A rank smell

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Official ranking for a controversial Welsh university which has strengthened a code of practice on freedom of speech, despite a Freedom of Information request from The Eye being refused, and not replying to our questions about contentious events inside the institution, show that it is in exactly the same position as last year, even though huge changes have been undertaken which angered staff, it has emerged.

The Sunday Times ‘Good University Guide’ at the weekend put Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU) at 79= with its place the previous year in brackets (79). CMU was rated 64= for its teaching, 66= for its student experience, and 107th for its research quality.

These figures appear to place a huge question mark over major structural alterations at CMU (which have led to an enormous expansion) and shine a spotlight on the university grabbing headlines for the wrong reasons.

CMU documents (other than the ‘Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech’ governing body minutes which we were passed by one of our sources) show that the university set an ambitious target of reaching a level of 26,425 students by 2023, an increase of 8,810 on the figure three years ago.

Cardiff Metropolitan University set an ambitious target for more students

However staff there have claimed they were under-resourced for an enlargement on this scale, and that students were being admitted who simply could not cope with degree work.

One contact at CMU has told our journalists that it had become madness at the institution, declaring:  “It’s starting to go mad again”. Another said the atmosphere was “feverish”, while at one point more than two and a half times the amount of money had been spent on legal fees compared with the year before, and the astonishing events at the university were a subject for our satirical writer Edwin Phillips.

Staffing levels at Cardiff Metropolitan University were allegedly poor

The latest information is set against a disturbing backdrop, after we were contacted by numerous academics at CMU who said they were “too frightened to talk” publicly about what they claimed was chaos.

The fact that CMU is unmoved in the latest table, also casts an interesting light on the efforts by the university to strengthen its freedom of speech practice.

Minutes of a “SPECIAL MEETING OF THE BOARD OF GOVERNORS” given to The Eye, from March 11 2021 state clearly that the university seeks to “explicitly strengthen the University’s commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom”. This then became official policy at CMU, with the declaration: “The Board Resolved. 1) To approve the proposed Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech”.

We were told that Cara Aitchison had on her work clothes

However this resolution sits uneasily with (or lay behind) recent affairs, especially questions from The Eye marked “urgent” about whether CMU’s contentious Vice-Chancellor (VC) Cara Aitchison was working normally, but have gone unanswered, and that leading officials who have oversight of the institution were “turning a blind eye even though a grievance has gone straight to them”.

Other incidents also paint a worrying picture of what has been happening inside CMU.

Staff were allegedly ‘shown the door’

After a past meeting of the Vice-Chancellor Executive Group (VCEG), unhappy staff were sent recruitment rules that every appointment panel must be chaired by a member of the group or a Dean of another school at the crisis-hit university. Yet a ‘whistleblower’ at CMU told us that it was just further evidence of “more controlling and lack of trust”. We understand also that a deputy Vice-Chancellor at CMU had submitted a formal complaint about the running of the institution by Professor Aitchison, and a spoof Twitter site was created, which was being widely followed by staff at CMU.

Meanwhile a number of staff who left have been required to sign ‘gagging’ clauses, and one angry former staff member at CMU has given us the names of those who have sought their own legal advice, but in his words they “have been shown the door”.

‘Why haven’t the mainstream media reported what’s going on?’

But The Eye have also received a huge number of critical comments from academics that the mainstream media in Wales, continue to ignore the mounting crisis at CMU as officials have made the enormous changes needed to accommodate thousands of extra students.

One of our sources at the university said to The Eye:  “It has become obvious amongst all of us that anyone in CMU mentioning (The) Eye is immediately under suspicion for being one of your sources. They are afraid of the truth about the shambles … at CMU getting out into the mainstream media. Even UCU (University and College Union) colleagues are afraid to speak out which is indicative of the atmosphere here.”

Apart from this latest position in the Good University Guide, earlier ones have also been less than impressive.

It was ranked 108 in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019 – which meant it had plunged 18 places in only a year. One of our contacts at CMU said it had “nose dived”.

But our own inquiries of the university about the growing crisis under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) legislation have been met with a blanket refusal to provide answers. As with our questions to another headline-grabbing Welsh university, officials at CMU have stated that the queries to them from our Editor Phil Parry were “vexatious”.

Phil got angry when he was told his questions had been refused because they were ‘vexatious’

It is clear though that all is not as it should be within CMU. We have been given details of alleged “bullying”, and a different staff member got into trouble for “not eating a sandwich within the designated lunch hour” when officials from Human Resources were allegedly called in.

It has all come as a different internal paper to staff at CMU, and also passed to us, has been condemned by one of our whistlebowers as “the latest attempt by our Vice Chancellor to persuade us all that everything is going well and according to plan, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way”. A number of Professor Aitchison’s staff have analysed the statistics given in this past paper and were deeply unimpressed.

One told us:  “In the VC news update there are some obvious discrepancies in some of the cherry-picked figures that any academic can spot”. This source claimed there were major differences in anticipated turnover in the paper for 2018/19 to the statistic given in the Strategic Plan for CMU, and continued: “So which figure is correct? The previously published strategic plan or the latest Pravda update?”.

Do officials want to know what staff REALLY feel?!

A staff survey of Health and Wellbeing was carried out after we revealed it had been postponed, but the timing has been questioned by staff who claim it was conducted following our disclosures. One told us:  (The) Eye must have hit a nerve as the VC tells us that ‘one priority is to address any concerns raised by staff in the Staff Health and WellbeingSurvey conducted last month’”.

Another of our sources criticised the knowledge of some staff, then new at CMU, saying:  A five year old has more technological intellect than some C Met staff… a lot of staff think storing to cloud has something to do with the weather!”.

How grown up are staff at Cardiff Metropolitan University?

Yet others who have been at the university for some time were praised by the contact: “There are some good staff being ‘trodden’ all over.  I see it happening all the time.  (As for) media non-exposure, I guess BBC Wales will worry about ‘links’ they have with CMet and don’t want bridges burnt”.

Even as the scandal at CMU was kept from the mainstream media, The Eye had been inundated with desperate comments from distressed academics, with one saying they were “demoralised and demotivated”.

‘Sickness levels are through the roof’

One contact told us:  “Staffing levels are completely inadequate. Sickness levels and grievances are through the roof across the university.” Another of our sources within the Welsh university sector said: “They are rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. A different unhappy academic had told us the university was in “turmoil” and in a state of “carnage”.

The university responded to a request for details under the FOIA completely denying information from one of our contacts that Professor Aitchison and her deputy had been placed on ‘sick leave’ as the immense alterations unfolded, and the drive for more students came under fire from academics at CMU. We had also asked officials, who now is in charge at the university amid accusations from the academics, that it is a “rudderless ship”.

Normally responses to FOIA requests take several weeks, as in the case of the refusal on the grounds our questions were “vexatious”, but remarkably these denials came within hours, and CMU officials stressed that “Professor Cara Aitchison … is working normally”.

Is it hats off to how things are managed at Cardiff Metropolitan University?

Perhaps it is ‘normal’ to be ranked at exactly the same position as the previous year after tumultuous changes.

But it certainly doesn’t feel that way to a lot of the staff at CMU!

 

 

Tomorrow – we reveal more disturbing information about a prominent Welsh rugby pundit.

Book posterPhil’s memories of his extraordinary long, award-winning career in journalism (which included revealing remarkable details of life inside Welsh universities) as he was gripped by the incurable neurological disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order the book now! The picture doubles as a cut-and-paste poster!

Regrettably publication of another book, however, was refused, because it was to have included names.