A troubled Welsh university has just appointed a new head, but she will have her work cut out, as The Eye have revealed that her predecessor was given a financial package of more than £300,000 despite the fact she announced she was quitting, admitted her institution was a “work in progress”, and the organisation has plunged down student satisfaction tables.
Helen Langton is an academic, nurse, and current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Suffolk, with details about her appointment divulged by internal sources to us, but extraordinary information was disclosed about the previous head of controversial Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU). Cara Aitchison, who received a salary of £257,500 in 2021-22 with £47,346 “payment in lieu of pension contribution”, which was made because the pension pot was full.
This amount of money may cause alarm among some, given the headline-grabbing background of CMU.
Three years ago the National Student Survey (NSS), showed CMU with an overall satisfaction rating which was two points above the UK average at 85 per cent, however the figure changed soon afterwards. In 2021 it was 75.83 per cent, and the year after that it was just 71.30 per cent.
The University and College Union (UCU) have also expressed their concern to senior management at the way staff are treated in CMU.
We have shown, too, that a complainant made a legal request for information about whether a vote of confidence was held into the work of Professor Aitchison, and staff have admitted to us they are “too frightened to talk” publicly of their worries. However senior officials strenuously denied that any such vote had been held, and they completely backed her.
The complainant who asked the question under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) legislation, was told: “The Board of Governors continues to have full confidence in the Vice Chancellor and her effective leadership of the University”.
Yet plainly this ‘full confidence’ has NOT led her to want to stay at CMU, because in announcing her departure, as well as saying there was work still to do, Professor Aitchison has blamed the strain on her family life.
In the hours after she declared that she was going, a spoof resignation message circulated among staff which in a wickedly humorous way purported to offer other reasons for the ‘successes’ she had trumpeted in her announcement.
It said: “The brave decision to make over 200 redundancies and then rehire the same amount was a master stroke. Ok, I spent over £8,000,000 on redundancy payments and a small fortune on forced confidentiality agreements but that was money well spent. To be clear, the long-standing strategic vacancies in Estates, Marketing, Business Engagement, Library & Information Services, University Secretary and International are no reflection of my leadership or the reputation of CMU within the academic community. Any suggestion that I have been responsible for multiple grievances is entirely false. Entirely. The growth in student numbers and corresponding university turnover has been down to me alone. It has had absolutely nothing to with the astounding natural growth in 18 year old applicants or the sector wide growth in Indian and African student numbers.”
The anonymous spoof communication came after a source had told The Eye that there was a “list of The Disappeared”, and a “culture of fear”. The whistleblower at CMU proclaimed: “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”.
One of the officials on the alleged list (John Cavani) has an intriguing past which was highlighted by our journalists.
Mr Cavani was a “Senior Marketing & Communications Professional” at CMU, and said in a 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 The Eye’s Editor, Welshman 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.
An incorrect advert was published, as well, with Professor Aitchison at the helm. It invited applications for a Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for CMU, but explained that it was for Cardiff University (CU) – using THAT institution’s logo and photograph instead!
Documents also painted an alarming picture of what has been happening inside CMU. Along with publishing the wrong advert 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”.
Intriguingly, however, there appears not to be a policy of openness for certain matters.
In documentation for CMU Governors at the last meeting, it is insisted that there should be “restricted minutes”.
Following a 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 (Research Excellence Framework) results … Research across the university is at an all time low”.
A staff survey of Health and Wellbeing was carried out after we revealed it had been postponed, but the timing had been questioned by workers at CMU who claimed it was only 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’”.
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.
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”.
A further academic source said: “We are now suffering the legacy of Cara even before she has left.
“We have been told there is now a recruitment freeze due to massive under recruiting of students this year! The new VC’s first task could be selecting redundancies“.
With this kind of background, perhaps the new head of CMU doesn’t know what she’s taking on…
The memories of Phil’s astonishing decades-long award-winning career in journalism (during which he has reported numerous controversies in academia) 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!