Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s July all-staff email

Colin Riordan

Dear colleague

We’re almost at the end of another academic year, and what a year it’s been. We had a fantastic result in the Research Excellence Framework and have scored some excellent successes in research grants, particularly in relation to CUBRIC II and the new Institute for Compound Semiconductors. The School of Planning and Geography achieved 100% for student satisfaction and we embarked on the first phase of a five-year, £38m project to refurbish our teaching rooms. We completed the first-ever Cardiff University Estates Masterplan and gained Council approval for two new buildings on the Innovation Campus on Maindy Road. Staff numbers have increased for the fourth year running, from 5888 in 2011 to 6716 this year.

So I think we can be pretty happy with the way things are going at Cardiff. The external environment, on the other hand, is much less certain. The election of a Conservative government has led to a renewed effort to reduce the numbers of international students. The Home Secretary Theresa May, it appears, thinks that British universities should become less financially dependent on international students. The policies of her government, it has to be said, have made us critically dependent on student numbers wherever the students come from. You can’t introduce a market in student numbers and then object to universities recruiting students, but that is what we are facing. In a different sort of destabilising move, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has proposed the effective dismantling of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), replacing Institutional Review with a stronger external examiner system and an obligation for governing councils to assure themselves of quality assurance procedures, presumably through audit. The new universities minister Jo Johnson wants to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework in England to parallel the Research Excellence Framework (REF), but we have no detail at all on what this might look like. In Wales we will have to wait and see before we can decide how to react in the most appropriate manner, and of course the Welsh Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales will play a key role. In a recent speech Jo Johnson also proposed that research funding should be spread more evenly throughout the UK rather than concentrated as now in London and South-East England. This could benefit us of course, but it remains to be seen how such a redistribution could be achieved without compromising the criterion of excellence. Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the UK Research Councils could have far-reaching consequences, and will report later in the summer. To cap it all the final form and date of the next REF, or even whether there will be another REF (it seems almost certain that there will) has yet to be confirmed.

In Wales the Diamond Review into university funding has been sitting for the best part of a year now, and will issue an interim report after the summer. In a surprise move the Minister has commissioned another review, to be led by Professor Ellen Hazelkorn of the Dublin Institute of Technology, that appears to cover quite similar territory (especially so far as funding is concerned; the remit includes ‘the funding of education and training’ in ‘post compulsory education’). In contrast to the Diamond Review, Hazelkorn will report before the Welsh Assembly elections rather than after. This latest review comes on top of the Furlong Report on teacher training, plus the various proposals for change in England that I mentioned above, and we can anticipate that the recommendations of all these various inquiries will take some sorting out once they are complete.

So there is much to consider externally, including the strong possibility of funding cuts as a consequence both of the July Budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn. But life goes on, and I was very heartened by the response to my last email in which I talked about our new project on relationship abuse. More than one of my correspondents made a connection with gender inequality and sexism more generally, which has been in the news in various ways in recent weeks. We cannot be complacent about this; the record on equal pay in the sector is not a good one, and Cardiff University is facing a particularly intractable problem. While we do well in most areas, in terms of the professoriate we have the second-worst record in the Russell Group on one estimate. The matter is being addressed but it is taking longer than I would like to get the changes we need. It’s important to ensure that we are rewarding all colleagues fairly and that we take due account of achievements, contribution and experience, but we also have to acknowledge that there is an issue to be faced here and I want to be quite sure that we are doing everything possible to ensure equality of treatment. If you want to find out more there is an article in Blas which should help.

There are other ways in which equality can be promoted, however, and one of them is modelling good behaviour. How sensitive should influential intellectuals be when speaking about gender relations in public? It seems evident, for example, that there are at least three reasons for not making sexist jokes, or remarks made in jest that could be construed as having sexist implications. The same reasons apply to racist or homophobic jokes, or any other similar category. Firstly, there is a danger that your audience might think that although you appear to be joking, actually you sympathize with the sentiments expressed. It might appear that you are joking only to be able to distance yourself from views which you genuinely hold and wish to be able to express in public. The second reason is that even if you are clearly joking, some members of the audience may feel that the remarks apply to them personally in a demeaning way, and may be gravely offended. Thirdly, even if you do not intend your remarks to be interpreted as in any way sexist because you regard them as merely light-hearted banter, they might have the effect of normalising discriminatory discourse. Tell homophobic, racist or sexist jokes enough and they become part of normal social exchanges. This is the most insidious danger. This is how patriarchal and other power structures are created and maintained. Those who challenge are accused of lacking humour, inability to take a joke or aggression. In the 1970s homophobic comedy and workplace banter were commonplace. People could make homophobic remarks cloaked as humorous sallies with relative impunity. Fortunately, the world is not like that any more. People of status and influence today generally do not indulge in humour that relies on discrimination. There is, of course, the possibility that the apparent humour actually is merely a cloak for sincerely held views. I would never say that anybody should be stopped from expressing their views, merely that if they do so they should expect to be vigorously challenged. That is how racism became socially unacceptable, and by challenging, sexism can be made socially unacceptable too.

On a much more positive note, we had an excellent week of graduations earlier in the month. Around 6300 graduates received their degrees at 13 ceremonies (at eight of which I officiated). We were able to welcome over 16000 guests from more than 60 countries, and though it rained at least we didn’t have to suffer in the heat. We held three dinners to celebrate the achievements of our Honorary Fellows and cement our relationships with local stakeholders and friends of the University. All in all I think it went off extremely well and I hope that every graduand and their family and friends felt they had had the chance to mark their achievement and celebrate just as they would want. Graduation is a huge logistical challenge, including as it does events for each School as well as the ceremonies themselves and I’m extremely grateful to all those involved. It’s always invidious to pick people out but this year I would like to thank the Catering team led by Julia Harris who was ably assisted by Neil Crotty and Anne Lewis, the Portering team led by Gerry Light who are always prepared to go the extra mile, and Henry Burns for stepping up as ‘dresser’ for the Honorary Fellows and those officiating at the ceremonies. Frances Dunderdale and Vicky Young of the Registry team did a splendid job, and the involvement of the Communications and Marketing team this year made a gratifying difference, Louise Hartrey deftly facilitating social media and Lucy Skellon organising the highly successful graduation dinners. I do apologise to anybody who has been unfairly omitted; I know that many colleagues contribute significantly but it would be a pity to avoid thanking anybody by name for fear of offending by omission.

I don’t send this email in August so you will next hear from me towards the end of September. If you are getting a break have a great time; I’m acutely aware of how hard you all work and of the stresses and strains we are all under. I’m so pleased that all this effort is bearing fruit as I said at the outset; we can all be proud of what we’ve achieved this year and look forward with confidence to the new academic year.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan