While the Coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly brought the worst of times in recent memory for Wales and the wider UK, it has also shown the very best efforts of our universities including Cardiff Met, recently awarded the title of The Times and The Sunday Times ‘Welsh University of the Year 2021’. Last year saw Cardiff Met leap 33 places in The Times Good University Guide 2021, 41 places in The Guardian Good University Guide 2021, sustain its position in the top 10% of UK universities for graduate start-ups, rise to second in the UK for postgraduate research student satisfaction and maintain our strong reputation in undergraduate student satisfaction assessed by the National Student Survey (NSS).
This outstanding performance is the consequence of the University’s strategy of growth, diversification and improvement, its strong financial position resulting from new courses that meet student demand and employer need, and our highly motivated and professional staff whose 2020 staff survey outcomes resulted in Cardiff Met being ranked first in the UK as an ‘Employer of Choice’ from all higher education institutions surveyed by Capita in 2019 or 2020.
But league tables are not an end in themselves and there is no space for either self-congratulation or complacency in a pandemic. It is the impact of our actions derived from these positions of strength that matters and it is the collaborative and compassionate community that underpins this delivery that counts.
Since the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic a year ago my colleagues at Cardiff Met have worked harder, faster and longer hours than ever to use their skills and influence to help others. It is these collaborative and compassionate efforts that will take us forward into post-Covid recovery for our education sector, our economy and our society and more so than any league table position. It is working in partnerships with students, government, business, industry and all of our civic stakeholders that will best serve Wales in realising its post-Covid potential in a society where 30% of workers will continue to work from home, our economy will need to grow and all will be seeking a better work-life balance and enhanced sense of health and wellbeing.
At Cardiff Met our academic and professional services staff have ensured that high quality learning and teaching has continued, much of it online, and that students’ mental health needs are supported; health and social care staff and students have returned to work on the front line; biomedical science staff have remained at work to pioneer research into antibody testing; teacher education students have supported parents, including our own staff, with home schooling; scientists and product designers have created and donated PPE and testing equipment; sport staff have kept our community active with online wellbeing programmes; and estates and commercial services staff have helped us host Wales’ national blood donor centre and a Covid testing centre, manage accommodation and catering for front line workers and students for whom Cardiff Met has remained home, and adapt the campuses at a cost of over £1m to ensure our university community is as safe as possible.
Our staff and students feel a strong sense of belonging and a commitment to such values-driven leadership. Over the last year our decision-making has placed the physical, financial and mental health and wellbeing of our staff and students at the heart of our response: we retained all staff on full salaries throughout 2020; we are currently recruiting to almost 100 posts for 2021 starts; we were the first university in Wales to offer rent rebates to students in our university-operated accommodation in both the first and current waves of the pandemic; and we are currently working with our valued Students’ Union to provide further assistance to address financial hardship, digital poverty and support and advice for students facing challenges relating to online learning, inadequate study space, poor mental health, domestic abuse and concerns about future jobs. The Minister for Education’s announcement last week of a further £40m for the higher education sector from Welsh Government’s Covid Reserve will further support these efforts to mitigate student hardship and address issues that may put students at risk of discontinuing their studies at a time of rising unemployment.
Covid has been particularly cruel to those on the margins. Fractures of demography, ethnicity, and economy threaten to become gaping chasms that have the potential to divide society further at just the time we need to come together to recover and repair the ravages of a global pandemic that overlaid already existing disadvantage.
Our staff, students and recognised trades unions of Unison and UCU, working in partnership and in collaboration with an extensive range of external organisations, are committed to driving this inclusive and sustainable growth agenda aligned with the aspirations of the Future Generations Wales Act which we must all sign up to if we are to ensure that Covid does not cast its shadow disproportionately on the young in 2021 as it has on the older generation in 2020.
We may be off campus until at least the end of February but we are all still playing our part in delivering the collaboration and compassion that will combat Covid-19.
Originally published in the Western Mail, 28 January, 2021.