As last year, I have decided to write my July email in the middle of the month and then write again at the end of August, rather than writing at the end of July and then leaving it till September as I used to do. Coronavirus continues to disrupt the normal rhythm of the academic year, not least through having deferred the graduation of two whole cohorts, who will only this week finally be able to have their longed-for celebration in person.
I am conscious that Graduation this year is far more complex than usual. We will be conducting more than 200 ceremonies through the School Recognition Events as well as the three large-scale ceremonies at the Principality Stadium for the classes of 2020 and 2021 as well as this year’s 2022 cohort. In effect, we will be staging a three-day event for around 55,000 people and I know that many of you have worked extremely hard to allow this to happen. People have pulled together and thrown their heart and soul into organising an experience that our new graduates will never forget. I realise that this has been very demanding indeed, and I want to thank all of you sincerely for your understanding, commitment and expertise. The ceremonies and celebrations that will take place from Wednesday to Friday of this week are a mammoth undertaking and I am extremely grateful to everybody involved. I will return to the matter in more detail in my next email of course, but I just wanted to be clear as we go into Graduation 2022 that the dedication of Cardiff University staff is very much recognised and appreciated not only by me, but by all members of University Executive Board and by the University Council.
No epidemiologist that I am aware of was forecasting that another equally large covid wave would follow so soon after the Omicron wave, but that is exactly what seems to be happening as even more infectious subvariants are causing widespread illness. While the worst effects of previous waves in terms of serious illness, hospitalisations and deaths are continuing to be suppressed by vaccination and previous infections, there is nonetheless a level of disruption caused by covid that we had not bargained for during Graduation Week. Whilst there is no mask mandate in place, it is of course open to anybody attending or working at graduation ceremonies and events to wear one if they wish, and I would ask that everybody’s choice be tolerated. We do have contingency plans if staff are unable to attend because of the need to self-isolate but again I thank everybody for being flexible and ensuring that all our graduands have the opportunity both for personal recognition at their School event and to attend the large-scale evening ceremonies as well.
What is absolutely apparent is that covid is not over yet, and we will be working on contingency plans for the winter. In the meantime I wanted to note that the effects of the pandemic have continued to demand extra effort from everybody throughout this academic year, including shifting teaching and meetings online again during the earlier Omicron wave. It is important to acknowledge those extra efforts, whilst also recognising that covid has not stopped us from making progress on student experience as measured by the National Student Survey (NSS).
In my August email last year I had to report a disappointing result in the NSS, in which we fell below benchmark in Overall Satisfaction, and fell further than the sector. Subsequent to that we resolved to focus on student experience during the academic year 2021-22, and you are probably aware that this paid dividends. In the latest result earlier this month, we increased our score in Overall Satisfaction by over three percentage points, which may not sound much but actually was an improvement greater than the sector, than other universities in Wales and than a number in the Russell Group. In fact, we have moved to 11th place from 18th in the Russell Group, which is a real vindication of the investments we have made and the efforts that everybody has put in. There is still a long way to go, and much improvement to be made. We remain below benchmark in a number of areas and are still, in absolute terms, below average for the sector. However, we have turned a corner and the challenge now under Claire Morgan’s leadership is to make the improvement sustainable, embed good practice and ensure that our students find increasingly that they are happy with the experience they have at Cardiff University. Again I want to thank everybody who has put so much into helping turn this round, and I will report on progress in a future email. For the moment, it is good to see that not only did we perform well in the Research Excellence Framework, placing 14th in the Russell Group for research power, but our 11th place for NSS in the Russell Group shows that one needn’t be at the expense of the other if we go about things in the right way, and invest wisely.
I am happy to report that as part of our commitment to students, we ensure that there are hardship funds available for those that may be struggling financially. For reasons that will be obvious, we have seen a significant rise in applications to these funds, which of course take time and effort to administer. We have therefore taken the decision to make a further £400,000 available to ensure that as many needs can be met as possible, allowing our students to continue to make applications and receive support.
Finally, and importantly, I have outlined above the ways in which colleagues have put in extra efforts this year because of the unusual demands that the pandemic, both directly and indirectly, has made on everybody working in the organisation. In recognition of those efforts, earlier this month UEB proposed to the University Council that an ex gratia payment of £750 should be made to University staff. The proposal was for a one-off non pensionable discretionary sum paid in the July payroll in recognition of the exceptional contribution made by colleagues this academic year. This proposed sum would be paid pro rata to eligible staff employed by the University before 1 February 2022 and still in our employment in July 2022, including Postgraduate Research Students engaged in supporting teaching activity during the same period. Additional information about the payment including eligibility is available on the staff intranet. I am pleased to say that Council approved our proposal, and so all staff will receive the payment as outlined above. Once more, to you all, thank you for all your efforts.
With best wishes