You may have seen that the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, has announced reforms to the student support system in Wales arising from the review of Welsh higher education finances conducted by Sir Ian Diamond, along with an inflationary increase to tuition fees following similar moves in England and Scotland. What sets Wales apart is the introduction of a generous system of maintenance grants which will put money in the pocket of those students who need it most (based on household incomes) when they say they need it most (which is while they are studying). Furthermore, and again uniquely in the UK, the system will extend to part-time and postgraduate students, allowing a student from a low-participation, low-income background to make their way through the whole of the higher education system right through to PhD level with financial support. Because of the way the Barnett formula works, by which the Welsh Government’s budget is calculated, Wales has little choice but to follow the broad outlines of the English system in terms of tuition fees that are repaid by graduates earning more than £21,000, but there are strong arguments for saying that Wales from 2018-19 will have the most progressive system in the UK, and more progressive than many countries in the world. The maintenance grant is based on the living wage, and it was heartening to see that all universities in Wales have now committed to paying the living wage to their staff and in due course to all staff working for external companies that have a contract with the University. Cardiff introduced the living wage in 2014, and although it clearly increases costs, it is equally clearly the right thing to do, and I’m sure that in time we will see more companies and organisations following suit.
The other effect of the announcement will be that it will allow the Welsh Government to fund universities on a sustainable basis. Next year will see a low point in university funding that would necessitate major cost savings if we were not confident that it was a temporary effect from which we would recover. In fact, the Welsh Government announcement allows us to plan for a recovery from 2018-19, while in the meantime we will absorb the shortfall from our own resources, a course of action which is open to us because we have managed our finances prudently in previous years by creating sufficient surpluses to tide us over. The increase in funding for expensive subjects, research and perhaps some capital will feed in gradually over a three to four year period, so that by the beginning of the next decade we should find ourselves in a position to compete effectively on the world stage. Or to put it another way, we will be able to provide the teaching, learning and research facilities and resources that our students and staff expect and deserve, on a sustainable basis into the future. What with the disruption that Brexit may bring, it is extremely helpful to know that universities in Wales are on a path towards the kind of funding environment that is essential if we want to be successful into the future, and for us in Cardiff to be able to take our rightful place as a university of significant international standing.
July of course brings the most symbolic reminder of what university life is all about in the form of Graduation. This year around 6,600 graduates, of more than 100 different nationalities, attended a record 17 ceremonies. We conferred 15 honorary fellowships, and somewhere in the region of 18,000 guests came to Cardiff to celebrate the success of our graduates. As ever, what always stands out for me is the sheer joy (or sometimes terror) on the faces of graduates as they cross the stage to be congratulated. It took me a long time to realise that ritual, marking these turning points in life, is important; not something I took particularly seriously myself as a student. But it’s absolutely right that we should devote huge effort to ensuring that everything is as our graduates, their families and their friends would like, and that it all runs smoothly. Of course I cannot name everybody who is involved in the organisation and I hope those I omit do not take it amiss, but I would like to commend the fantastic work in catering, led by Julia Leath, Anne Lewis, Chris Hornsby, Sarah Richards , Shannon Doubler and their teams, and by Will Leath, Main Building Restaurant Head Chef and his brigade. Every year the event organisation seems to improve by a notch or two and this year was no exception; for that I’m grateful to Ali Carter (in overall charge), Helen Beddow, Barry Diamond and Lucy Skellon and their teams, along with superb support from the wider communications and marketing team, particularly those working in social media. Katy Dale and Emily Daley from the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, the team from Development and Alumni Relations, as well as Helen Cowley, Fran Dunderdale and Vicky Young from Registry, along with their teams and a whole range of professional staff from across the University also made vital contributions. The Security staff did an excellent job, from helping us with robing (and especially hats), to calming anxious parents and helping them find their way swiftly to where they need to be. Their calm, professional work behind the scenes in these tense times has also been indispensable.
Finally, a big thank you to all the academic colleagues who made up the platform parties. I am conscious that you play an essential role that is very much appreciated by our students and their guests. I am most grateful to you for taking the time to don smart clothes and academic garb at a time when the demands of research and scholarship are high. Graduation works as well as it does because everybody contributes to a big team effort. Thank you all.
As ever, you will next receive a regular monthly email from me in September. In the meantime I hope you have the opportunity for a much-deserved, relaxing summer break, and that we enter the new academic year in perhaps a more optimistic frame of mind (at least in funding terms, and not forgetting the uncertainties of Brexit) than we have for some years now.
With best wishes