It was good to hear as I write this email that the discussions between UUK and UCU seem to have been reasonably positive, both sides agreeing to further talks under the auspices of the conciliation service ACAS. The strength of feeling amongst USS members is palpable and understandable, and nobody would want to be in the position we find ourselves. Employers would, I am sure, want to consider any solution that is affordable and would be beneficial to USS members. I have discussed these matters in some detail in my all-staff emails of November 2017 and January 2018, as well as in replies to colleagues this month, and there has been little new information since then. I know that in their discussions UUK would be open to ideas such as agreeing a clear process and framework for reopening the defined benefit portion of the scheme if conditions improve and moving in the medium term to a ‘defined ambition’ scheme such as exists in other European countries if the requisite legal reforms are made, while employers are committed to retaining the level of their contributions at 18%. A ‘defined ambition’ or ‘collective defined contribution’ scheme is a particularly interesting idea that has been taken forward by Royal Mail in discussion with its union representatives and with government, and might represent an affordable third way between the UUK proposals as they stand and the understandable desire of USS members to have more certainty over their future pension. Clearly, a negotiated solution would be in everybody’s interests and I very much hope it will be possible to achieve one. In the meantime we will do everything we can to ensure that our students receive fair treatment and, of course, respect the right of those affected to take industrial action in respect of this matter.
Earlier this month it was very pleasing to see that one of our flagship engagement projects, Community Gateway, was successful in winning a £1m lottery grant for its Grange Pavilion community project in partnership with Grangetown Community Action. This project is the product of years of co-operation between the local community in Grangetown and a group led by Dr Mhairi McVicar of the Welsh School of Architecture. The aim is to create a multi-functional community centre that can be used for education, training, health promotion and enterprise development, with a café, office and meeting spaces. There are also plans to improve the existing grounds to create an accessible green space, an orchard and a pollinator garden. The lottery success is a huge achievement and a great testament to our commitment to engagement and our civic mission. I am also delighted to say that Cardiff University has won a prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for the work of Dr Maggie Woodhouse and her team in Optometry on treating vision problems in children with Down’s Syndrome. All too often in the past, difficulties faced by these children had been ascribed to learning difficulties when in fact the problem was related to eyesight, which could be corrected once diagnosed. This probably still happens today and I hope that the recognition received for this work will encourage parents, carers and practitioners to think about these children’s vision and seek an informed diagnosis. Two of Maggie’s research participants attended the award event in Buckingham Palace, which I hope was a great experience for them.
You will be aware that the Prime Minister announced a review of tertiary education in England, which will take a year and may have consequences for us in Wales eventually. We will have to await the outcome of that, but as you know we have had our fair share of reviews in Wales and the final outcome of one of them — the Diamond review — was recently outlined by our Cabinet Secretary, Kirsty Williams, in an article for WonkHE. Ms Williams explains how as of the next academic year, students domiciled in Wales will all receive a grant of at least £1,000, with those in the most need receiving the most support, based on the Living Wage. Those from the lowest income households will have a maintenance grant of more than £10,000 in London and over £8,000 elsewhere in the UK. Part-time students and postgraduates will also be eligible for this kind of support. I hope that the review in England will recommend the return of maintenance grants because the evidence we gathered during the Diamond review clearly indicated that students need money in their pocket while they are studying, and that those from the lowest income households need it most. I suspect that at least some of the reforms introduced in Wales may well be looked at closely by the English review, which would be a welcome development.
In other news, we recently won another Welsh Government Sêr Cymru grant to support our new appointment in the School of Medicine, Professor Peter Ghazal. The Sêr Cymru scheme, incidentally, has also attracted the attention of English policy makers, who have introduced something similar to be administered by the new body UK Research and Innovation. Professor Ghazal is an expert on sepsis in infants and is leading Project Sepsis, a major initiative to combat this pernicious condition that progresses so rapidly that the consequences can be fatal before an accurate diagnosis is made. I wish him well and am delighted that he has decided to come to Cardiff. Congratulations are also due to Professor Peter Halligan, Honorary Professor in the School of Psychology, who is the new Chief Scientific Adviser to the Welsh Government. Professor Halligan is a tireless and extremely well informed advocate for the cause of science and research in Wales and will, I know, provide the government with solid evidence for policy making as well as advice on critical scientific issues that affect us all.
With best wishes