As vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, Colin Riordan was prolific: he spoke out against the government’s inclusion of students in its net migration target, he was chair of the International Unit at Universities UK, and he served on the board of the Equality Challenge Unit.
He has even more on his plate at Cardiff University, where he took over as vice-chancellor in September, and which has more than twice as many students as Essex. What’s more, he now has to answer to the outspoken Welsh education minister, Leighton Andrews, as well as to Westminster on visa policy.
As Cardiff dominates Wales’ research output, it is “really critical to the future of Wales”, Professor Riordan said. This makes his new role “a very responsible position to take but a very exciting one as well”.
One of his priorities is to increase Cardiff’s presence abroad. It already has partnerships with Chinese universities in areas including low-carbon building and cancer research. However, Professor Riordan said he wanted to take its involvement further and begin teaching students in China, but only if Cardiff had “full control over the quality and delivery”.
“What they [Chinese partners] have is space and equipment, and what we have is expertise,” he said.
Although discussions are in the early stages, the university would start by offering postgraduate medical degrees at Capital Medical University in Beijing.
This model, where Cardiff staff would teach its own degrees abroad on a partner’s premises, would not be subject to what Professor Riordan calls the “visa risk” - the danger that in the government’s attempt to reduce net migration to under 100,000 by 2015, the number of overseas university students will be cut.
“All universities have to take that into account because no one quite knows what will happen in respect of visas,” he said.
Professor Riordan has arrived at a tumultuous time for Welsh higher education, and has already started learning Welsh. He stressed that he has been “reassured” that the Welsh government, which is currently pushing through the merger of five universities into two, will treat Cardiff “as an autonomous institution”.
But one challenge facing Cardiff and its medical school is that Welsh universities will receive less teaching money than English institutions for high-cost subjects such as medicine, dentistry, physics and engineering.
But as about 65 per cent of students at Cardiff are English-domiciled, and 15 per cent are from outside the UK, the university is not nearly as dependent on funding from the Welsh government as other institutions in the country, he said.
Professor Riordan is not the only recent change in a senior role at the university. A month after he joined, the business school appointed a new dean, Martin Kitchener, who was previously associate dean of engagement.
The business school, which has been heavily research-led, will now pursue an agenda of “balanced excellence” with more emphasis on teaching, he said.
There will also be a push to reconnect with alumni. On a recent visit to India, Professor Kitchener found that some graduates felt they had been a “bit let down” by the lack of contact with their alma mater.