Welsh universities must adapt or die

Leighton Andrews argues that our higher education institutions are too small to operate effectively or internationally and are holding us back

Can anyone doubt that there has to be a rapid and fundamental change to the landscape of higher education in Wales? Successive evidence points to the need for fewer institutions with greater critical mass, building on respective strengths rather than wasting resources competing with neighbours.

The merger initiative that is developing in south west Wales – between Trinity St David’s University, Swansea Metropolitan University and the further education colleges in the region – is a step in the right direction. I hope that it will be followed across the whole of Wales.

The Welsh Government’s policy document For our Future identified the need for radical change in the shape, structure and provision of higher education in Wales. The key issues that had to be tackled included:

  • Deficiencies in addressing areas of low participation, low skills and low aspiration.
  • Failure to identify part-time worked-based provision as core business.
  • A deficit in Wales’s research capacity in comparison to the UK.
  • Consistent failure to implement structural change and mergers.

Wales has been held back for years by too many institutions which are too small to cut a mark internationally, too small to operate effectively and efficiently, and too small to respond to the growing pressure of international competition. The fact that only 36 per cent of higher education institutions in Wales have an annual income which is above the UK median, a situation that has changed little over many years, is an indictment on the failure of the sector to grasp the need for real change.

The findings of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Review, commissioned by the Welsh Government and published earlier this year, highlighted the inefficiencies within the system that stopped money getting to the education frontline. Higher education in Wales spends 48 per cent of its budget delivering front-line services of teaching, research and knowledge transfer, and 52 per cent on support services. This inequity in resource allocation has to be rectified.

While our Frontline Services Review will have a major impact in driving out these inefficiencies, it is also critical to ensure that mergers and collaboration bring quantifiable cost savings and proven reduction in back office functions. I am pleased to see that Trinity St David’s statement of intent Transforming Education, Transforming Lives identifies the merger of management, academic and support services as a central plank of its proposals for south west Wales.

I am the third Education Minister– fourth if you include the First Minister’s seven week stretch in this role before the One Wales Government was formed – to make it clear that we are looking to see major transformation in the sector, and a reconfiguration of higher education provision in Wales based on greater institutional integration and mergers.

There are a number of approaches to driving higher education reform.

First, there is the use of market forces, now underway in England, following the Browne review. We do not wish to se the development of a market in higher education where institutions compete on price and students choose their courses or institutions on the basis of relative cost. Equality of opportunity, strong community ties and a rich cultural and linguistic heritage cannot be left to the market. The stat cannot shirk its responsibility to intervene to secure inclusion and to build community cohesion.

Second, there is the use of incentives. We tried that, with the Reconfiguration and Collaboration Fund. It had success at the margins. But as the Assembly’s all-party Audit Committee found last year, progress “fell short of what the Assembly Government wanted to happen” – pointing, in their words, “to the need for a sea change in the relationship between the Welsh Government and higher education institutions.”

Third, there is the use of core funding to drive reconfiguration and collaboration. That was what the Audit Committee recommended and that is what I implemented, in my remit letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales this year. What I called a planned approach to higher education reform is a marked contrast to the market approach in England.

Of course, it is better to use core funding to drive change in a time of rising budgets. But the higher education sector in Wales has had a decade of rising budgets and I’m afraid that overall, with some worthy exceptions, higher education managements have failed to respond adequately to our agenda.

So, failing to respond is costing the sector money. We carry on with a planned approach to higher education, but we now look to the sector to address the inefficiencies in higher education on lower budgets. As the King James bible says, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” My message to higher education institutions throughout Wales is, ‘adapt or die’.

Against a backdrop of economic recession, and the squeeze on public finances, which we are now experiencing across the board – higher education and its various sources of funding was always going to be under scrutiny.

Even so, they are more generous budgets over forthcoming years than are predicted in England. In England, university teaching budgets are set to fall some 80 per cent over the period of the Comprehensive Spending Review. The UK Government is making deep cuts in the University teaching grant in England and shifting the burden of paying for higher education from the state to the graduate. In the Welsh Government’s response, our higher education institutions will still enjoy a higher level of teaching grant support than institutions in England.

It is against this background that I want to address the announcement by Lord Browne and our response to the implications of Browne and the UK Government’s approach to fees.

The Browne recommendations on the future of higher education funding in England will move higher education towards a market system based on full or near full cost fees. 16,000 students travel from Wales to England. If we did nothing the costs to the Welsh Government would rise to £70 million, £55 million of which would flow from the Welsh block into English higher education institutions.

The Welsh Government has a responsibility to Welsh-domiciled students, wherever they choose to study. We also have a responsibility to ensure that Wales benefits, economically, socially and culturally from the investment the Government makes in higher education in Wales. Central to our policy is the principle that access to higher education should be on the basis of the individual’s potential to benefit, and not on the basis of what they can afford to pay.

The UK Government is making deep cuts in the University teaching grant in England and shifting the burden of paying for higher education from the state to the graduate. This will, we believe, result in a largely market-based system where institutions increasingly compete on cost not quality. That is why the proposals I announced last week will ensure that while our universities will be able to compete successfully against their counterparts in England, Welsh students who go to university in 2012-13 will be paying the same in real terms as students who go to university in this academic year.

The non-means-tested tuition fee waiver, or grant, being introduced by the Welsh Government will provide students with the subsidy necessary to support the balance over and above current fee levels. This grant will be payable through the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales on behalf of Welsh domiciled students whether they study in England or Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland.

However, I suggest that university managements read the small print of my statement last week. There will be no automatic progression to the new fees regime – that will be for the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales to sign off. We have made it clear we support the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales’ corporate strategy. There will be fewer higher education institutions in Wales by 2013 and fewer vice-chancellors.

That does not mean fewer students or fewer campuses. The higher education institutions that remain will have critical mass and will be able to drive forward our agenda. Access to the new fees regime will depend on the willingness of university managements to progress swiftly to merger and reconfiguration. S0, Higher Education Wales – read the small print.

In Wales we have long seen education as a dynamic force, not only the key to individual personal development and opportunity, but also the key to social equality and economic improvement. This concept of education as a social good is a central tenet in For our Future, with its emphasis on collaboration and its focus on social justice and economic improvement. It is the opposite of the market driven model being developed in England.

Leighton Andrews is Minister for Education. This article is based on the keynote presentation he made to the IWA’s conference ‘Building a Confederal University in South West Wales’, held at the University of Wales Trinity St David’s in Carmarthen on 3 December.

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