University dimension emerges for Welsh-medium education

Geraint Talfan Davies describes the foundation of the new Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol which launches its new scholarship scheme next week

In 1950 my parents put me, aged seven, on a bus each day to travel from Barry to Cardiff to attend the first Welsh-medium primary school in a city that had yet to be declared the capital of Wales. It had opened a year earlier and was housed in two rooms of an Edwardian school building down the road from the Ninian Park football ground. For me the arrangement lasted only a year, as in that time my parents and other friends made arrangements to set up a Welsh-medium primary school in a church vestry in Barry itself. My sister and I were among its very first pupils. A family move to Swansea in 1952 meant that we both switched to Ysgol Lonlas, my third Welsh language primary school. But there was no Welsh-medium secondary school, so in 1955 I started at the Bishop Gore Grammar School.

A quarter of a century later, in 1980, when my own children left Ysgol Bryntaf, they were able to move to a Welsh-medium secondary school in Cardiff. Ysgol Gyfun Glantaf had opened two years earlier, and by now there are more than ten Welsh-medium primary schools and two Welsh-medium secondary schools in the city. They are a measure of the astonishing growth in Welsh-medium education throughout Wales, which has seen the total numbers in Welsh-medium secondary education grow from a standing start to nearly 40,000 over the 54 years since the establishment of Ysgol Rhydfelen in Pontypridd in 1956.

Given that rapid growth at the primary and secondary levels of education, it is not surprising that in the last decade the pressure has grown to expand the provision in higher education, where some 4,000 students are currently studying all or part of their degree courses through the medium of Welsh.

Early in this decade a campaign was begun, led by Dafydd Glyn Jones, a  distinguished academic, and co-editor of the definitive English-Welsh dictionary published in 1995. He and others argued for the creation of a separate Welsh-medium college within the University of Wales, but the idea ran into two problems – cost and the withdrawal of several higher education institutions, including two of the most active providers of Welsh-medium courses, from the quasi-federal University of Wales.

As universities grappled simultaneously with both widening access and cost pressures, the focus shifted inevitably towards teaching larger numbers, an uncomfortable climate in which to seek expansion of courses more likely to appeal to only small numbers. But it was not an issue that could be put to one side, especially in a political context in which all parties were committing themselves to the development of a bilingual Wales.

If progress was to be made an academic planning and funding mechanism had to be found that would cut through the conventional paradigm and institutional perspective to create a system that, although working with the institutions, could take a pan-Wales view and expand the Welsh-medium provision while ensuring that the limited funds available were spent to best effect.

The first step was the creation in 2007 of the Centre for Welsh Medium Higher Education (CWMHE) – a small but highly effective team, under its director, Ioan Matthews – to start the planning process.

The centre, working with academic staff from all the higher education institutions, has produced development plans for more than 20 subjects as well as postgraduate scholarship and teaching fellowship schemes that have resulted in more than 70 awards. These have been underpinned by a national staff development framework that has offered workshops and training courses designed to ensure consistent quality standards in Welsh-medium provision.

It has also developed several polished, user-friendly websites: Y Porth (The Gateway) a virtual learning environment that is designed to encourage collaborative working across Wales’s geographically dispersed institutions – a highly cost-effective basis for expanding provision; and Mantais (Advantage), both a marketing campaign – working with the further education sector and the schools – and a site that provides a comprehensive guide to Welsh-medium courses in all the institutions.

Despite the excellent work of the centre, it was felt that there was still a need for a more robust and independent institutional framework. The necessary political commitment was enshrined in the One Wales agreement between Labour and Plaid, following the 2007 Assembly elections, and soon after a planning board was established – led by the former vice chancellor of Swansea University, Professor Robin Williams – to study the various options.

It was this body that finally laid down the essential elements of what had become known as the Coleg Ffederal concept – an independent legal entity that would incorporate the CWMHE, link together all the universities, but also marry them to a range of stakeholders.

In April this year I was asked to chair a shadow board, or implementation board as it was more properly known, to put some flesh on the concept and set in place the necessary detailed work that would allow a permanent chair and board to take the reins early in 2011, with a view to having this innovative new college up and running for the 2011-12 academic year.

By September we were able to present a plan to the universities and to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales that would see the creation of a company limited by guarantee, which would bring together the universities and other stakeholders – parents, the schools, the further education sector, language organisations and, importantly, employers. The body would have a new title – Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol (The National Welsh-Medium College) – and would be run by a board of directors of 12 people plus an independent chair. Six of the directors will come from the universities, and six will represent other stakeholders, including staff and students. The board will be accountable to a body of members, which again, will be divided equally between the universities and the other stakeholders.

Importantly, although it will become the key organisation in the strategic development of Welsh-medium education, Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol will work with and through the existing institutions, as their commitment will be crucial to its success.

Things now look set fair but the challenges ahead are substantial: increasing the number of staff in the universities who can deliver courses in Welsh at the necessary standard, providing status for research and publications in Welsh, developing innovative teaching methods including distance learning, ensuring seamless collaboration across institutions in different parts of Wales, contributing to work force planning in those fields where there is an undoubted demand for Welsh-speaking graduates, and ensuring that Welsh language pathways from schools and FE colleges are smooth and attractive.

This last point is crucial, because success will be measured not so much by the increase in teaching provision as by the increase in demand. The Williams Report suggested that a target of a 50 per cent increase from the current 4,000 students within five years. That will be the biggest challenge of all.

And all this will have to be delivered against a public expenditure background of unprecedented difficulty. However, it would surely be illogical to boast of all the advances in Welsh-medium primary and secondary education without a commitment to a complementary development in higher education. Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol will provide that commitment and, along the way, perhaps set a new benchmark for collaboration and the efficient distribution of scarce resources.

This article first appeared in Cambria magazine.

Geraint Talfan Davies is the Chair of the Implementation Board of Y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and Chair of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

3 thoughts on “University dimension emerges for Welsh-medium education

  1. This is excellent news. It gives status and confidence to the language in different and new domains; will improve literacy especially in areas outside the humanities; give students the skills and confidence to use the language. I also believe it will help strengthen the bond between student, college and in the future former alumni which will contribute to the financial and academic success of the colleges and departments involved.

    As WM primary and secondary education has been a success (despite misgivings by some educationalists, authorities and parents over the years) there’s no reason to believe that the same premium and commitment and success won’t come from increasing the use of Welsh in HE too.

  2. One concern with educating undergradates and postgraduates in Welsh is when they need to publicise their work, either as an example of written work for a job application, or (in the case of research students) to showcase their research to a wider audience.

    The Welsh language has a restricted professional and academic audience, which will mean either students having to translate their work (a huge task with a Masters or PhD thesis), or only pursuing Welsh-medium job opportunities. Even if “a bilingual Wales” were created (a distant goal if anything), graduates’ options would still be limited to within Wales.

    This is meant only as a counterpoint to the argument above, that foregrounds national and civic identity concerns over and above the admittedly drier but still significant issues of mobility and opportunity.

  3. All I can say to Dave is that surely prospective students should have the choice whether or not to study courses through the medium of Welsh or English. These are people who are old enough to vote. They are surely capable of weighing up the issues themselves. It is also the case that there are many professions that need a flow of Welsh -speaking graduates but have difficulty in finding sufficient of them at present.

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