Vice-Chancellor news

COVID-19, Centre for Student Life, research activity

Dear colleague 

As I write, urgent investigations are taking place around the world to assess the potential risk posed by the latest variant of COVID-19 to have been identified, which has been given the name Omicron by the World Health Organisation. The most important thing to say is that it will be at least two weeks (and probably quite a lot longer) before enough evidence has been assembled for that assessment to take place properly. As I am sure you are aware, the measures that have been re-introduced in England (face masks in shops and on public transport) have been in force in Wales throughout.

Until we receive guidance otherwise from the Welsh Government we therefore have no need to change our own approach, and I would encourage everybody (including students) to continue supporting the safety measures we have in place, including the use of face coverings.

Of course we will update our COVID-19 precautions should that become necessary, and will ensure that you are kept informed.

Moving on to better news, I’d strongly recommend anybody who hasn’t yet visited the newly open Centre for Student Life to take a look round when there is a convenient opportunity. It’s a beautiful space and is extremely well used by students. Apart from the one-stop shop approach for students with support needs of whatever kind, it is clear that our students have immediately recognised it as their space and are using it for studying in groups or singly, or indeed for private study but at a table with others. So well used has it become that extra seating and tables have been provided to keep up with demand.

Towards the end of the month we held our November Council meeting there; the first in-person Council meeting since the pandemic began, and the last ever for Professor Stuart Palmer, our outgoing Chair. It gave us a great opportunity at the dinner after our meeting (also held at the CSL which has catering facilities and is an outstanding venue) to say goodbye to Stuart properly. We were able to thank him for the exceptional service and commitment he has dedicated to Cardiff University since he first became a member of Council in 2013, and as Chair since 2016. Pat Younge, our incoming Chair, kindly agreed to attend as an observer which was a great way for him to meet people and to start to take the measure of the University as it is in 2021.

As it is in 2021 is a big improvement on the state of emergency that existed for 18 months or so from March 2020. The circumstances of that period imposed enormous strains on the University and extensive demands on the time of colleagues, some of whom will have been home-schooling, self-isolating, caring for relatives or juggling constrained home work-space with family members or housemates, as well as coping with all the extra work of having to undertake teaching, assessment and supporting students via remote means. Because of that, around a year ago (perhaps a little more) I very reluctantly said that Teaching and Research staff may need to prioritise teaching over research for a period; in particular, new grant applications and unfunded research may have been difficult to pursue at the same time as all the other emergency-induced obligations. We are absolutely standing by the assurance I gave then that any reduction in research activity that can be ascribed to the pandemic would not adversely affect performance review, promotion applications or the like. Nobody need fear that their research career will suffer from their having prioritised teaching activity during this exceptional period of emergency.

The effect of this has been plain to see in the figures for research expenditure, applications and awards that we considered at the Council meeting mentioned above. While expenditure from existing grants and contracts is gratifyingly high — reflecting the excellent trajectory we were on in 2019-20 before the first COVID-19 wave broke — applications and awards for the first quarter are at their lowest level for four years. That is quite understandable and in part a consequence of the very difficult decisions we had to make a year or so ago when the epidemic in the UK was on the rise again, schools were closed and much of the teaching had to be delivered online. We have now reached a point where it makes sense to ensure that research activity is resumed where it may have been more in the background, because it wouldn’t be helpful, either for the institution as a whole or for individual researchers, to find that lost momentum cannot be regained because we have waited too long.

It is very important to recognise that refocusing on research should not mean distracting our attention from students and the student experience. As I said last time, this generation of students has had a very difficult time of it through the pandemic and will continue to need our support to find their feet as we move closer to normal operation. As well as offering very practical support, and being a home for students between classes, the Centre for Student Life is a wonderful symbol of how much importance we attach to the welfare, wellbeing and academic progress of Cardiff University students. But it is not the only newly opened building that is worth visiting. Abacws, the new home for the School of Computer Science and Informatics and the School of Mathematics, illustrates very well how teaching and learning can be integrated and be the twin focus of our academic activity. Students are using that building for social learning as well as more formal classroom based study just as they are the CSL, but as they do so, they will encounter research happening in glass-walled rooms throughout the building, in computer labs (the School is moving more into robotics than previously) and they will see maths research in action too. The two Schools are distributed throughout the building rather than each having their own space, which demonstrates to both staff and students the joint commitment to collaboration and interdisciplinary working. Not all buildings have this facility of course; but the point is that we can simultaneously pursue our twin focus of educating our students and pursuing our research in imaginative and constructive ways, and I know that other Schools are adopting a similar approach as suits their circumstances.

