Campus close-up: Cardiff University

A Wales-funded public policy institute is to supply evidence to policymakers and create an ‘innovation culture’

May 15, 2014

For universities that want to be close to government, the competition in London is stiff: the capital hosts more than 40 higher education institutions, not to mention a wealth of thinktanks and other bodies all keen to offer their advice.

But in Wales, the capital has just four universities and only two are based solely in the city. Cardiff University is therefore in an “incredibly fortunate position”, according to Colin Riordan, the institution’s vice-chancellor.

This February saw the launch of the Public Policy Institute for Wales, a body led by and based at the university, and set up to provide independent research and evidence to the Welsh administration.

Funded by the Welsh government, the PPIW bills itself as a “link between policymakers and the research and academic communities” that aims to help improve policymaking.

The research agenda will be set by the government, which hopes to fill gaps in its evidence base, said Gareth Rees, a professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff. “You don’t have any problem getting access to ministers,” he added.

The institute has only three staff members, but its job is to assemble teams of academic experts who can offer advice, write papers or meet with ministers directly. So far it has been commissioned to look at issues including healthy lifestyles, the building of affordable homes and the disparity in educational achievement between the wealthy and the poor.

“We want to be a beacon for how universities can drive health, wellbeing and economic growth,” said Professor Riordan. And just as the PPIW is looking to use academic expertise to inform real policy, Cardiff’s new “innovation system”, he explained, will try to smooth the path between making a scientific discovery and the launch of a new commercial product.

Push towards ‘innovation culture’

New space for start-up companies and a centre for enterprise education are planned as part of Cardiff’s push towards creating more of an “innovation culture”. Professor Riordan emphasised that such initiatives would involve not only scientists but also social scientists to gauge whether new products would be socially acceptable.

“History is littered with technologies that haven’t got public acceptance”, he said, hence the need to include social scientists in the commercialisation process.

The initiative is designed to help improve the fortunes of the Welsh economy, which Professor Riordan said “really needs to develop; it needs to change”.

Another way the university may play a greater role in bringing more money into the country is through the recruitment of international students. Currently about 14 per cent of Cardiff students are from outside the EU, and Professor Riordan said it was “recognised that we need a better mix” of students. He would like to increase the overseas cohort to one in five Cardiff students.

But he added that the university was “not necessarily” planning to increase overall student numbers in the next few years.

If Cardiff can win positive headlines by helping the Welsh government and economy to succeed, this will make a welcome change from the embarrassing coverage it earned last month after bungling the appointment of the comedian Griff Rhys Jones as chancellor.

Mr Rhys Jones eventually pulled out of consideration for the role after Cardiff academics protested that the current chancellor, the Nobel prizewinning scientist Sir Martin Evans, had not been offered the opportunity to continue in the post.

In what the institution doubtless hopes will be an end to the awkward affair, a Cardiff spokesman said at the end of April that the university was “very sorry” for “creating the circumstances that led Griff Rhys Jones to step aside”.

In numbers

£400m capital investment programme

Campus news

Academics from two Scottish universities have made contributions to a seminar in Washington DC about the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on the US. During the event, which was held at the Smithsonian Institution in the American capital earlier this month, academics from the universities of Dundee and Strathclyde considered a range of topics including historic links between John Anderson, the founder of Strathclyde University, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

Northumbria University
A lecturer has won the National Award for Excellence in Teaching Sociology for an innovative approach that allows students to analyse their own lives, even in their first year of study. Carol Stephenson, programme director and principal lecturer in sociology at Northumbria University, was given the honour by the British Sociological Association and the Higher Education Academy for a module entitled Life Stories. Students on the course share their own biographies and consider how their choices have been shaped by factors such as class, gender, ethnicity, geography and sexuality.

University of Bath
Clearer images of cancer cells could be developed thanks to a collaboration between a UK university and the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Switzerland. Academics from the University of Bath will work with particle physicists at Cern to create multimodality tomography techniques that enable cancer cells to be visualised more clearly than current technology allows. It is hoped that radiologists will be able to use the images to target radiation therapy on tumours more precisely, thereby avoiding damage to nearby healthy tissue.

Soas, University of London
A new one-stop student hub is to be created at a central London institution thanks to a £332,000 donation by a philanthropic trust. Soas, University of London is to consolidate its two student service centres at one site at its Senate House campus after it received the major gift from the Garfield Weston Foundation, which is named for the Canadian-born founder of Associated British Foods.

University of Edinburgh
A species of dinosaur described as a “long-nosed cousin” of Tyrannosaurus rex has been discovered. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have nicknamed the prehistoric creature “Pinocchio rex”, and said it lived in the late Cretaceous period, until around 66 million years ago. Officially named Qianzhousaurus sinensis, the 9m-long creature was a fearsome carnivore that lived in Asia. The fossilised skeleton was discovered on a Chinese building site, and was identified by researchers from Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.

University of York
Artistic, cultural and medical perspectives on death and bereavement are being explored in Before I Die – A Festival for the Living About Dying, a week-long event aimed at encouraging people to confront end-of-life issues. The mostly free festival, which began last weekend, was organised by the University of York as part of national Dying Matters Awareness Week. It involves lectures and expert panels, poetry, music and theatre, as well as “death cafes”, which offer “a chance to discuss attitudes and questions about death in a welcoming environment over tea and cakes”.

Leeds Trinity/Bournemouth
Female Labour politicians are four times more likely to be depicted negatively by the national press than male colleagues, a study has found. A study of newspaper coverage of female MPs in the election years 1992, 2002 and 2012 by academics from Leeds Trinity University and Bournemouth University also revealed that female Conservative MPs are twice as likely as male Tories to be reported negatively, while the amount of news coverage female MPs receive relative to their proportional numbers in Parliament has declined.

University of East London
Academics are to examine whether athletes or sports teams are affected by Twitter. University of East London researchers will investigate whether postings on the social media platform influence players’ achievements, their chance of being picked for a match, their salary or their likelihood of being transferred. The project is one of only six selected for Twitter’s #DataGrants scheme from more than 1,300 applications submitted from around the world. The university, which is the only UK institution to have been chosen, will be granted access to Twitter’s public and historical data to carry out its research.

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