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Vice-Chancellor news

Graduation, Caer Heritage project, chemistry research

28 July 2023

Dear colleague

The highlight of the month was undoubtedly Graduation, which took place at St David’s Hall for the first time in four years. Almost 8,000 students and over 20,000 of their guests came to Cardiff during the course of the week, and from everything I could see, celebrated in style. The ceremonies were warm and welcoming, and not only received more than 70,000 views on YouTube, but 20,000 on Weibo as well. The Graduation receptions too were a great success, Cardiff University Catering providing outstanding hospitality along with six local food traders. Students and their guests were able to sample a range of Welsh specialities and were served 25,280 glasses of fizz. This was a huge combined effort across the University, involving staff teams from Communications and Marketing, Development and Alumni Relations, Registry, Campus Services, IT Services, Support Services and all academic Schools. As ever, there are too many people to name individually, but all those who were part of the Graduation Steering and Working Groups played a vital role in coordinating the planning of the ceremonies and supporting events. I want to offer a huge thank you to everybody involved in organising and staging what is a complex week-long series of events at a range of venues that presents a huge logistical challenge and requires co-ordination across the whole University. It’s a time when people come together to make sure this important rite of passage is marked appropriately, and I’m very grateful for that.

I’m also pleased to say that all our ceremonies proceeded smoothly with no disruption, which was to the great benefit of all the students, parents, relatives and friends for whom this was a key moment of celebration. Those who wished to show their support for the UCU action were able to do that both within and outside the venue, and with one or two extremely rare exceptions the small numbers that did so behaved respectfully and with consideration for others. At this stage there is little to report in terms of the marking and assessment boycott itself. Whilst we have continued to make progress on collecting marks, there are still some students who do not have the requisite full set, a very distressing state of affairs for which we remain profoundly sorry. Unfortunately the national position remains a stalemate at the time of writing and so we must await developments there if we are to resolve the problem. Unlike last year there is nothing we can do locally to affect that position, despite best efforts on both sides. Of course, should any missing marks be forthcoming in the meantime, we will continue to ameliorate the position of any affected student and I remain hopeful that it may be possible to achieve incremental improvements in that way.

In my May email I referenced the CAER Heritage project in Caerau and Ely in connection with community cohesion in that area. At the end of last month I was delighted to be able to visit their latest archaeological dig, which was a fascinating experience. The team have discovered a Bronze Age settlement not far from the Roman villa site in Trelai Park that has, in contrast, been known about for over a century. This rare find will advance our knowledge considerably, so it was a privilege to be there, meet members of the community project and learn from Dr Oliver Davis and Dr Dave Wyatt more about the ancient roots of the communities of Caerau and Ely. I was then delighted to be able to visit the community centre that I had seen being built during lockdown, sited as it is on the route of one of our regular walks via the Iron Age hillfort that were so sustaining during that seemingly interminable period. The Hidden Hillfort community project is a very successful partnership between the University and Action in Caerau and Ely (ACE), along with a range of other organisations including local residents and schools (especially Cardiff West Community High School), Cardiff Council, Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff Story Museum, Cardiff Archaeological Society, First Campus, Wales and West Housing Association, the Glamorgan and Gwent Archaeological Trust, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and many others. It is, as I have said numerous times, a stand-out example of the success of our Civic Mission strategy, which is needed now more than ever before at a time when economic and social stresses appear to be continuously on the increase. That is why I was so pleased to see how well used the new facilities — both the Community Centre that replaced the decaying former Gospel Hall and the adjoining playground — already are, and the extent to which local residents have taken ownership, doubtless a result of the way in which the whole project has been conceived as an equal partnership with co-creation at its heart. Because of this I feel it is right that our support should continue, so that the project can develop into a permanent, sustainable activity in that area of Cardiff, where the needs are so great. I was very pleased to be able to confirm this to the project leaders and will observe developments in the future with interest, albeit from afar (apart perhaps from the occasional visit I hope).

It is ironic that the issue of climate change should have become even more politicised in this country as a result of the Uxbridge by-election, where the imminent extension of the inner-London Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) appears to have swung the result the Government’s way. Admittedly, the ULEZ is more about air quality and its effects on human health than strictly about carbon emissions, but there is a lesson here too. In a summer where the effects of climate change—according to the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion — are almost certainly being felt in the form of heatwaves and wildfires across the world, the push-back against the measures required to mitigate the effects only seems to grow. One frequent assertion is that other countries are not taking such stringent measures as the UK (although that is arguable) and so we should go with the pack rather than trying to be at the forefront. That overlooks the fact that as the Industrial Revolution developed in the nineteenth century, more than half of the world’s carbon emissions were ascribable to Britain alone. But to return to my original point, the effects of pollution not only on human health, but on the whole ecosystem can easily be forgotten, although they may be almost equally catastrophic. This holds true for air pollution just as it does for plastic pollution, which is allowing a scarcely conceivable quantity of ultra-small plastic particles to permeate the environment and be ingested by the organisms that live in it, including us. This is why, back in 2017, we decided to phase out single-use plastics in Cardiff University to the extent possible. We had great success in this, but it is worth keeping it front of mind today and into the future as well. This is an area where everybody can do their bit with relatively simple measures that usually save money and generally only require some forethought, such as taking a bag for shopping, carrying a reusable water bottle or preparing food to take for lunch rather than buying it pre-packaged in plastic.

Prevention is better than cure of course, so the less plastic we produce and use the more we can prevent it getting into the environment. Realistically, however, large amounts of single-use plastic continue to be produced and used, and so it makes sense to ensure that so far as possible it is recyclable and indeed recycled. I was interested to see that it is precisely in this area that Dr Ben Ward from the School of Chemistry, along with his research student Taylor Young, have made a breakthrough. One of the biggest problems in recycling plastic is that so much plastic has colourant additives which cannot be removed and result in a recycled product that is inferior to the original and must then be disposed of, so that the original material can usually only be recycled once. What Ben and Taylor are doing is to develop plastics that can be coloured and then the additives removed by catalysis, which could transform the way in which these materials are manufactured, allowing them to be returned to their original condition for repeated recycling. It will doubtless be a long process to reach that goal on a large scale, so drastically reducing single-use plastics will remain overwhelmingly important. Nevertheless it is good to see Cardiff University again at the forefront of developments that, if successful, will unquestionably provide immense benefit to the world.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan