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Cara Aitchison – short but not sweet

The public biography for the contentious head of a troubled Welsh university is extraordinarily short and contains no details about recent controversies at all, it has emerged.

The Wikipedia listing for Cara Aitchison the headline-grabbing Vice-Chancellor (VC) of Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU) is less than 30 lines long without a section for previous jobs, and compares unfavourably with the detailed entries for other figures in the spotlight, including that of Phil Parry the Editor of The Eye.

For Colin Riordan it’s different

One critic who is a leading academic and author told us:  “This (Wikipedia) listing is a very sparse entry indeed. Surely alterations can’t be ‘reverted’ by Cardiff Met?!”

The full background for Colin Riordan (the Vice-Chancellor [VC] of neighbouring Cardiff University [CU]) is provided in an entry more than twice as long, with sub-headings for his career in academia, research, as well as for his personal life.

None of that is included in the record for Professor Aitchison and attempts to change it have been ‘reverted’ back to the original. Yet the university Professor Aitchison now runs has been engulfed in crisis, and commentators or potential students may want to read these details in the background.

The Eye showed how a legal request for information has been submitted about staff pay as a percentage of income at CMU implying these crucial figures have not been revealed or are false.

One bemused critic of recent changes there asked pointedly:  “…how can it be that staff costs excluding additional pension requirements are now 64% of turnover after spending all that money in 2017 to bring costs down”.

The inquiry was ‘vexatious’ apparently

But most of our own inquiries put to the university under the FOIA have been 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 Mr Parry were “vexatious”.

The disturbing news comes amid worrying information that CMU still languishes in the bottom half of most tables, although it has come up a little in recent years. In the UK’s The Complete University Guide (CUG), it is ranked 87 out of 130 and in the World University Rankings (WUR) it registers at 801. 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 then it had “nose dived”.

This should also be set against an alarming backdrop of huge ‘reforms’ at CMU which have been greeted with horror by a significant number of staff at the university, many of whom have furnished our journalists with the details. In the past many workers have told us they are “too frightened to talk” publicly about what they claim is chaos, and that leading officials who have oversight of the institution are “turning a blind eye even though a grievance has gone straight to them”.

After a meeting, staff were sent recruitment rules

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 said it was just further evidence of “more controlling and lack of trust”. The source added that it was ludicrous 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”.

Is it ‘feverish’ here?

We understand that a former deputy VC at CMU submitted a formal complaint about the running of the institution by Professor Aitchison, and a spoof Twitter site was created, which was widely followed by staff at CMU.

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.

Staff were allegedly shown the door at Cardiff Metropolitan University

Meanwhile a number of staff who left were required to sign ‘gagging’ clauses, and one angry former staff member at CMU gave us the names of others who have sought their own legal advice, after being in his words:  shown the door”.

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

The union did not fly the flag for Cardiff Metropolitan University

One 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.”

The ‘sandwich saga’ has become notorious at Cardiff Metropolitan University

Documents show that at one point CMU had set an ambitious target of reaching a level of 26,425 students by 2023, an increase of 8,810 on the figure two years ago of 17,615, while staff claimed they were under-resourced for an enlargement on this scale and students were being admitted who simply could not cope with degree work.

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 it was claimed to us that officials from Human Resources were called in.

Were the figures ‘cherry-picked’?

It 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 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”.

A health survey was allegedly postponed

The source claimed at the time that 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 was 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 Eye were told that a child has more technological intellect

Another of our sources criticised the knowledge of some staff then 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”.

Is Cardiff Metropolitan University a ‘rudderless ship’?

Even as the controversies at CMU has been kept from the mainstream media, The Eye were inundated with desperate comments from distressed academics, and one said that they were “demoralised and demotivated”. Another contact told us earlier:  “Staffing levels are completely inadequate. Sickness levels and grievances are through the roof across the university.”

A different source within the Welsh university sector said:“They are rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. A further unhappy academic told us the university was in “turmoil” and in a state of “carnage”.

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 was in charge at the university amid accusations from the academics, that it was a “rudderless ship”.

Information on certain matters was given immediately…

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

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.

Book posterIt might also be seen as “urgent” to publish the full background in a Wikipedia entry to one of Wales’ most prominent academics, even if she is in charge of a university facing an FOIA request which staff say has “nosedived” down performance tables…

 

Tomorrow – the importance of free expression in exposing worrying facts like these.

Our Editor Phil Parry’s memories of his extraordinary 37-year award-winning career in journalism (including revelations about troubled institutions) as he was gripped by the incurable disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in the major book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order the book now!