A crisis-hit Welsh university where we have exclusively revealed that staff believe the institution is in “chaos” but are too afraid to speak out publicly in a “feverish atmosphere”, has spent more than two and a half times the amount on legal fees this year compared with 12 months before, as a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) reveals 151 staff have left and been required to sign confidentiality agreements since the arrival of a controversial Vice-Chancellor (VC), it has emerged.
One of our sources at Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU) told us: “More colleagues are leaving CMU almost weekly … it beggars belief”, and added, “the atmosphere has become so distrusting that we don’t know which of our colleagues we can speak to”.
We can disclose that another staff member, who academics believe left after opposing the enormous changes launched at CMU by the contentious VC Cara Aitchison, has now found a new life at an Egyptian education institute.
A different unhappy staff member at the university was told in an FOIA response that in the financial year 2017/2018 £141,195 was spent on legal costs whereas it was just £59,610 the year before. The Eye also understand that a number of senior executives have now taken out official legal grievance cases against Professor Aitchison.
One angry former staff member at CMU has given us the names of others who have also sought legal advice, but in his words they “have been shown the door”. We understand there are attempts underway to settle the official grievances.
Yet frustration persists among 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.
The latest disturbing news is set against a background of the shock about how poorly CMU has performed in the latest table.
The university 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 questions to the university about the growing crisis under FOIA legislation have been met with a blanket refusal to provide answers. Officials have stated that the queries from our Editor Phil Parry are “vexatious”.
Meanwhile an internal document to staff at CMU detailing the huge expansion 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 calibre 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 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”.
We have also been given details of alleged “bullying” in a “toxic” atmosphere, 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 CMU as the ‘sandwich saga’.
Another 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.”
Internal information appears to confirm what we have been told, and 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 today’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.
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”.
Before the refusal to answer FOIA questions on the grounds they were “vexatious”, the university responded to an earlier request for details 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”.
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.
Hopefully future FOIA replies will not be refused to The Eye on the grounds that the questions are “vexatious”, while some staff at least know the truth about the unfolding crisis at CMU which the mainstream media continue to ignore.
University of life part two is next week.