Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – September 2019

Colin Riordan

Dear colleague

When I was a student of German literature back in the late 1970s I remember obtaining real satisfaction from understanding the novella form and recognising the various features that distinguished it in the German tradition. One of these was the ‘unerhörte Begebenheit’ — the unheard-of event, to translate more or less literally — which had a slightly technical function that needn’t concern us here. The idea of an ‘unheard-of event’ has always stuck in my mind though, and I often wondered if such a thing could really exist outside the realms of fantasy. Well, now it seems as if we are confronted with an ‘unerhörte Begebenheit’ on a weekly if not daily basis. We truly are in uncharted territory in the UK at the moment. Constitutional and political convention are no longer observed in the way they have been, and the courts are playing a role much more akin to the one we are used to in the United States, determining constitutional questions of great political import. The government would like the opposition to topple it in a no confidence vote, and the opposition refuses to do so even though the government is around 40 votes short of a majority. Despite all of this a general election looks perfectly possible, even inevitable in the coming weeks. What that would lead to of course is anybody’s guess. As a columnist recently observed, all outcomes look unlikely but something has to happen.

Is there a plus side anywhere to be seen? For universities there are some positives. Earlier this month there was a very welcome announcement concerning the return of the two-year post-study work visa, the abolition of which had been announced almost a decade ago in 2010. We have been campaigning for its return ever since, and the difference made by the announcement is already palpable even though the change only applies for students graduating from 2021. The tone emanating from this country, whilst deeply rancorous on the subject of Brexit, has actually become more welcoming so far as international students are concerned, which is as it should be. On the research front, there are indications that the present government is committed to a serious increase in funding for research and innovation; whether it will be able to deliver on that is of course impossible to say given the current position. So while it is true that we are living through a constitutional and political crisis the like of which none of us have experienced, there are reasons for guarded optimism in our sector at least.

Closer to home we have continued to make good progress on Transforming Cardiff. As I described in my all-staff addresses, the creation of a Single Professional Service on 1 August proceeded smoothly although there will still be more to do to bed in new ways of working. Financially we are on track to break even by the end of this year, which won’t complete our financial recovery (we need to return to generating a surplus for investment) but it will be an important milestone. After extensive consultation with colleagues the ideas for change that were set out in the February Transforming Cardiff paper have developed and in some cases themselves transformed into different ways of achieving the desired outcomes. We are making good progress on widening the gap between staff costs and overall income.

You are doubtless aware that the biggest element of our income relates to our teaching activity, and although it is a little early to be sure, it looks as if student recruitment has also gone well this year again. Student recruitment and admissions are hugely important to us and are very demanding of colleagues over the summer, especially during Clearing in August. A big thank you is due to everybody involved: Sally Rutherford’s team in Admissions, the teams working in a very competitive environment under Laura Davies in student recruitment and outreach (both home and international), the marketing team and everybody in the academic schools, both professional and academic staff. Having been responsible for admissions myself for many years I know not only how important it is, but the level of expertise and dedication involved. Thank you all.

Recently at University Executive Board (UEB) we discussed the climate emergency and how to react. Soon we will be consulting Council on the matter and we are presently finalising the measures we can take as a University to contribute to the movement in a more than symbolic way. We need to think about how and how much we travel, consider our energy use and how we consume animal products. Having been vegan myself for more than six years I have perhaps slightly shyed away from the latter issue in case of appearing to be pursuing a personal interest. However, the evidence that animal agriculture and the use and consumption of animal products contribute very significantly to the global carbon load is compelling. As with single-use plastics this is something that anybody can take part in, whether by reducing consumption of foods of animal origin or by fully adopting the vegan philosophy, which as far as possible eliminates animal products not only from food but from clothing and anything else that one buys or consumes. As a University we need to consider seriously how we construct menus in our catering outlets to make it easier for people to eat plant-based food if they prefer, just as we must move away from offering single-use plastic bottles for sale. Alternatives do exist and if the climate emergency is to be tackled we will need to change our habits in all kinds of ways. We are in a fortunate position in Cardiff because we have outstanding expertise in the form of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST), headed by Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh. Recently Lorraine advised UEB on the climate crisis and she has written a blog post on these complex issues if you are interested; I hope many of you will be.

At UEB and in other fora we have been discussing racism and what we as a University and as a Board need to do to help close the BAME attainment gap, which I talked about in my July email.  As part of that process and to help address the wider issues for staff and students we have set up three working groups, each jointly chaired by a member of UEB and a BAME colleague. The overall steering group is chaired by Michelle Alexis and Karen Holford, the student group is chaired by Jeff Allen and Amanda Coffey and the staff group by Abyd Quinn-Aziz and Sue Midha. There is so much to be done not only to improve diversity, but also to create an environment and culture where we can talk productively about race and racism. The first challenge is one of acknowledgment of the extent of the issue, and here I can thoroughly recommend the new book by our own Susan Cousins, Overcoming Everyday Racism. The title alone highlights the problem under discussion, and the book itself essentially debates how best to promote ‘BAME wellbeing’. What emerges for me is the way in which we all bear a responsibility in this matter. I was particularly struck by the following: ‘Many white people do not feel they belong to a racial group or recognise any significance in being white — they perceive themselves as the norm’ (p. 50). Thus is the ‘normativity and invisibility of white privilege’ maintained. I obviously cannot speak for the people from a BAME background at whom this book is perhaps primarily aimed, but I do believe that there is much to be learned for all members of our society, whether that is on the subject of ‘jokes and banter’ (p. 84) or ‘microaggressions’ (p. 102). On pages 103-4 there is an extremely useful list of behaviours that ‘white allies’ tend to exhibit, which in summary consists of acknowledging the privilege they receive as a member of the majority group, listening to and believing the experiences of marginalized group members without diminishing or dismissing them, being willing to take risks and act in spite of their own fears, being humble (not patronising), willing to be confronted about a behaviour and to change, taking a stand even when no marginalized person is present, believing they can make a difference and knowing how to activate support from other allies; not burdening the marginalized group to provide continual education. Given the divisions we presently see in society, now seems a very opportune moment to recognise not only our responsibility as a University, but also the individual responsibilities for those of us who belong to the majority group. The recent controversy over Naga Munchetty is a pertinent reminder of how misjudgements can be made in such matters.

More positively, you may be aware that Black History Month 2019 has begun, offering lots of opportunities to celebrate diversity and recognise the huge contribution Black Britons have made to our culture and society both here in Cardiff and further afield. Wales Online have just published their annual listing Brilliant, Black and Welsh: A celebration of 100 African Caribbean and African Welsh People. Congratulations are due to Mercy Ngulube, who is studying English Literature with us, Dr Ahmed Ali of our School of Biosciences and Ali Abdi, our Community Gateway Partnerships Manager, all of whom appear in the listing along with several other people with connections to the University. Their achievements are rightly celebrated and we can be proud of them all.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan

Vice-Chancellor