A controversial Vice-Chancellor (VC) at a headline grabbing Welsh university where workers say they are “too frightened to talk” is ‘off sick’ for two months, and angry staff have asked us who now is in charge, The Eye can reveal.
They have been told the responsibilites of Cara Aitchison the contentious head of Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU), are to be taken over by the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group (VCEG) as she leaves “for the next two months due to an underlying health condition”.
But a furious contact has told us: “So now both VC and DVC (Deputy Vice-Chancellor) are ‘off sick’ and the senior VCEG team has only three people, two of whom have no experience at that level. Who on earth is in charge?”.
The latest extraordinary details are set against a disturbing backdrop after we were contacted by numerous academics at CMU who say they cannot speak out 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”. The Eye have received alarming complaints that the new people who have been brought in are of low calibre, and subservient to Professor Aitchison.
After a recent meeting of the VCEG, unhappy staff have been 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 one of our ‘whistleblowers’ at CMU says it is just further evidence of “more controlling and lack of trust”.
The source adds that it has 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 senior executive 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. Our journalists 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 was spent on legal fees compared with the year before, and the astonishing events at the university have become a source of amusement for our satirical writer Edwin Phillips.
It has been alleged by a number of staff who left and contacted us, that they have been required to sign ‘gagging’ clauses. One angry former staff member at CMU has given us the names of others who have sought their own legal advice, but in his words they “have been shown the door”. We also understand there have been attempts made to settle the official grievances.
But The Eye have also received a huge number of critical comments from academics that the mainstream media in Wales continue to ignore the mounting crisis at CMU, as officials have undertaken the enormous alterations needed to accommodate thousands of extra students.
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.”
Documents show that CMU has set an ambitious target of reaching a level of 26,425 students by 2023, an increase of 8,810 on last year’s figure of 17,615, while staff claim they are under-resourced for an enlargement on this scale and students are being admitted who simply cannot cope with degree work. Yet it seems the massive changes at the university have done little to improve its performance. It is now ranked 108 in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019 – which means it has plunged 18 places in only a year. 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 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 our Editor Phil Parry were “vexatious”.
It is clear though that all is not as it should be within CMU. We have been 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. The event became notorious within the university as the ‘sandwich saga’.
It has all come as another internal document to staff at CMU, and passed to us, has been 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 have analysed the statistics given in the document and are 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 claims there are major differences in anticipated turnover in the paper for 2018/19 to the statistic given in the Strategic Plan for CMU, and continues: “So which figure is correct? The previously published strategic plan or the latest Pravda update?”.
A staff survey of Health and Wellbeing has now been carried out after we revealed it had been postponed, but the timing has been questioned by staff who claim 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 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 are 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 the latest says they are “demoralised and demotivated”. One 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”.
Earlier examples of alleged ‘sick leave’ were completely denied by CMU.
The university responded to our request for details under the FOIA flatly denying information from one of our contacts that Professor Aitchison and her deputy were off sick 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”.
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.
Perhaps Professor Aitchison’s ‘sick leave’ is also urgent.
The staff at CMU certainly think her leave should be urgent…
Tomorrow – why another of Wales’ universities has hit the headlines.
Our Editor Phil Parry’s memories of his 35-year award-winning career in journalism as he was gripped by the incurable disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), will soon be released in a major new book ‘A Good Story’.