When I arrived as Vice-Chancellor in 2012 I felt it was important to visit all the academic Schools and Professional Services sections to try to meet as many people as possible, or at least give the opportunity for people to ask questions in groups and for me to say a few words about how things are going, and what the future might hold. It’s a big university so it takes some time to get round all the different areas, but I didn’t want just to visit each place once and not return. That’s why I’m now on my second round of visits which this month included Psychology and Chemistry. I was in Chemistry twice in fact; on one occasion talking to senior staff and having a tour of both upgraded facilities and those that are still in more or less dire need of upgrade, and the other opening the new EPSRC-funded Centre for Doctoral Training in Catalysis. I’m very aware that there are still lots of areas in the University where there are issues that need resolving, but it was still heartening to see the effect of investment and refurbishment, and of the funding successes of colleagues who are committing real energy to improving the position. I was struck during my visit to Psychology by the way in which people are prepared to feed in helpful and constructive suggestions but also ask searching questions. One of those questions was about whether the Schools or disciplines that did very well in REF – achieving both a high quality standard and a high proportion of staff submitted – would be rewarded for that. The answer is yes, though it might seem to take some time and perhaps not meet all expectations. We do clearly both want to invest in areas of strength and reward the high achievers, but so much depends on the general financial climate, what happens to higher education and research funding after the general election and the Welsh Assembly elections next year, and a host of other factors. Something I’ve noticed is that people often discount investment that has already recently taken place or that perhaps doesn’t affect them directly (I’ve seen this in all three Colleges). This is quite natural but a bit unfair; I think in the end everybody in the institution will benefit if we become more successful in the areas where we can really shine, provided we’re careful to support all areas to an acceptable standard. For instance, Council has agreed to invest £38m over four years in refurbishing and upgrading teaching facilities throughout the University, and there is a whole range of behind-the-scenes work going on that will improve the position for all staff and students, particularly so far as IT is concerned.
Another question concerned whether under the reformed budgeting system we would be moving beyond one-year planning. Again the answer is yes; during the course of the next budgeting cycle we will be asking Schools and Colleges to plan over three years. This has always been the intention but it has been a big transition from formula funding to a more enterprising and strategic approach which has taken time. We will need to create financial headroom for two main reasons. One is that we must invest – as I have said repeatedly – if we are to be successful. Other universities have invested much more than us in recent years and we need to do the same or better if we’re not to be left behind. This will not just be in new buildings and equipment but in refurbishing and upgrading and, crucially, in people. As I said earlier this year we need to go into REF 2020 with nearer 1200 rather than the 738 we submitted to REF 2014, whilst achieving the same or higher level of quality. We will need to increase our numbers of postgraduate research students, work on how to improve impact and increase our research income in line with The Way Forward targets. All of this means having more people working to an excellent standard, which in turn will imply investing in order to earn as well as performance management and strategic planning over a multi-year period. All these measures are subsumed under a strategic research project called Research Forward 2020, led by Professor Hywel Thomas. Fundamentally, as a University we need to be more planful (not an attractive word but a useful one).
I mentioned another reason for creating financial headroom in the form of a substantial annual cash surplus. To plan prudently, we also need to take account of the fact that the public finances are still nowhere near on the sound basis that any responsible government would like them to be. The National Debt is at record levels and the annual budget deficit will continue to add to the total debt for a number of years to come. There will be tight constraints on public spending after the election which could affect universities more acutely than they have up to now. Ensuring that we create our own budget surplus will help protect us against the worst effects if the worst happens. So whichever way we look at it, planning ahead to create a surplus will be of real benefit.
While we have to plan for all eventualities, it’s great to see that the hard work and commitment of colleagues all over the University are paying dividends. We’ve been shortlisted for three Times Higher Education awards; this success will help to improve our profile and, who knows, we might win. I was also delighted to see that Professor Kevin Morgan of the School of Social Sciences has been appointed as advisor to the European Commissioner for Regional Policy. This is an extremely prestigious role and an important one for the future of all the member states of the European Union. Amidst all this we’re retaining a focus on the facilities and support we give to our students; in addition to the upgrade of teaching facilities I mentioned above, work is proceeding apace on proposals for a Centre for Student Life which will be centrally situated and will draw together the great majority of the student services provided both by the University and by the Students’ Union. We’ll make sure that students on the Heath site are well catered for, but a great university like Cardiff needs a focal point, a hub, that will not only provide our students with the support they expect, but will also affirm our position as a major presence in the city. Despite all the uncertainty generated by the present political position and the state of the public finances, I’m confident that Cardiff University is not only on the right track, but on a steep upward trajectory.
With best wishes