While the pensions dispute is not yet fully resolved, there is reason to be hopeful that the agreement to suspend industrial action whilst an expert panel is convened to review the 2017 valuation will offer a positive way forward. The key information about the agreement and proposed process is in the public domain, and the expectation is that the panel will report before the end of the summer to leave time for USS to action any proposals by April 2019. I understand that the two sides are making progress, supported by ACAS, in the task of identifying an independent chair (who will not have a casting vote). Once appointed, the chair will be able to take part in agreeing a process for appointing members of the panel and drafting terms of reference before work begins in earnest. This is likely to take some time, but I would hope that the work can begin by the end of May. Although the industrial action had been suspended by that time, I decided to go ahead with two planned meetings on the matter during the latter part of April; one with students and one with staff. My impression was that both of them were constructive and helpful opportunities to pose and answer questions, and to gain an understanding of the different perspectives on the dispute.
Before continuing with other news, I thought I would give you an update on our financial position. You will be aware that the introduction of the tuition fee grant in Wales from 2012 imposed considerable and growing strains on higher education funding here, a state of affairs which needed to be addressed because it was foreseeable, even at that point, that over time the system would become unsustainable. The Welsh Government acknowledged this by commissioning a review of fees and funding led by Sir Ian Diamond, which reported in 2016 after thirty months of gathering evidence and deliberation. As well as providing a fairer system for students, pushing resource towards those who need it most when they need it most, the review does allow funding for universities to rise back to sustainable levels in due course. The initial costs of the new approach are relatively high, however, because for an overlap period the old and new systems have to run in parallel. All Welsh universities are having to absorb some of the effects of those increased costs. Cardiff University has always budgeted with sufficient caution to allow us to ride out difficult periods, which is what we have been doing, as the Chief Financial Officer, Mr Rob Williams, has illustrated in his addresses to staff since his arrival here a year or so ago. I understand the pressures on public funding in Wales, and why it has been necessary to reduce the government grant to Cardiff University from £68m in 2015/16 to £45m this year. However, it was always intended that in due course the funding would rise again as the effects of the Diamond review flow through. That remains the case, and we can expect to recover all but £6m of the difference in cash terms by 2019/20. The rescinding of the previously announced fee increase to £9,295 per year for home and EU undergraduates creates a further source of financial pressure, only partly mitigated by extra public funding. These are pressures over which we have little direct influence; it is therefore important both to secure the sources of income which we can influence and to manage our costs.
One area where we do have a high degree of control is over research grants that have been awarded. It is extremely important to spend grant awards in a timely fashion and in accordance with the requirements of the project. If that does not happen we end up in the unfortunate position of having to return allocated funds to the original funder. Sometimes there are legitimate delays, of course; it may be difficult to make appointments as swiftly as hoped, and we have to ensure that central administrative processes can cope quickly enough with the requirements of the grant holder. We do know, however, that this is an area where we can improve and it is one that is under our control. On the plus side our researchers have been extremely successful in winning new awards this year (more on that next month), and so if we can carry out the research as planned and budgeted for, this problem will gradually be solved.
Another critical area is student recruitment, and it is always helpful to be able to point to an improvement in league table rankings when informing potential applicants. So our rise of four places in the Complete University Guide to 33 this year is to be welcomed. I hope you are aware of my caution about league tables, however, and there are of course many other factors that affect where potential students might want to study. It’s important for them to have a good sense of the place where they will be, the people who will be teaching and supporting them, and the facilities they will enjoy. At Cardiff we have a good story to tell; as we all know, on a sunny day many if not all of our buildings are magnificently attractive and a successful open day can be of huge importance; in fact it is the most important non-academic factor in deciding on a university for prospective students. Towards the end of the month during our April open day we were lucky enough to enjoy unseasonably warm and glorious weather. Hundreds of staff across the University contributed to the event, which was led by the student recruitment team, and I am grateful to all those involved. We were able to welcome 4,600 potential students, plus parents and around 100 teachers. For the first time we were able to register all attendees on arrival, so that we can track success more easily. We have introduced many other new features in 2018 to help us present Cardiff as well as we can, including new signage and branding, a new open day app, more activity at the Heath Park Campus, the establishment of the Riverside Farmers’ Market at Main Building and the introduction of Alumni ambassadors. Over 600 visitors have already given us feedback on the event; it is overwhelmingly positive and you can see a short film on the new developments here.
While all this goes on so do the other activities of the University, amongst which the Research Excellence Framework (REF) features prominently of course, and it was good to see that a number of Cardiff University staff have been appointed to panel membership for REF 2021. Whilst this represents quite a burden for those involved, it does mean that we will have a good awareness of the processes involved although clearly we will be judged only on the quality, breadth and impact of our research as will all those universities that take part. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is much more contested and not yet such an established part of the sector’s activity, but we already know that it has attracted international attention and whatever the issues concerning the criteria and what they measure, it will be to our advantage to participate successfully. We are not taking part in the subject-level pilot, but it is extremely important that we do as well as we can in this exercise, and all those who are supporting our efforts have my full endorsement and support in turn. As with REF, the next round of TEF will be on us before very long and we have to plan for that now.
It is a pleasure to offer my personal congratulations to Ms Joanne Lamacraft, who was named Security Officer of the Year for Excellent Service at the Association of University Chief Security Officers (AUCSO) awards ceremony earlier in the month. The work of our security officers goes well beyond security and student safety, and this award recognises not only her excellent and professional work, but also her contribution to the community and to the student experience.
Finally, although I will be very sorry to lose him, huge congratulations to Professor George Boyne, who has been appointed as the next Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Aberdeen University. George has been a wonderful colleague and an extremely successful inaugural Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. He will be much missed but I wish him all the best for the future in his new role.
With best wishes