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Vice-Chancellor news

Counting our blessings

21 December 2022

Dear colleague

Some of you may have heard Dr Michael Moseley’s Radio 4 series Just One Thing (available as a podcast on BBC Sounds). The idea is that he focuses in each short episode on just one small evidenced-based thing we can do every day to improve our health and wellbeing, such as go for a morning walk, take a cold shower or improve our sense of balance. He asks people to try the activity out and talks to scientists about the evidential basis for these practices. One of the programmes advocates counting our blessings. It seems that a positive outlook and reminding ourselves of what is good in our lives can be surprisingly beneficial to mental health. As we approach the end of another extraordinary year full of new and unexpected problems and headwinds, it’s worth thinking a little about what was good in 2022, so far as the University is concerned at least.

As you will remember, we saw a significant improvement in National Student Survey results and are committed to continuing our focus on student experience. As part of that we are listening to students and responding to their feedback. One thing they told us is that they want the opening hours of the Centre for Student Life (CSL) to be extended. It’s great to see the CSL being such a resounding success and so from January it will be open seven days a week and till 10pm on weekdays. Our students are very visibly committed to their studies, as you can see just by wandering around the CSL, and I’m sure these extended hours will be particularly welcome given the energy crisis.

Student life is about more than just studying of course, and sports, especially team sports, are a particularly important way of improving health, wellbeing and a sense of community. With this in mind, the University has invested in the redevelopment of Llanrumney Sports Fields, giving both student and community sport teams access to some of the best facilities in the UK. Working in partnership with Cardiff City House of Sport (CCHOS), Cardiff Council and Sport Wales, together we have provided four purpose-built, floodlit, all-weather pitches to complement existing facilities on the site. This amounts to a very significant upgrade and will literally put us on a level playing field with other great sporting universities in the UK, as Fiona Hewlett, our President of Ladies’ Rugby, confirmed.

Moving to staff experience, we were able to ensure during the course of this year that most Cardiff University staff received an extra £1250, partly as a thank-you for exceptional work, and partly in recognition of the rise in the cost of living. One of the successes flowing from that exceptional work has been a significant increase in research funding this year, improving the position by comparison with the previous three years. We were able to talk through that success and look to the future during a two-day visit late last month by Sir Andrew Mackenzie, chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Sir Andrew met leading researchers and was taken on a tour of our outstanding brand-new facilities in Abacws and the Translational Research Hub, as well as meeting our hugely successful Creative Economy team and touring our innovation centre, sbarc|spark. I was delighted to be able to discuss with him our strategy of focussing on a number of key areas that require fundamental academic research to feed through into societal and economic benefit in facilities such as CUBRIC, the Dementia Research Institute, the Cardiff Catalysis Institute and the Institute for Compound Semiconductors. None of this is at the expense of curiosity-driven research of course, which rightly accounts for a very substantial portion of what we do. A stand-out example here is our Gravitational Waves lab, which is genuinely operating at the very leading edge of science and helping to deepen and sharpen our knowledge of the universe and its origins, but there are many other such examples across the campus.

While I’m on research, the UK government has now announced that the Horizon Europe Gwill be extended for another three months. This is good news, though I advocated for it to be extended in an open-ended way because the uncertainty over the future is not helpful and makes planning difficult. I hope this can be delivered in the next phase, assuming the Northern Ireland Protocol problem is not solved in the meantime. As it stands, the Guarantee will cover all Horizon Europe calls that close on or before 31 March 2023. As with the previous Guarantee, successful applicants to Horizon Europe from Cardiff University will receive the full value of their funding for the lifetime of their grant, and UKRI have updated their guidance accordingly. Please do keep applying for as long as this remains possible.

While it was disappointing to see an apparent drop in the number of Welsh speakers in Wales, there may be reasons for this and in the spirit of counting our blessings it was good to see that numbers in the city of Cardiff have increased. Personally, I think Welsh language and culture will continue to grow in importance, and the men’s World Cup provided a fantastic opportunity to put our proud tradition and distinctiveness on a world stage, despite the final outcome for the national team. A few minutes on TikTok will demonstrate that there is a whole younger generation out there who are passionate about this, whatever the statistics about numbers of Welsh speakers say. So are our staff and students. The Students’ Union now has a sabbatical officer with this specific responsibility, and I’m pleased to report that one of this year’s Cardiff Futures projects is aimed at getting us all to be more confident about using Welsh every day. To be able to say bore da, diolch, hywl fawr doesn’t require fluency or special linguistic ability and if people use Welsh more we will feel more Welsh as a university. The pteam want to encourage more coffee-based opportunities to speak Welsh conversationally too — the project title is Bore Coffi —and I will be the UEB sponsor, so I will keep you up to date. This is a matter of significant import for our students too, and I am pleased to note that every second-year medical student will now receive Welsh communication training to give them the skills to treat their Welsh-speaking patients when on placements in hospitals. Our excellence is part of who we are as a University, but our Welshness is what makes us truly distinctive and so let’s be confident about that.

Thankfully, covid is not the threat in the UK that it was in the previous two Christmases.  Lockdowns during Christmas are particularly unpleasant, especially because the point of a lockdown is to slow the spread of a disease, smooth the peaks of infection and buy time until there is sufficient population immunity (naturally or through inoculation) either to prevent it spreading easily (sadly not the case with covid) or for it to be prevented from causing widespread serious disease. We are now in that latter stage here in the UK (although the number of people suffering from long covid remains alarming), but China has only recently relaxed its zero covid policy in response to the protests in November. The inevitable result is big waves of infection, so we can only hope for the sake of our friends in that country, and our students and colleagues here who may be concerned, that the consequences are manageable.

Still thinking further afield, the level of repression seems to be getting worse in Iran, and as we deal with energy costs and shortages, we must remember Ukraine. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine now includes deliberately targeting their energy system to deprive people of heat and power during the bitter winter. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to bear that level of privation and I’m sure our thoughts remain with the people of Ukraine, as also with those suffering in Iran. We continue to offer what support we can and on a related matter it was great to see that Through the efforts of our widening participation and outreach team the presents were provided to the Oasis Centre in Cardiff for distribution during their Christmas party. Thanks to Venice and Lauren for such thoughtful support for these children.

Well, that’s it for another year. As ever, we are all grateful to those colleagues who are working in the University during the period of closure, and I hope they too will get an opportunity to spend some time with their families and friends even if it is not an uninterrupted break. That said, for most staff this will be a well-deserved chance finally to relax and recharge. I want to wish everybody a calming, restful Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

With all best wishes for 2023

Colin Riordan