Annus horribilis

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A controversial university in Wales where staff say they are “too frightened to talk” publicly about what they claim is chaos, and has strengthened a code of practice on freedom of speech, proclaims winning “… the highly prestigious title of University of the Year 2021”, it has emerged.

‘It has been an annus horribilis’

Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU) proudly declares the award by Times Higher Education (THE) despite the fact it has also advertised for a Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) saying it’s another institution, and used the wrong logo with picture.

The irony of the award appears to echo a comment from the Queen in 1992 that it had been an “annus horribilis” (Latin for ‘horrible year’) after publication of intimate conversations between Diana, the Princess of Wales, and James Gilbey from a tape recording of their phone calls, and a fire in Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s official residences.

‘What’s the worst one like?!’

Leading academics in Wales are perplexed by the announcement, and one told The Eye: “If they are the best, what on earth are the worst like?!”

This however has not been the only award for CMU recently, and other ‘achievements’ of the contentious university were featured in the incorrect advert for a new DVC, when it explained it was for Cardiff University (CU), and published that institution’s logo as well as photograph.

In the advert CMU announced that it “was recently awarded the title of Welsh University of the Year 2021 by The Times and The Sunday Times”.

This time for the THE prize, the headline-grabbing Vice Chancellor (VC) Cara Aitchison, was clearly thrilled, and said: “The entire Cardiff Met community is absolutely delighted to have won what is widely regarded as one of the most significant awards in the UK Higher Education sector”.

There may be delight in some quarters, but documents tell another story, showing that, as well as publishing the wrong notice for a new senior staff member, the institution has also acknowledged it must do more to allow internal critics to speak out. 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”.

The latest worrying information of the THE award is set against other disturbing information, too, after we were contacted by numerous academics at CMU, that leading officials who have oversight of the institution are “turning a blind eye even though a grievance has gone straight to them”. Our journalists have also received alarming complaints that the fresh people who have been brought in are of low calibre, and subservient to Professor Aitchison.

Academics have told us managers want to control them

After a recent 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 says it is just further evidence of “more controlling and lack of trust”. One source added that it had become madness at the institution, saying:  “It’s starting to go mad again”. The contact told The Eye earlier:  I can’t wait for the REF (Research Excellence Framework) results … Research across the university is at an all time low”.

Cara Aitchison – ‘more evidence has been revealed of a lack of trust at her university?’

A spoof Twitter account was created which was widely followed by staff at CMU, and The Eye have shown previously how another source at CMU told us the atmosphere was “feverish”, while 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 became a source of amusement for our satirical writer Edwin Phillips.

Meanwhile a number of staff who left had been required to sign ‘gagging’ clauses. One angry former worker at CMU gave us the names of others who had sought their own legal advice, but in his words they “have been shown the door”.

Staff were allegedly ‘shown the door’

Another of our contacts 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.”

Documents showed that at one point CMU had set an ambitious target of reaching a level of 26,425 students by 2023, while staff claimed they were under-resourced for an enlargement on this scale, and students were admitted who simply could not cope with degree work.

Yet, despite CMU’s proud announcement of the THE award, it seemed the massive changes at the university did little to improve its performance earlier. 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, and one of our sources 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, were met with a blanket refusal to provide answers.

As with our questions to another controversial Welsh higher education institution, officials at CMU have stated that the queries to them from our Editor Phil Parry were “vexatious”, although it was clear that all was not as it should be within CMU. We were 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.

‘Everything is going well…’

It all came as another internal document to staff at CMU, and passed to us, was 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 had analysed the statistics given in the document 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”. The 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?”.

Even a child can see there are so many questions about what is happening at Cardiff Metropolitan University

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 claimed 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 Wellbeing Survey conducted last month’”.

Another of our sources criticised the knowledge of some staff now 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!”.

There is concern about ‘links’

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 has been kept from the mainstream media, The Eye have been inundated with desperate comments from distressed academics, and one said they are “demoralised and demotivated”.

Staffing levels at Cardiff Metropolitan University are allegedly poor

A contact told us earlier:  “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 has told us the university is in “turmoil” and in a state of “carnage”.

Is Cardiff Metropolitan University a ‘rudderless ship’?!

The university responded to an earlier 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 huge changes 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”.

Getting information from Cardiff Metropolitan University has not been easy

The questions were also sent to a senior official at CMU who is one of Professor Aitchison’s acolytes marked “urgent” but there has been no reply.

It may be viewed as ‘vexatious’, too, if an institution where staff say they are “too frightened to talk” publicly about what they claim is chaos, and has strengthened a code of practice on freedom of speech, has been named ‘university of the year’…

 

Tomorrow – how, after 23 years with BBC Cymru Wales (BBC CW), and 38 years in journalism (when he was trained to use clear and simple language, avoiding jargon), Phil knows better than most, why an important rule of journalism is that the same story must not be repeated. However, an exception involves star actor Johnny Depp.

Book posterThe memories of Phil’s astonishing decades-long award-winning career in journalism (including reporting ‘awards’ for controversial institutions) as he was gripped by the rare disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order it now! 

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