MEDIC Forward: A step backwards for students

Up to 69 members of staff are set to be made redundant as part of a restructure of the Medical School, Gair Rhydd can reveal. MEDIC Forward, a project “which aims to ensure that we have a School of Medicine that is fit for the future,” will see the university disinvest from entire departments. It is reported that opportunities for redeployment within the organisation will be limited, and there are set to be further redundancies for technical and support staff.

These revelations come following an “institute meeting” at the Institute of Molecular and Experimental Medicine. The meeting, described by Institute Director Colin Dayan as “very important”, was held to “discuss recent developments, hear advice from those involved with the process and show support for the large number of IMEM staff and students impacted.”

In the meeting, it was revealed that 69 staff had received letters notifying them that their area of research faced disinvestment. While the University has promised that there would be “short term pain,” a large number of students have been rendered disaffected by the proposals.

Those who have spoken to Gair Rhydd have offered a variety of comments. One said that the “lack of communication has been disgusting”. Another said that they were considering quitting their PhD. “Part of me realises I will have wasted a year of my life with nothing to show for it.”

Further complaints suggest that the School of Medicine is failing those to whom it owes a duty of care: “[The school] is supposed to have a duty of care to its students – right now I feel like a second-class student who is not a priority.” Another student, who acts as a seminar leader at the Heath, said that they “contribute to teaching of undergraduate students,” but that their “contributions to the school have not even been considered.”

The University and College Union has also come out against the plans. Cardiff University UCU Representative Chris Graves spoke to Gair Rhydd, and said: “The UCU will speak to council on Monday 18th in order to make sure that MEDIC Forward is constructed more holistically, not just narrowly framed in achieving results for REF 2020.” REF, or Research Excellence Framework, is the process by which the volume and quality research output of Higher Education Institutions is judged.

Gair Rhydd has seen UCU proposals and other materials submitted to the University Council. They highlight the concerns of both students and staff, and state that “there is a real risk of severe reputational damage to Cardiff University resulting from major omissions in the process to date, to say nothing of the impact on the staff involved”. The damning report adds that “it is clear that as a result of previously admitted failures of management within the School, the current senior management team does not have accurate information on the activity of large sections of its staff.“

The 69 letters to staff signal the start of a 90-day consultation period, during which individuals are interviewed and business cases put to them, explaining why their research area is set to be disinvested from. Recipients of the letters are reportedly unable to access copies of their business case before the interview which would ultimately decide their redundancy. This asymmetry of information between HR and the people affected was raised with a HR representative in attendance at the meeting.

Though the representative was on hand to answer questions from staff and students, they reportedly “could not really offer any answers,” to this query or others according to one person in attendance. Questions concerned contracts, redundancies, and external funding – as one student described, “literally everything.” They added that “[the representative] could not answer a thing.”

Many of the staff set to be made redundant supervise PhD, masters and sandwich students. These students will continue to study while consultation continues, despite not knowing what will happen at the end of the 90-day period. One student has described their circumstances as being “completely up in the air”.

They cited advice from the university to maintain their “usual professional approach” to their projects and described it as insulting. “Basically, I am expected to keep doing my work, when I am potentially set to start a new project anyway.”  Another student complained of the uncertainty: “I am externally funded and have no idea what will happen to my project and my money should my supervisors leave.”

It is not clear who will supervise students in departments set to be entirely disinvested from. In the “small number of cases” where this might happen, the university “has pledged to support those students in as comprehensive a manner as possible.” Further, a member of university staff familiar with the restructure told Gair Rhydd that they would be “very surprised” if any students were asked to undertake something “other than what they signed up for.”

However, an FAQ sent to students who may be affected states that for some students, the university “might consider the allocation of a new project” to any student who would be orphaned by the redundancy of their supervisor. This would effectively force PhD students to restart their research projects from scratch.

One student said that they have “been advised not to talk too much about Medic Forward plans” for “fear of damaging supervisors chances of a good outcome.” They added that: “while primary supervisors have been very supportive, it has been a very lonely and upsetting time.” The advice to remain silent about the reforms is the reason that she and other students have requested that any quotes they have given would be used without attribution in this article.

Claire Blakeway, VP Heath Park, told Gair Rhydd that following Monday’s meeting she was “concerned.” She reported that the Students’ Union had not been consulted about the implementation of MEDIC Forward: “I did voice my concerns [about the lack of consultation], and I think communication is key to ensuring that the whole reform is as transparent and smooth as possible.”

“There is certainly an atmosphere of uncertainty amongst the student body that [they] are at potential risk of being affected by these changes. I believe that this comes from the fact that students are nervous about what may happen if their area of research is disinvested in.”

“I can understand why students feel like this, as consistent supervision throughout a PhD is of great value to students who depend upon the support and relationships they build with experts in their field. However it is important to note that the school have assured students that they will not be left without a supervisor.”

But students are unhappy about what they see as the Students’ Union’s failing to act in their interests. When presented with Blakeway’s responses to our inquiries, one of the students highlighted her statement that PhD students will “not be left without a supervisor”: “If entire departments are cut and students are assigned a completely new supervisor, then they will be forced to start a completely new project [and therefore a completely new PhD.]”

Claire Blakeway told Gair Rhydd that Katey Beggan, the VP Heath Park-elect, is currently unaware of the developments, despite starting her job as a caretaker of students on the Heath Park campus in a month. “She doesn’t take post until the 1st of July therefore she is not obligated to take on this matter at this point in time. It is my responsibility as the current VP Heath Park.”

When asked if she would continue to remain involved in the situation after her tenure as VP Heath Park ends and her time as SU President begins, Claire Blakeway said: “Katey has been elected to represent Heath students next year, so this will be in her remit. I hope that by the time Katey starts, all matters will have been resolved.” It is unlikely that matters will be resolved by this time, as Katey takes her post on 1st of July and the 90-day consultation is not set to end until August. But Blakeway added that: “to ensure continuity I will bring Katey up to speed and offer her my ongoing support” should she require it.

The university is aware of student concerns. A Cardiff University spokesperson said: “We recognise that this is an unsettling time for students and are committed as far as possible to ensuring that they will be able to complete their PhD.”

“It is important to note that we are still in a consultation period and continue to engage with Trade Union colleagues and staff.”

“It must also be stressed that MEDIC Forward is not a cost saving measure. It is about creating a sustainable school that is fit for the future. Following a period of disinvestment will be a reinvestment into our areas of strength.”

“Developing these areas is vital if we are to keep apace with the rapidly evolving needs of the medical profession and the patients which it serves.”

“If following the consultation period students find themselves in a position where their research area has been negatively impacted, then we will treat students on a case-by-case basis to find the best solution to their individual situation.”

“Any grant money lost as a result of any changes will be reimbursed by the School. Students will be allocated new supervisors with suitable expertise if changes result in the loss of academic support. In the worst case scenario, if there is there is no longer adequate support for a particular research area, students will be put on to a new project.”

“Since the outset of the consultation period we have kept in close communication with students and staff at every stage of the process via face-to-face briefings, newsletters, FAQs, social media, and regular email correspondence. This will continue throughout.”

“Leading the transformation of the School is the Dean of Medicine, who continues to work with an open door policy. Furthermore, students are free to voice their ideas or concerns to their personal tutors or the director of postgraduate research.”