Cardiff has advanced from crisis to world-class status. Tony Tysome reports.
If the results of last year's research assessment exercise were a cause for back-patting up and down the country, at Cardiff University the mood was nothing short of triumphant.
The university magazine exclaimed "Magnificent Seven!", referring to Cardiff's ranking at seventh position in The THES RAE league table of excellence, its seven 5*-department ratings, and the fact that it had the seventh highest percentage of staff in units rated 5 and 5* in the exercise.
Cardiff's success has brought financial benefits from research awards and from spin-offs with a total turnover of £35 million. On the teaching front, it has had 21 subjects assessed as "excellent".
The university has made great advances in the past 14 years. Now with a new vice-chancellor, David Grant, it is looking forward to fresh challenges. Controversially, its next steps could be towards more independence from the federal University of Wales.
In 1988, things were far bleaker at the university - then University College Cardiff. Amid a financial crisis, it had to seek a £4.4 million loan from the University Grants Committee and was in effect forced to merge with the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology.
In 1989, Cardiff had just one 5-rated department in the RAE. The merged institution had an annual income if £64 million, and it attracted £7.9 million in research grants. Today, it has an income of £140 million and research awards of £50 million. It had a student population of 8,555, compared with the current 14,183, and A-level entry scores averaged 18 points, against today's 24.
By 1992, the university ranked 35th in the RAE and had five grade-5 departments. Four years later, it had moved up to 15th place, with one department rated 5*, 12 rated 5 and 11 rated 4.
Louise Casella, Cardiff's senior executive and director of planning, recalled how the senior managers felt as they got news of the 1996 results.
"We had concentrated on reshaping departments and building research strength. Even the most optimistic among us thought that 20th would be good. The result was beyond our wildest dreams. It was a public demonstration that we had turned the university around."
Dr Grant, who took over as vice-chancellor last September, described the 2001 RAE results as "a wonderful gift to an incoming vice-chancellor". And he wants to ensure that the advances continue. "The success of Cardiff was very apparent. That is why I am keen to establish that there is no complacency or a feeling that 'we have made it'. I have to set even more challenging objectives."
He will use the foundations Cardiff has laid in its rise to success to build towards new goals.
His experience as director of technology for GEC has given him a keen appreciation of the flat management structures he has found at Cardiff. "I have learnt that you have to be fast if you are to succeed. I have been surprised at how easy it is to communicate here. Proposals have been looked at by the senior team in a matter of hours, rather than days."
Another of Cardiff's strengths has been its willingness to invest in people. Kevin Morgan, professor of city and regional planning, joined Cardiff in 1990. He said: "The university struck a judicious balance between bringing in quality people and being prepared to invest in organic growth."
Bob Snowden, head of the school of psychology, has been at Cardiff since 1994. He said he and his department had enjoyed "tremendous support" from the university. It moved up from a 5 to a 5* rating partly as a result of "taking people who were national level last time up to international level this time, rather than just bringing in a few superstars".
A crucial platform in Cardiff's climb was its decision to start a fellowship scheme in 1998. This attracted 46 researchers from all over the world, which helped it achieve its lofty status.
The key to further success, Dr Grant believes, is likely to be the growth of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work within Cardiff and in collaboration with outside institutions. "We have some very big pillars of strength. We have to build bridges between them and also to other institutions outside."
Building bridges may be easier in the near future if the geographical and functional clusters of institutions proposed in the Welsh Assembly's recent higher education review become reality. The review also offers Cardiff the prospect of a proposed merger with the University of Wales College of Medicine and the possibility of Cardiff's awarding its own degrees rather than those of the federal University of Wales.
Talks are under way about the possible merger, and the university has begun the two-year process towards using its degree-awarding powers (it had agreed to give two years' notice should it decide to implement them). Dr Grant is pragmatic about the impact the latter might have on the federal university.
