members of our community to express themselves freely and without fear, whatever their views within the law, and if anybody feels their rights are being infringed, we will address their issues and support them.

On the issue raised by the original letter, Stonewall has played an important role in our continuous development of a community where LGBTQ+ people feel valued and can thrive academically and socially. We will therefore continue our relationship with Stonewall. No outside organisation dictates University policies; where we draw upon Stonewall’s resources, we also draw upon those of other organisations, so that we develop policy in as informed and evidence-based a manner as possible.

I reiterate our absolute commitment to freedom of speech. Academic institutions thrive on the exchange, debate and rebuttal of ideas, and we will continue to protect the right to express, argue and contest opinions within the law. We have taken difficult decisions at Cardiff in the past. Some years ago we resisted a petition to prevent Germaine Greer from giving a lecture (not on trans issues) entitled ‘Women & Power: Lessons of the 20th Century’. There was a peaceful protest but the lecture went ahead without incident, and while some in our community articulated their consternation and concern, we felt it right to provide the opportunity for views to be expressed, and in turn robustly challenged. As in that case, any such challenge must happen in a context of civilised debate, and tactics of intimidation will not be tolerated.

Staying on the topic of debate and discussion, a number of events are being held as part of Black History Month, and I should particularly like to highlight the launch of a new series of online talks that will continue over the next couple of years, ensuring that these matters are not just confined to the autumn season. Entitled ‘Talking Anti-Racism’, the online series brings together experts in our academic Schools with specialist guest speakers to promote important discussions on race. In recent years I have learned a lot personally both about acknowledging and discussing racism, and how to act upon the new understanding that those discussions engender, allowing us to make real progress. The launch event, which I was delighted to chair, was a fascinating discussion between anti-racism expert Nova Reid, TED speaker, entrepreneur and author of The Good Ally, and our own Matt Williams, Professor of Criminology, Director of HateLab and author of The Science of Hate. The conversation and Q&A session that ensued was a stimulating mixture of information, analysis and guidance on how both to combat anti-racism and to be a good ally, as the title of Nova’s book suggests. It was very well received, well attended and set a tone for the whole series that I think will continue to attract excellent audiences.

On the subject of racism and anti-racism, back in 2016 I asked Professor Dinesh Bhugra of King’s College London to conduct an investigation into a distressing racist incident involving students of Cardiff University. He assembled an expert panel which reported in 2017. We accepted the recommendations in full and have been implementing them since then. It has not always been a smooth road, and while we have made a lot of progress there are still areas where we must improve. In the light of that, earlier this year Professor Bhugra kindly agreed to undertake a further review to assess our progress and make any recommendations that may be necessary. That review has been completed and the University Executive Board has had an opportunity to consider it. We have accepted the recommendations in full and will be publishing both the report and our management response to it in the coming days, so please do look out for that.

Turning to broader matters, the UK government budget and the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review contained much (though not unalloyed) good news for universities. On research, there is now certainty over the money for our participation in Horizon 2020, or a UK alternative if the disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol remain unresolved over a long period. The government’s commitment to a major year-on-year uplift to research was affirmed, although the eventual target of £22bn p.a. has been pushed out another two years. Still, the commitment to £20bn of government funding by the end of the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review period is welcome, as is the decision (for which the Russell Group strongly argued) to profile the spending so that the benefits would be felt earlier than originally planned. Beyond research, it is very helpful to get confirmation that the Turing outward student mobility scheme will be funded for the next three years (£110m this year), but less so to discover that the government response to proposals for reform of the student support system and university funding in England on the basis of the Augar report is to be deferred again. The uncertainty over the knock-on effects of this for Wales therefore continues, though at least the rises in public spending in England will benefit Wales via the Barnett formula, raising the Welsh government allocation to £18bn a year. There is a lot more in the budget of course — which is not good news for households, especially for low-income individuals and families — but I will return to these matters in future as necessary.

Congratulations are due within the University to the Caer Heritage project, one of our most successful community projects, led by Dr Dave Wyatt and Dr Oliver Davis in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion in partnership with Action in Caerau and Ely, local schools and residents and heritage partners. At the end of last month the First Minister officially opened the Hidden Hillfort Community Heritage Centre (a redevelopment of the old Gospel Hall on Church Road in in Ely), funded to the tune of £650,000 by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Centre will act as a hub for community-led activities, including co-produced archaeological explorations. This is a very significant collaborative achievement that in some ways feels like the culmination of a years-long effort, but in fact is the threshold of a great new future for community action and collaboration in the area.

I also want to offer heartfelt congratulations to Professor Rachel Ashworth and all members of Cardiff Business School on their successful accreditation by the Association of MBAs (AMBA). This really is the culmination of a huge amount of work and a critically important milestone in the history of the School. We can be very proud of our Business School and its distinctive Public Value ethos, and this well-deserved accolade will be a substantial addition to its already highly impressive public profile.

Finally, I would like to offer the warmest of Cardiff welcomes to our new Chair of Council, Pat Younge, who is a former President of our Student Union (1985) and a former Vice-President of the NUS. Pat knows us well, and his huge success in the media industry over many years will stand us in very good stead as he guides our governing body into a future that is as uncertain as ever. Pat takes over from Professor Stuart Palmer on 1 January, and I would like to take this opportunity to offer our sincere thanks to Stuart for everything he has done for the University in his time as Chair.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan