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Gair Rhydd meets: The Vice-Chancellor

By George Cook

This semester has been an extremely stressful one for both staff and students at Cardiff University. With disputes over pensions resulting in lecturers going on strike and concerns over the university’s response, there was a real sense of frustration at what was (or wasn’t) being done.

This culminated in students feeling more anxious than ever before and needing more support from services that many feel were under-funded and under-resourced. Therefore, it was essential more information was provided from the Vice-Chancellor, Colin Riordan, who has been in the position since 2012.

In an interview lasting half an hour, and with the presence of someone from Communications who interjected at certain points, we discussed the strikes, student support services, the salaries of Vice-Chancellor’s and LGBT+ issues.

The strikes

When asked what was done in preparation for the strikes, such as a report with possible solutions, there was a real sense of hesitation in the way Professor Riordan attempted to answer the question. Without specifically saying whether any detailed reports were undertaken beforehand, he said ‘we did send out a lot of communications during the period’. Professor Riordan acknowledged it was ‘hard to predict what was going to happen and how many academic staff would be on strike.’ He was also concerned about ‘alarming people unnecessarily.’

As a possible solution to issues with communications, the Vice-Chancellor wasn’t keen on the idea of using Twitter or Facebook to personally inform the university community of any developments. After looking into the possibility of adopting such a strategy, he stated ‘apparently students are starting to turn against Facebook and turn against Twitter…and prefer email’, which is rather surprising.

After issues with communications, which the university said they will look into, they are also looking at the possibility of rescheduling lectures that were missed, despite several lecturers being concerned about this. One member of the Cardiff UCU Strike Committee said, ‘you can take it from me that it would be widely resisted and would be interpreted as victimisation for having taken industrial action.’

In response Professor Riordan stated, ‘I wouldn’t expect people to do extra hours, but it’s a question of priorities, what order do you do your work in.’

In the statement released after the strike period ended, he wrote ‘we do not envisage a situation where staff are not paid for action short of a strike’. When questioned on the unclear wording of this and whether this definitely would not happen, he replied ‘it means what it says.’

Arguably, such a response will not ease the concerns of lecturers about their pay and any future deductions.

The strikes have strained staff relations with senior management, and in an attempt to improve relationships he hosted a meeting with staff on Thursday 19th April which he said was ‘more of a conversation.’

However, when asked if it was fair if staff had further pension cuts imposed he said, ‘it’s not a question of fairness, it’s a question of what actually needs to be done.’ This is despite receiving a £9,000 bonus last year and part of a pre-agreed £49,000 bonus in December, an amount he was not willing to disclose.

In general, staff and students were frustrated at the response from the university, both for communications and extra services.

Mental health and student support services

The strikes has meant more funding may be needed for student support. To help alleviate the increased anxiety and stress among students, the university have ‘communicated to students that student support is there and we do realise that there will be concerns.’ Whilst signposting people in the right direction is obviously useful, many students want to see more concrete action being taken in the form of increased funding for mental health services. However, he said funding increases ‘may happen but it’s not always just about funding.’

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of people applying for help from the mental health services here at Cardiff University more than doubled, whilst funding only increased by 26%. There is an opportunity for this funding to rise if money saved from the strikes is ringfenced specifically for student support, but the ViceChancellor said this would ‘not necessarily’ be an avenue the university pursues.

The Vice-Chancellor advocated his support for mental health and student services, but as I was pushing him on the funding of these services, there was an interruption from the person present from the Communications department.

As I asked again whether more funding would be allocated through money saved from the strikes, Professor Riordan stated ‘if there is a requirement to put some more support in place then we will certainly look at all of that.’ However, there is a big difference between ‘looking at things’ and actually making a commitment to increase funding.

Whilst he said the university looked at the situation before the strikes, Colin Riordan stated he ‘hadn’t had a catch-up with the Head of Student Support and Wellbeing recently.’

Furthermore, despite being informed there would be questions in this interview about academic and student services, Professor Riordan said ‘I haven’t got that detail in front of me.’

Alongside the funding of academic services themselves, the university has also increased the money being spent on buildings. After being given a £300 million bond for infrastructure, the university has invested heavily in refurbishing and reconstructing many of its premises.

But it is important that the services that reside within these new buildings are also invested in.

He stated ‘for the past couple of years now we have been looking at how we provide services. One of the key reasons for wanting to bring all of the services together in one building [The Centre for Student Life] is to make it easier for students, so they can see someone rapidly whatever their issue may be.’

With work already underway on the new building, it is due to be completed by 2020 costing an estimated £50 million. As well hosting support services, it will include a 550-seat lecture theatre.

However, students are concerned that this process is not happening quickly enough at the moment.

One student who is very active with campaigns for mental health and student support initiatives said ‘one of the biggest complaints is the waiting time for one-to-one counselling.’

This is not just a concern at Cardiff. According to a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health) the average ratio for students to councillors is 1:5,000.

As a result, it is fair to say many students think it is imperative the resources and funding for student support services are improved. This will then hopefully mean more councillors are hired so waiting times are reduced.

Although, it was still unclear whether the services would get extra funding before the completion of the Centre for Student Life and what the funding plans would be when finished to fully benefit students.

