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Vice-Chancellor news

Marking and assessment boycott, Horizon Europe and congratulations on staff achievements

30 June 2023

Read a message from the Vice-Chancellor sent to staff today (30 June 2023).

Dear colleague

As I write, the impact of the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) action organised by University and College Union (UCU) is becoming clear across the UK university sector, and is most keenly felt of course by final year students, anxious to see the results of their hard work and to move on with the next chapter in their lives. There can be few outcomes more damaging to them than to have delays to their results or their degree awards, creating in many cases a barrier to their progressing to postgraduate study or securing their graduate job. For some, it may even have a detrimental effect on their visa status and ability to remain in the UK. The nature of this action jeopardises our students’ futures, at least in the short term. I know that some staff feel hugely conflicted, wishing to stand in solidarity with their colleagues yet very concerned for our students, who deserve all of our support at all times.

We will know next week the impact of the MAB on our graduating students. While the numbers of those affected may be low, it will be, at least for now, a matter of deep concern for anybody involved. It is particularly unjust that it is the cohort whose education was most disrupted by the pandemic who experience the impact of the action. Refusing to mark is bound to have differential impacts on both students and staff, depending on the structure of the degree, the level of industrial action participation in particular Schools and the opportunities for mitigation. From a student point of view it will merely be whether they are unlucky enough to be in a School or subject area that is affected.

Staff at least have a choice to make, although I understand that the action may be seen as an act of desperation. Participating staff and affected students alike will experience various forms of detriment and this will be the case so long as UCU uses these means of trying to exert pressure on universities. As I write there is no obvious solution to the dispute available, and I am grateful to everybody who is working so hard to ensure that our students are treated as fairly as possible in the circumstances. Through the additional payments to staff we have made, totalling up to £1,500 per recipient over the last two years, we at Cardiff have done what we can to address the cost of living crisis that, coupled with years of a dwindling unit of resource, underlies the unsustainable financial situation faced by the sector. There will need to be a collective solution through the collective bargaining process that addresses the needs of all parties in this dispute, although it is not clear at the moment how that could be achieved. Against that unavoidably pessimistic background I am pleased that we continue to keep communication channels open with Cardiff UCU and find there are many points of agreement between us. We continue to be open to discussions on possible local solutions to the marking and assessment boycott subject to the constraints of collective bargaining, as happened last year.

Meanwhile, events in Russia remind us of the enormity of the crisis facing not just Wales, the UK and Europe, but the world. The apparently failed coup and agreement has resulted in what looks to be a rather precarious settlement involving the leader of the Wagner private army going into exile in Belarus. This does not provide confidence for the future stability of international relations, and of course the war of aggression that Putin continues to wage against Ukraine continues to add daily to the human suffering that the population of that country continues to endure. The original war aim of swift victory and subjugation appears, thankfully, a distant memory, but only at enormous cost to the Ukrainian military and the civilian population. The prospect of dangerous escalation seems, if anything, greater than before, and all this against the background of the climate crisis and the continuing bad economic news, which seems more acute in the UK than elsewhere. Given all that, it would be good if at least it was possible to report some positive news on matters that are within the control of our government, but even there the news is mixed.

I refer to the negotiations on Horizon Europe, which I had hoped might be concluded by now, despite the science minister George Freeman’s comment at the time that it could take nine months to conduct them. In a recent Radio 4 podcast he did indicate that talks were progressing positively, but he was at pains to say that the reserve option of the Pioneer programme (the former Plan B) was still available and ready to go if required. This may be a negotiating ploy of course, though if you listen to the podcast, the tone the minister uses does not make it sound like a remote possibility. We have now been denied proper access to Horizon Europe for years, and the inadequacy of the Shared Prosperity Fund only adds to the barriers that have been put in our way so far as access to research funding is concerned. In light of this, it is testimony to the capacity, expertise and effort of Cardiff University’s researchers that we are heading for a record in terms of research awards, having already significantly surpassed the previous full-year total with a month to go before year’s end. This achievement bodes well for the future of research in this university.

Finally, and very positively, warm congratulations are due to Professor Claire Gorrara and Professor Stuart Taylor, from very different disciplines but equally distinguished. Claire has been awarded the highly prestigious Chevalier dans l’Ordre National du Mérite, which she duly collected at the French Institute in London last month. Claire, who is the University’s Dean for Research and Innovation, is the driving force behind the development and implementation of the Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) Mentoring project, a cause close to my heart which aims to increase the uptake of modern languages in secondary schools in the UK and beyond. We have seen a long-term decline in demand for modern languages at UK universities, and in a market-driven system that can be very difficult to deal with. I have always been of the view that universities should do whatever they can to preserve and indeed increase the range of subjects they teach and research, and to my mind a sophisticated understanding of other languages and cultures is critical to our future as a country. This was a well-deserved award and I was delighted to see Claire’s success. I was also delighted to see that Professor Stuart Taylor has received the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Environment Prize for his work in developing new catalysts. Over the years I have talked on numerous occasions about the importance of catalysis, both scientifically and in terms of its very widespread industrial applications, and as with languages, we have strategically supported this activity. It was great to see Stuart’s very considerable expertise and achievements celebrated in this way, and I am sure that his leadership will continue to underpin our successes in this area.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan