I can barely believe that as I write this email at the end of February 2019, with little more than a month to go before the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union, we are still at an impasse on Brexit. The decision-making process in our political system seems to have broken down, and not even our own government is able to tell us whether we will or will not be having to deal with a series of major disruptive issues in a few short weeks. So far as Cardiff University is concerned, we now have detailed plans for the main problems that we can predict might arise from a failure to reach an agreement and from the very sudden termination of long-standing legal processes and agreements. There is no question though that having to actuate those plans would be deeply unpalatable and expensive. Personally I believe that we have passed the point of no return and that the only rational move now is to ask for a delay in the provisions of Article 50, giving us another two years as a member state in order to clarify what we wish the future relationship to be. Even in the seemingly very unlikely event that a solution to the Irish border question can be found in the next couple of weeks, there simply will not be enough time to make all the legislative changes and obtain the reciprocal ratification that would be required for the Government’s withdrawal agreement to be put into practice in a sensible and managed way, and so some delay seems inevitable in that scenario too. A more extended delay would allow time for the existing Parliament to debate and put to the vote a range of options for agreement other than the existing deal or no deal at all, or to hold a second referendum, or to hold a general election. It is time for Parliament, and for the political parties, to put the national interest first and acknowledge that the huge disruption and uncertainty that a no-deal exit would cause would be intolerable in a modern state. It is to be hoped that our elected representatives collectively recognise their obligation to protect the interests of the people of this country and act accordingly.
There is some cause for concern even as regards the matters that are under the government’s control. The shape and functioning of the proposed UK Prosperity Fund, which would be intended to replace the European regional development funding that came to us via the Welsh European Funding Office and has amounted to many millions of pounds of research and infrastructure support for Cardiff University, have yet to be revealed. While the Treasury has guaranteed in the event of no deal to fund Horizon 2020 research projects and Erasmus agreements that have been signed by the time we leave, no commitment has been given to fund replacements for either of these programmes ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review due to take place this year, which would leave a considerable funding and organisational gap both for international research and student mobility. The Immigration White paper shows the government’s intention to treat all EU students as international students from 2021, which at least is helpful to know. The same cannot be said of the proposal to issue temporary leave to remain for only 36 months to EU students who come to us after Brexit. Any students on programmes longer than three years would be pushed into the Tier 4 route towards the end of their studies, with all the uncertainty that would entail. One wonders at which point the government might recognise that it would be possible to respect the referendum result and leave the European Union without leaving the Customs Union (which causes the issue with the Irish border) or the Single Market (which causes the immigration issues just mentioned). Still, as everybody knows the position remains very fluid and any one of a range of outcomes will be possible until some definitive decision is made.
Moving to matters closer to home, thank you to the more than 800 members of staff who attended one of the three events on Transforming Cardiff that took place towards the end of the month. If you missed them and want to see what happened you can watch the video here. We also held an event for students, and altogether I took questions and listened to views on the programme at 8 events during that week, including Senate. Everybody has had a copy of the paper that Council agreed and so will be aware of the key points. It was extremely important to get agreement to reach the financial position Council expects over a period of 5 years rather than in a much shorter and potentially disruptive way, and we believe we will be able to calibrate the cost control in such a way that we can continue to deliver on our strategic aims whilst managing the workload issues we face. We want to achieve this through voluntary severance and recruitment controls on the one hand, and by changing the ways we organise and run our research, teaching and learning and professional services on the other. The latter point is very important, and is the reason for introducing a programme of managed change rather than simply controlling costs. The fact is that our cost base has been growing faster than our income, not because costs are out of control (they have risen on a steady trend in recent years) but because income fell two years ago and has only grown slowly since then. There is every reason to expect that income growth will pick up in due course, but the cost pressures are enormous and so we have to react to that by controlling those pressures as much as we can, consistent with delivering our strategic aims and causing as little disruption as possible, whilst increasing income with all the means at our disposal. Exactly how we do this is still very much open for discussion and consultation, and working out a programme of engagement with staff, students and stakeholders is the next item on the agenda.
In other news it was a pleasure to welcome the new UK Minister for Universities and Science, Chris Skidmore MP, to the University last month and to show him round our Institute for Compound Semiconductors. Professor Peter Smowton gave an excellent presentation that set some quite complex technological issues in the wider strategic context of the importance of innovation in compound semiconductor development and production, and it was helpful to be able to discuss the way in which Cardiff University relates to the UK research effort as a whole. We were also delighted to learn that we were successful in our bid for an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training in Compound Semiconductors, which will support the vibrancy and sustainability of this important area of activity. We were also pleased earlier this month to host Ciaran Martin, the head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is part of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in a visit to the University. I have mentioned before that we are one of the 16 UK Academic Centres of Excellence in cybersecurity recognised by the NCSC. Again this is an area of growing and vital importance, as I’m sure we all recognise, and we are grateful for the recognition of our role in understanding how to defend the UK, its people and its institutions against destructive cyber attacks.
You will remember that Civic Mission is one of the five key strategies at the heart of The Way Forward 2018-23, our five-year University strategy. In accordance with that we have joined 30 other institutions in supporting a ‘Civic University Agreement’ in partnership with local government and other major institutions. The new agreement is a key recommendation in a report published by the Civic University Commission set up by the UPP Foundation and chaired by the former Head of the Civil Service, Lord Kerslake. This is not new for us of course; we have always taken our civic obligations seriously and engagement was a key element of the previous Way Forward. In that spirit I was pleased earlier this month to sign the Armed Forces Covenant which affirms our commitment to support serving and former personnel and their families, ensuring fair treatment and ensuring that they do not experience disadvantage. I enjoyed meeting those students and members of staff who are armed forces cadets and reservists, and am delighted that Lieutenant Paul Thomas, who works as a Business Manager in Research and Innovation Services, has been appointed as the University’s first Armed Forces Champion.
With best wishes