Leighton Andrews delivers a wake up call to universities

Days of Higher Education institutions being the “last resting place of the crachach” are numbered

John Osmond is Director if the IWA

Devolution was vehemently opposed by the Higher Education establishment during the 1970s and in the event universities were kept out of the 1978 Welsh Assembly Bill. When it came to the 1998 legislation the universities were in but with the caveat that, unlike the Welsh Development Agency for instance, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, established in 1992, could not be abolished by the Welsh Government. It was one of those protected Quangos in the 1998 Wales Act to which functions could only be added.

This may explain some of the frustration that lay behind the remarkable speech delivered by Education Minister Leighton Andrews at Cardiff University’s Regeneration Institute a week ago. The speech, Leadership in Higher Education – in difficult times, was remarkable on a number of fronts. Coming from a Labour Minister it was strongly nationalistic in tone, urging a specific Welsh response to the funding and organisational crisis that faces Welsh higher education. It was highly prescriptive and radical in its demands. Above all it was unambiguous in declaring that today’s Higher Education governing bodies should either get their act together and fall in line behind the Welsh Government or face the consequences. What these might be I shall speculate on later, but the tone was uncompromising. This paragraph from the speech has provoked a lot of comment:

“I was interested to learn recently that some members of university governing bodies have been appointed on the basis of a phone call. Who you know not what you know. It appears that HE governance in post devolution Wales has become the last resting place of the crachach.”

Earlier the Minister said:

“Institutions appear not to recognise that the world has moved on since devolution in 1999, and that, to all intents and purposes, they are very much part of a Welsh HE sector and a wider Welsh public sector. Indeed, I am not clear – eleven years after the National Assembly was created, and thirteen years after our historic referendum vote – that the Higher Education sector in Wales welcomes devolution or democratic accountability at all”.

And he added:

“I believe the legal and administrative set up we have gives us a halfway house. We have institutions that are on paper organisationally free but in reality would collapse without public funding support; that in theory are geared to be responsive and pro-active, but in reality appear cautious and conservative. A cautious and conservative sector is not what Wales needs right now. We are, after all, surrounded by countries whose Higher Education institutions are fighting for business”.

If all this is not a wake-up call to Vice Chancellors across Wales I don’t know what is. Leighton Andrews paid lip service to some of their achievements but the bottom line was delivered in five bullets that brutally summarised their shortcomings:

  • We have had more higher education institutions per head than any other part of the UK but have failed to break free from the bottom end of the UK growth and prosperity table.
  • Our Higher Education institutions are small compared with those just over the border.
  • For all the achievements of Higher Education institutions, they have had only a limited transformative impact on our economy, and on our global presence and reputation.
  • We are not having a high enough impact in terms of the quality and quantity of our research.
  • For too many in Wales, higher education remains a distant, and irrelevant activity, clouded in mystery.

Andrews said he recognised the autonomy of Higher Education institutions – their ability to raise diverse sorts of funding, determine their own curricula, appoint staff, and so on. But then he put the knife in:

“However, we have a responsibility to ensure that our own investment of around £450 million is effective in delivering the best value for Wales.”

What might that be? Andrews’ priorities are in the process of emerging, but the outline is pretty clear from his speech:

  • More collaboration, if not outright merger between institutions. For instance, the resistance of the University of Glamorgan and UWIC to collaboration, let alone merger is plainly in his sights.
  • The imminent creation of a University of the Heads of the Valleys, the result of collaboration between the University of Glamorgan, the University of Wales, Newport, and FE providers, will allow access to higher education for a much wider range of disadvantaged people than ever before. More than £110 million of Welsh Government funding has been set aside for Merthyr’s Learning Quarter and Blaenau Gwent’s Learning Works.
  • The Welsh Government wants similar approaches to widening access and collaboration between FE and HE across north Wales and south west Wales.
  • More resources should be concentrated on frontline teaching and research instead of administration. Andrews wants to get more out of less funding in future. He quoted from his recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultancy report on education funding which showed that 48 per cent of HE spending goes on learning and teaching, including research and knowledge transfer, while the other 52 per cent is used up by ‘support services’. For Andrews this is the wrong priority.
  • Creating a better fit for higher education with the Welsh Government’s economic priorities for the digital economy, the low carbon economy, health and biosciences, and advanced engineering and manufacturing.
  • Enhancing a strong cultural and civic role for Welsh higher education, in particular helping “to develop international understanding of the Welsh experience”.

This, indeed, is a transformative agenda. If he is successful Leighton Andrews will uproot long-held attitudes within Higher Education in Wales. Broadly these have regarded Wales as essentially a parochial backwater, not warranting much attention let alone research, which has been sidelined in an effort to achieve UK if not global recognition.

In his speech Leighton Andrews characterised this outlook as “metropolitan provincialism”. He said there were encouraging signs that, at least among some academics in the university, it was being broken. He cited the creation of the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales, the formation of the Welsh Institute for socio-Economic Data and Methods (WISERD), and the establishment of History Research Wales, as examples of academics across the institutions coming together to promote a Welsh agenda. As a result, the “Welsh experience is capable of being seen not as regional but as international in its implications and impact”.

However, such initiatives were confined to a small number of academic staff, mainly in the humanities. As Andrews put it, some “academics are grasping the nettle. It is time for university administrations to follow them”.

In groundbreaking speeches such as these as much can be read between the lines as within them. The driving force in what happens to higher education in Wales is the body that holds the purse strings, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). As things stand this organisation is protected by legislation. It cannot simply be thrown on the bonfire, as Rhodri Morgan’s 2003-07 Government did with the Welsh Development Agency, the Wales Tourist Board and Elwa, the further education funding body.

Nevertheless, in his speech Leighton Andrews threw a couple of shots across the HEFCW’s bows. Earlier this spring he said he had made it clear to HEFCW “that they needed to consider whether their role as a buffer between Government and Higher Education institutions means that they act as a moderator of policy rather than a deliverer”. In other words, HEFCW should be pursuing the Welsh Government’s priorities.

Earlier Andrews recalled how in the late 1980s Cardiff University nearly went bankrupt. The then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was against a bail out, arguing that Cardiff should be used as an example to the University world that it had to live within its means or go bust. Despite this Nicholas Edwards, then Secretary of State for Wales, offered the University £1 million from Welsh Office funds towards a package that resulted in solvency. Commenting on this episode Andrews said:

“I am often reminded of that story when people tell me how essential it is that higher education should be funded by governments on an arms length basis.”

In other words, if HEFCW doesn’t follow the Welsh Government’s diktat, it can anticipate it’s arm’s length function being eviscerated. This couldn’t happen this side of next year’s Assembly election. But assuming a similar administration afterwards, and with the Assembly acquiring greater legislative powers following a referendum, the days of HEFCW could be numbered. Like the WDA and the Tourist Board before it, it could simply be taken in-house, with the result that the universities in Wales (including Cardiff) will be subject to precisely what the Welsh Government wants.

They can’t say they haven’t been warned.

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