Internal documents supplied by a source at one of Wales’ most controversial universities, show it has strengthened a code of practice on freedom of speech, despite the fact The Eye had been informed that officials have turned “a blind eye” to a grievance, a Freedom of Information request from us was refused, and how our questions about events inside the institution were sent to a senior executive marked “urgent” but there has been no reply.
The latest information is set against a disturbing backdrop after we were contacted by numerous academics at Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU) who say they are “too frightened to talk” publicly about what they claim is chaos.
One contact at CMU has told our journalists that it had become madness at the institution, declaring: “It’s starting to go mad again”.
Another said 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 were a subject for our satirical writer Edwin Phillips.
These remarkable episodes cast an interesting light on efforts by CMU to strengthen freedom of speech at the university.
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”.
However this resolution sits uneasily with recent affairs, especially questions from The Eye marked “urgent” about whether CMU’s contentious Vice-Chancellor (VC) Cara Aitchison was working normally, but have gone unanswered, and that leading officials who have oversight of the institution were “turning a blind eye even though a grievance has gone straight to them”.
Other incidents also paint a rather different picture of what is happening inside CMU.
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 told us that it was just further evidence of “more controlling and lack of trust”.
We understand also that a deputy Vice-Chancellor at CMU had submitted a formal complaint about the running of the institution by Professor Aitchison, and a spoof Twitter site was created, which was being widely followed by staff at CMU.
Meanwhile a number of staff who left have been required to sign ‘gagging’ clauses, and one angry former staff member at CMU has given us the names of those who have sought their own legal advice, but in his words they “have been 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 the mounting crisis at CMU as officials have undertaken the enormous alterations needed to accommodate thousands of extra students.
One of our sources 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.”
CMU documents other than the ‘Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech’ minutes, show that the university set an ambitious target of reaching a level of 26,425 students by 2023, an increase of 8,810 on the figure three years ago, 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.
Yet it seems the massive changes at the university did little to improve its performance.
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. One of our contacts 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.
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.
It has all come as a different internal paper 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 this past paper 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”.
This 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 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 WellbeingSurvey conducted last month’”.
Another of our sources criticised the knowledge of some staff, then new 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”.
One contact told us: “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 had told us the university was in “turmoil” and in a state of “carnage”.
The university responded to a 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 is in charge at the university amid accusations from the academics, that it is 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”.
Outwardly the university may seem ‘normal’ after it strengthened its Freedom of Speech Code, but the truth is that a Freedom of Information request from The Eye was refused, and our questions about events inside the institution were sent to a senior executive marked “urgent” but there has been no reply…
Next week – more disturbing revelations at the universities sector in Wales.
Tomorrow – further evidence that the rules on impartiality in reporting alarming incidents, need to be strengthened.
Phil’s memories of his extraordinary long, award-winning career in journalism (which included revealing astounding details of life inside Welsh universities) as he was gripped by the incurable neurological disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major 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.