The pay of the head of a controversial university in Wales has increased by thousands of pounds every year, even though staff there say they are “too frightened to talk” publicly about what they claim is chaos, it placed a mistaken advert for a senior executive featuring a DIFFERENT university, and plunged down the rankings massively in one recent year, it has emerged.
The salary for Cardiff Metropolitan University’s (CMU) Vice-Chancellor Cara Aitchison has been condemned to us by a staff member there, as “rewarding failure”, and the disclosure of her pay packet, comes as a contentious official who tried to prevent The Eye publishing ‘negative’ stories about the institution, announced that he was leaving.
John Cavani a “Senior Marketing & Communications Professional” at CMU, said in his social media message he had “decided to move on”, but several years ago he attempted to use his skills, with a senior Public Relations (PR) worker, on our Editor Phil Parry by trying to persuade him to report ‘positive’ stories about his 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.
Meanwhile, revelations of Professor Aitchison’s remuneration have been greeted with consternation by our contacts at CMU. One said: “This is incredible after everything that has gone on. It is a classic case of ‘rewarding failure'”. On July 31 2017, the published statistics show that she received £227,820, but a year later this figure stood at £265,583, and in 2021 it was at £294,129.
Yet these are set against disturbing facts about CMU.
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 another of our sources at the time, said it had “nose dived”.
CMU, though, has said it soon improved, and in the incorrect advert it announced that it “was recently awarded the title of Welsh University of the Year 2021 by The Times and The Sunday Times”.
In this wrong promotion inviting applications for a Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) it explained it was for Cardiff University (CU), and published THAT institution’s logo as well as photograph.
Internal documents also paint an alarming picture of what is happening inside CMU, showing that, as well as publishing an incorrect 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 about Professor Aitchison’s pay (as well as the departure of Mr Cavani) is set against other disturbing information, 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 complaints that the fresh people who were brought in are of low calibre, and subservient to Professor Aitchison.
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”.
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.
Meanwhile a number of staff who left have 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”.
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 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 even with this enlargement, and supposed ‘improvement’, it seems that disclosing facts to some members of the media has not become better, despite CMU having employed a “Communications Professional” in Mr Cavani.
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 Mr 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.
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?”.
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!”.
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 has told us the university is in “turmoil” and in a state of “carnage”.
The university responded to one request for details under the FOIA completely denying information 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 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”.
Yet it seems that it is hardly ‘normal’ for Professor Aitchison’s pay to increase by thousands of pounds every year, even though staff there say they are “too frightened to talk” publicly about what they claim is disarray, it placed the wrong advert for a senior executive, and dropped several places down the rankings in one recent year…
Tomorrow – why a free media is needed now more than ever.
The memories of Phil’s extraordinary 38 year award-winning career in journalism (when major events in Welsh academic circles were always covered) as he was gripped by the rare disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in the 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.