Dual sector revolution comes to Wales

The higher and further education systems are undergoing a transformation in Wales

A revolution is underway in the organisation of universities and further education colleges across Wales that will transform the whole of the country’s learning system within five years. The aim is to radically reduce the number of institutions, promote collaboration, increase subject choice, give greater emphasis to vocational qualifications, enhance Welsh medium education, and put more of the education budget into frontline delivery. What is happening is the realisation of the objectives set out in the Welsh Government’s policy document For our Future, the 21st Century Higher Education Strategy and Plan for Wales published last November.

IWA Conference, Carmarthen 3 December

Opportunities for a Confederal University in South West Wales

The emergence of the new University of Wales Trinity Saint David and its developing links with Swansea Metropolitan University, Pembrokeshire College, Coleg Sir Gâr, and other schools and colleges throughout south west Wales, are explored in this major conference. For more details click here to download the event flyer

A two-tier university system is emerging. Some universities, no more than four – Cardiff, Swansea, Aberystwyth, and Bangor – will concentrate on being academic, research-led institutions, although some will also extend their links into futher education. The remainder will become ‘dual sector’ universities and will connect in new ways with further education colleges and schools in delivering courses more related to vocational skills and engaging with their local economies.

Three new regions are emerging for the dual sector universities: south west Wales, the Heads of the Valleys and north and mid Wales. It is likely that rationalisation will also take place in Swansea Bay, and the south-east Wales coastal belt involving Glamorgan University, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, and University of Wales, Newport. In some places change is being resisted by institutions anxious to cling on to their autonomy and identity. However, the ‘transformation agenda’, as it is known, is being driven vigorously by Education Minister Leighton Andrews. In a remarkable speech delivered at Cardiff University in June he made it clear that unless progress was speeded up he would seek more powers to direct universities to move in the direction he wants. He hinted that, if necessary, legislation could be sought to bring the Higher Education Funding Council within the control of the Government as happened to the Welsh Development Agency (see www.clickonwales.org, 1 June).

Even so, remarkable changes are already happening. The most advanced and one which is providing a potential template for the rest of the country, is in south west Wales. Here a confederal ‘dual sector’ university is being created, led by the newly merged Trinity St David University that has brought together Lampeter and Trinity College, Carmarthen. In June it announced that it would be merging with Swansea Metropolitan University and forming an alliance with Coleg Sir Gâr in Carmarthen, Pembrokeshire College and Coleg Ceredigion. This will bring together more than 170,000 students (although not all will be full-time equivalent) making it the fourth largest higher education institution in Wales.

Meanwhile, a new University of the Heads of the Valleys is being established as a result of collaboration between the University of Wales, Newport and Glamorgan University to focus on the needs of economically inactive and unemployed learners. The Welsh Government is providing £10 million over the next three years which will complement European Social Fund funds to deliver new foundation and work-based Higher Education routes. The new University will have two purpose built main campuses, the Merthyr Tydfil Learning Quarter and a Learning Zone on the site of the former Corus steelworks at Ebbw Vale. Each will also involve a rationalisation of post-16 tertiary education, entailing collaboration between secondary schools and further and higher education.

A longer-term prospect is a confederal dual sector university for north and mid Wales, including Bangor University, Aberystwyth University, Glyndwr University, Coleg Llandrillo Cymru and Coleg Meirion Dwyfor which merged in April, and other further education institutions and schools in the region.

A dual sector university is defined in the Transforming  Education Transforming Lives mission document that launched the south west Wales initiative in June as, “a group structure which brings together both further and higher education institutions within a geographical region. It establishes a dual sector configuration to take forward shared resources, planning, academic and research activity and single management structures to deliver tangible benefits for learners”.

Research continues to be part of a dual sector university’s mission, but the activities are vocationally orientated and closely linked to the needs of the local economy. So, for example, in the south west Wales the following research priorities have been identified: professional development for those working in the public sector, heritage and tourism, rural health and social care, the creative industries, rural sustainability and landscape management, and education.

All this chimes with a Welsh Government statement presented to the National Assembly’s Enterprising and Learning Committee at the end of April reporting on progress with the ‘transformation agenda’. It says that by 2012 all 14-year-old pupils in Wales should be able to choose from a minimum of 30 subjects, including at least five vocational courses. There will be minimum course requirements for learners at post 16.

The Welsh Baccalaureate, it says, combines the personal and generic skills with vocational or academic qualifications and learning: it “helps learners achieve more, be better equipped for further study and the world of work and to be better informed, more active citizens”. This September 80 per cent of schools and FE colleges in Wales will be offering the Welsh Baccalaureate, to some 53,000 learners in 217 centres.

The Government is establishing three regional forums to facilitate cross-county border co-operation for delivering Welsh-medium and bilingual 14-19 education in north, south west, and south Wales. It is also establishing a framework for co-operation between Higher Education and post-16 provision to enhance progression pathways into post-19 education and training.

Underpinning these developments is a remarkable programme of mergers of institutions across Wales designed to reduce overheads and release money for frontline education:

  • Coeg Llandrillo Cymru and Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor merged in April creating a combined budget of £45 million, and delivering education and training to 45,000 students. The intention is that the new organisation will eventually also merge with Coleg Menai.
  • Deeside College and the Welsh College of Horticulture in Northop merged in August
  • Deeside College and Coleg Llysfasi will merge in August this year.
  • A new campus, part of a city regeneration project is planned for Swansea and Gorseinon Colleges which will merge and become Gower College in August.
  • A merger between Barry College and Coleg Glanhafren in Cardiff will begin this summer and is planned to be completed by 2013.
  • Blaenau Gwent, Coleg Gwent and Newport University are working on plans to deliver integrated tertiary education in the new Learning Zone in Ebbw Vale.
  • The Workers Educational Association in south Wales and Coleg Harlech (WEA North) have undertaken a feasibility study and are planning to merge next year.
  • Mergers between Glyndŵr University and Yale College in Wrexham, and between Ystrad Mynach College and Coleg Gwent are being considered.

One way or another such enhanced collaboration, often leading to mergers, are being pursued in every corner of Wales. Overall the objective is the creation of a learning network that puts the interests of learners before the institutions. The aim is a more integrated and flexible higher education system to allow access by a wider range of people. As For our Future puts it,

“We expect to see more visibility and choice of ways to access higher education, including through systematic progression pathways from post-16 learning and the workplace. We want many more people in Wales to experience higher education, and be equipped with higher level skills. For many this will mean an experience of higher learning which will be shorter, more timely, and fitted more flexibly around their lives and livelihoods”.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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