The controversial head of a Welsh university which has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and where staff say they are “too frightened to talk” publicly, is standing down from her role, blaming the strain on her family life, and admitting that her institution is a “work in progress”, it has emerged.
Cardiff Metropolitan University’s (CMU) Vice-Chancellor (VC) Cara Aitchison has dramatically told staff she is to quit at the tender age of just 57. In the internal letter to staff today, Professor Aitchison acknowledges her time at CMU has been in “…the most challenging of circumstances and at significant personal cost…”, although most of the communication is taken up with her ‘achievements’.
She writes that she has “always been clear that I would know when the time was right to move on”, but since Professor Aitchison took up her post in 2016, CMU has been engulfed by crises and scandal, with her announcement of resigning coming a year before the average for VC’s being in the job.
An anonymous source had earlier told The Eye that there was a “list of The Disappeared”, and a “culture of fear”. The whistleblower at CMU declared: “There’s a…mystery Deputy Vice-Chancellor that never was, (on the list are) John Cavani and Lisa Newberry (both working in Marketing), Leigh Robinson (Pro Vice Chancellor) Sharon Johnstone and Leila Gouran (International), Paul Robinson (Estates), Christine Fraser (University Secretary) and her PA Angela Jones-Evans. All people that had to work close(ly with) the VC(Vice-Chancellor) (who are) suddenly no longer around”.
The message to us added there was an: “…unremitting slide down the league tables (with) shocking NSS (National Student Survey) and REF (Research Excellence Framework) results. The worst thing is that there is no plan that I can see to make improvements for the student experience, no plan to get the teaching quality scores up again. Nothing.”.
It was also claimed that critics within CMU who leave were ‘gagged’ using legal ‘Non-disclosure agreements’. The contact informed us: “All this is happening when our students are really suffering and are dropping out, saddling themselves with debt for 40 years”.
One of the officials on the alleged list (John Cavani) has an interesting past which was highlighted by our journalists. Mr Cavani was a “Senior Marketing & Communications Professional” at CMU, and said in a recent social media announcement that he had “decided to move on”, but before he did so, he had attempted to use his Public Relations (PR) skills on our Editor Phil Parry by trying to persuade him to report ‘positive’ stories about the university.
Mr Cavani also failed to respond to a gmail marked “urgent” asking for information, even though he claims to be a specialist in communications.
As with Professor Aitchison, CMU itself has a contentious past, too, which was alluded to by the unknown internal informant. In the resignation letter, she says her university “is now, arguably in its strongest position in its 158-year history”, and has been named “The Sunday Times ‘Welsh University of the year 2021′”. However other rankings and events have cast CMU in a less flattering light, during the time when Professor Aitchison has been in charge.
CMU was ranked 108th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019–which meant it had plunged 18 places in only a year, and another of our sources at the time, said it had “nose dived”.
An incorrect advert has been published, as well, inviting applications for a Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for CMU but explaining that it was for Cardiff University (CU), and using THAT institution’s logo and photograph!
Documents also paint an alarming picture of what has been happening inside CMU while Professor Aitchison was at the helm. As well as publishing the wrong notice for a new senior staff member, CMU has acknowledged it needs to do more in allowing internal critics to speak out (presumably including our anonymous contacts). Minutes of a “SPECIAL MEETING OF THE BOARD OF GOVERNORS” given to The Eye, from March 11 one year stated clearly that the university sought to “explicitly strengthen the University’s commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom”. This then became official policy at CMU, with the proclamation: “The Board Resolved. 1) To approve the proposed Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech”.
The latest worrying information is set against other disturbing details, after we were contacted by numerous academics at CMU, that leading officials who had oversight of the institution were “turning a blind eye even though a grievance has gone straight to them”, our journalists also received complaints that the fresh people who were brought in were of low calibre.
Following a recent meeting of the Vice-Chancellor Executive Group (VCEG), unhappy staff were sent recruitment rules that every appointment panel had to be chaired by a member of the group or a Dean of another school at the university.
Yet, another whistleblower at CMU, said this was just further evidence of “more controlling and lack of trust”. One source added that it had become crazy at the institution once more, saying: “It’s starting to go mad again”. The contact told The Eye earlier: “I can’t wait for the REF results … Research across the university is at an all time low”.
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 there 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.
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.”
Papers have shown that at one point CMU had set an ambitious target of reaching a level of 26,425 students, 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.
But even with this enlargement, and supposed ‘improvement’, it seems that disclosing facts to some members of the media did not become better, despite CMU having previously employed a “Communications Professional” in Mr Cavani.
This meant information had to come from unofficial sources such as our whistleblowers.
The Eye’s 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 well as silence from Mr Cavani.
As with our questions to another controversial Welsh higher education institution, officials at CMU have stated that the queries to them from Phil 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.
Some years ago, a number of staff analysed statistics given in a 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”. It was claimed that there were major differences in anticipated turnover in the paper for 2018/19 to the statistic given in the Strategic Plan for CMU, saying: “So which figure is correct? The previously published strategic plan or the latest Pravda update?”.
A staff survey of Health and Wellbeing was carried out after we revealed it had been postponed, but the timing had 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’”.
The most recent anonymous communication also raised the issue of the survey, saying ironically: “Funnily enough, nothing was said about the results of the Staff Survey that was conducted in the summer”.
Earlier, another of our sources had criticised the knowledge of some staff 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!”.
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”.
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 told us the university was in “turmoil” and in a state of “carnage”.
The university responded to one request for details under the FOIA completely denying that the VC Cara 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 was in charge at the university amid accusations from the academics, that it was 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”.
But it’s not ‘normal’ to leave a university after this length of time in charge and at such a young age.
Yet it is unlikely to elicit a response in an FoI question about it…
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