Students

Tuition fees and finance issues are a big concern for many students. In the 2016-17 financial report, there is reference to how it has been a challenge that tuition fees have remained static.

On the possibility of fee increases for UK students, Professor Riordan said ‘we have to ensure the university is properly funded. The fees haven’t changed for the past six years now and if we’re not gonna get public funding you have to find some other way of doing it and the alternative is taking more and more students with bigger classes.’

He also linked the static fees to the issue of government funding stating, ‘it would be beneficial if the difference was supplied to us in public money to make up for them not rising…some way you need to have funding for universities.’

As well as the price of tuition, the cost of university halls and residences have risen at a faster rate than loans and grants have.

When I was in first year, the cost of Talybont South was about £4,200. This year it is over £4,700. Other halls and residences have increased by similar amounts.

He stated ‘finance is always a big problem for those going to university, and the best thing that we can do is advise the government about maintenance grants’, and the Vice-Chancellor was supportive of their reintroduction.

‘That’s when you need the money, when you’re actually studying’, he said. The reintroduction of maintenance grants will reduce debt for those who have the biggest loans.

That being said, the support available here is better than at other universities At Cardiff, those with a household income that is below £42,000 also receive a bursary of £1,000 in their first year, and £500 in the final two years.

Alongside undergraduate bursaries, there is also more funding available for those wanting to study for longer. He referred to the work of the Diamond View which now means students in Wales have the same benefits as a postgraduate as they would as an undergraduate.

For those wanting to continue their studies past postgraduate level and enter into academia, Riordan said ‘it’s up to them whether they want to become academics, but I would advise someone carry on with study if they are really passionate about their subject.’

He continued, ‘I really loved German so carried on with that.’ Before becoming Vice-Chancellor at Cardiff, Colin Riordan was the VC at Essex University. Prior to that he had spells lecturing at Swansea University and Newcastle University.

Alongside our degress, the work of the Students’ Union is also important. Whilst the university itself is a separate entity to the Students’ Union, he was keen to praise the excellent services within it.

Professor Riordan said the values it brings the University as a whole are ‘partnership working, representing the interests of the students and focusing on the interests of students.’ He continued, ‘they provide a whole host of extremely valuable and important services.’

The role of a Vice-Chancellor

There is often a lot of confusion about what being Vice-Chancellor actually entails. Riordan said his role as ‘Chief Executive of the University is mostly meetings, but I also chair the university executive board, I chair senate. It’s making key decisions and a lot of it is also external representation.’

As Vice-Chancellor, he has created new research partnerships with universities in China and he said, ‘it’s important for us to have good partnerships in Europe but also around the world.’

Despite earning a total salary of £302,000, Riordan said ‘we have not gone down the excessive pay route in Wales.’

This may seem like a lot to many, frankly it is. However, context is important and some ViceChancellors have earned in excess of £500,000.

As Vice-Chancellor he does lead the university, but he does not decide his own pay. When asked who is on the committee who governs and decides his pay he failed to name a single member apart from the Chair, Reverend Gareth Powell.

Moreover, he is also personally accountable to the UK Parliament and the Welsh Government, and the university itself is a charity. Professor Riordan says there ‘are all kinds of mechanisms to hold universities to account.’

LGBT+ issues

After talking a lot about academia, the discussion progressed onto social issues. This included LGBT+ equality and diversity, something Professor Riordan has spoken about both in a personal and professional capacity.

Since becoming Vice-Chancellor in 2012, he says he thinks there has been a lot of progress made in terms of improving attitudes towards LGBT+ issues.

‘The key factor of this has been the work of Karen [Cooke] through the Enfys Network who has just made such a huge difference personally and a lot of other people come in behind her to support all of that.’ Enfys is the LGBT+ staff network and means rainbow in Welsh.

In the 2018 Stonewall Employability Rankings, Cardiff University reached its highest position coming 14th in the index and was the highest placed UK university.

The Vice-Chancellor was proud of the work that has been done at Cardiff. He also stated how ‘social attitudes have changed. Even in the last 5-10 years those attitudes have changed’, and Riordan seemed very pleased with the way things have progressed across society.

Linking back to the university specifically, as a part of Enfys and its initiatives, the university invited Peter Tatchell to give a talk on his campaigns around many issues, namely LGBT+ equality, and the Vice-Chancellor was also present at this event in February.

One of the main points emanating from the talk was the progress that can still be made within society, and Mr Riordan said, ‘the biggest issue at the moment is trans acceptance.’ He continued, ‘it’s always been a mystery to me why anyone cares what other people do, its astonishing.’

This demonstrates how the Vice-Chancellor and Cardiff University overall are working hard to improve both diversity and equality.

What next?

The Vice-Chancellor is going to continue looking into the impact of the strikes and what the response from the university will be to them and Professor Riordan said, ‘he wants all students to be absolutely happy with that.’

This may include increased funding and resources for student support services, but he did not want to commit to this fully. It could also mean changes to assessments for both essays and exams.

Therefore, it is now up to us as students to ensure that we are satisfied with the response from the university, whether that be academically, financially or in terms of important services like student support.

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