Moving on, last month I mentioned the second Bhugra report on racism, emphasising our commitment, fully supported by Council, to becoming an actively anti-racist university. This will be a multidimensional project of course, but an important role will be played by the latest set of recommendations from Professor Bhugra, whose report and the UEB response can be seen here. As I say, Council is behind us on this and was particularly impressed with the central recommendation to set up a unit dedicated to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion within the Professional Services, with a staff reporting to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. This unit will be tasked with a focus on racism (as well as the other protected characteristics of course) and will give us much greater capacity to forestall these issues, help change the culture and deal with complaints rapidly and transparently.

Earlier in the month we held an intercontinental signing ceremony to celebrate the new strategic partnership between Cardiff University and the University of Waikato in New Zealand. We in Cardiff assembled in person in the Council Chamber, Main Building, and were kindly joined by the Welsh Government Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, Jeremy Miles MS, as well as by colleagues from Education New Zealand and the New Zealand High Commission. Our counterparts appeared by video, given present COVID-19 circumstances. The event included speeches by both sides of course, as well as a live split-screen signing ceremony between me and my counterpart Professor Neil Quigley. The technology worked wondrously and it was great to have contributions from students who had been on pre-pandemic exchange visits in both directions. The prospects for international collaboration are looking rosy indeed, now that we understand the ways in which remote meetings can operate (hybrid or otherwise) and complement fewer but still important in-person get-togethers and exchanges. I have had a range of meetings recently with strategic partnership counterparts in Bremen University, the University of Wyoming and Unicamp in Brazil, and the appetite for further and deeper collaboration is notably high in each case.

Many of you would recognise Professor Laura McAllister, who is Professor of Public Policy and the Governance of Wales, through her chairing of our All-Staff Webinars, a duty she discharges with admirable expertise and aplomb. I was delighted to see that Laura has been chosen to co-chair an independent Constitutional Commission on the future of Wales. She joins former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams as co-chair, with a brief to examine the nation’s relationship with the rest of the UK. The remit ranges across a series of options including, significantly, the issue of independence for Wales. The fact that a government-sponsored commission has independence on its agenda — whatever the outcome of the review — is remarkable evidence to my mind of the transformation in the political landscape of these islands over the last five years or so. This is a highly prestigious appointment and I wish Laura every success in her endeavours.

Congratulations are due to Professor Paul Harper and his colleagues in the Operational Research Group in the School of Mathematics. Their work with the Aneurin Bevan Health Board has yielded outstanding practical results over a number of years, including informing the design of a new hospital, allowing savings of £900,000 a year over the original design through more efficient scheduling of operating theatres, and designing the service delivery to support mental health outreach teams. The group were also involved in designing and launching the NHS Wales 111 Service, as well as advising the Welsh Government about the response to COVID-19. Notably, the group supported  the vaccination roll-out, which was exceptionally swift and efficient in Wales through a process of extremely clever scheduling and supply management. As a result the group was awarded the prestigious Lyn Thomas Impact Medal for 2021 by the Operational Research Society, which is fitting recognition of their outstanding work. This influential work has been detailed in two of our REF 2021 Impact Case Studies.

Finally I would like to congratulate Professor Jenny Kitzinger of the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, and Professor Celia Kitzinger of the School of Law and Politics, who have won the ESRC Outstanding Public Policy Impact award for their project on changing the law to promote person-centred decision-making for coma patients. This is a prestigious award that recognises the way in which their research has improved decision-making for patients with prolonged disorders of consciousness who are being treated without consideration of their own wishes and often contrary to their best interests. This project too will figure in REF2021 as an impact case study, showing the way in which excellent research at Cardiff University continues to have a real effect in improving lives not just here in Wales, but round the world.

With best wishes 

Colin Riordan 

Vice-Chancellor