"Cardiff was one of the three founding members of the federal university in 1893. But with the growth of higher education, particularly in the past 20 years, its member institutions have became relatively large. It has reached the stage where it has satisfied a purpose, but we must move on."
The fact that Cardiff can easily contemplate such a move shows how far it has come since the desperate times of 1988 and how much the university has grown in confidence.
Dr Grant said: "If people can see success in the recent past, it fuels them with enthusiasm for what can be done in the future."
The road to health
1988 Cash crisis forces merger of University College Cardiff and University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology
1989 Cardiff gets one 5-rated department in research assessment exercise
1989-92 Departments rationalised and estate refurbished
1992 Cardiff ranked 35th in RAE, with five grade 5s
1993 Brian Smith, former principal of St Catherine's College Oxford, becomes v-c
1996 Cardiff ranked 15th in RAE, with one department rated 5* and 12 rated 5
1997 Degree-awarding powers granted but not used
1998 Cardiff joins the Russell Group and adopts the public name Cardiff University. Cardiff fellowship scheme launched
2001 David Grant, former director of technology for GEC, appointed v-c Cardiff ranked seventh in RAE, with seven departments graded 5* and 17 graded 5
Application process to use degree-awarding powers starts
RESEARCH STARS THAT HELPED LIFT CARDIFF UPWARD
In touch with many tongues
"English is not everywhere in the world, and it's not always as clear as it used to be," said Theo van Leeuwen, who is undertaking a five-year study of globalisation's effect on language.
It will look at how different cultures are affected by the view of "language as a form of American imperialism".
Professor van Leeuwen leads a team at Cardiff's Centre for Language and Communication Research in the university's 5*-rated School of English, Communication and Philosophy. He came to Cardiff for its research fellowship programme. He did not get a fellowship, but he was later offered a chair.
The globalisation and languages project is supported by a £1 million grant from the Leverhulme Trust - one of the biggest grants ever awarded to a humanities programme in Wales.
It will explore the role of transnational corporations in languages translation; tourism as a global cultural industry; Welsh language and identity under globalisation; and the influence of globalisation on language and cultural change.
Professor van Leeuwen explained: "It is often suggested that globalisation is leading to the imposition of a 'world English' and the death of other languages. In fact, the large American companies now believe that you have to sell to people in their own language, and they employ increasing numbers of linguists."
Bridges to a better portfolio
Widening the research portfolio of civil engineering in Cardiff's School of Engineering helped raise its RAE rating from a 5 to a 5* this time, according to civil engineering head Hywel Thomas.
Environmental water management was included for the first time, in addition to geo-environmental engineering; concrete and masonry structures; and structural analysis and informatics.
"We made general improvements across the board, plus an important strategic decision to widen our research portfolio," he said.
Projects that came out of the wider range of activities included an investigation into flooding and the encroachment of Japanese knotweed along river banks throughout Britain, and a major environmental and humanitarian programme to prevent arsenic poisoning in the water supplies for up to 80 million people in India and Bangladesh.
The school won a teaching company scheme award last year for its involvement in research into the use of acoustic emission equipment to detect micro-cracks in bridges.
In yet another project, researchers tested the structural properties of bridges by spinning models of them at high speed in a geotechnical centrifuge.
Open approach to learning
Interdisciplinary research not only helped education researchers in Cardiff's School of Social Sciences carry off its first 5* rating: it was a fundamental feature of the kind of research projects they were tackling.
Gareth Rees, the school's deputy director, explained: "The way our education research is defined has not focused solely on schools, but on lifelong learning."
One implication of that is a need to work with institutions that span a wide range of sectors and specialisms.
"Our argument is that interdisciplinary research is not only a good thing, but that it is necessary to understand educational problems, such as patterns of participation or levels of attainment."
One project, which was funded by a £1.3 million grant from the Medical Research Council, involved training groups of school children to discourage their colleagues from picking up the smoking habit. Another sought views from the public and educationists across Wales on the impact of Welsh educational research.