The battle for Welsh universities

Gethin Williams says Leighton Andrews should switch roles from scourge to champion in his efforts to reorganise Higher Education

Such was the impact made by Leighton Andrews during his relatively short first period as Education Minister – he was appointed in December 2009 – that he was tipped by some to take on the problematic Business, Enterprise and Technology portfolio in the new Welsh Government. However, in line with the Minister’s declared ambitions and the momentum for reform he had generated, it was wisely decided to let him get on with the completion of ‘unfinished business’.

This will provide a formidable test of his political will and skills since the reforms to which he is committed require widespread strategic change and dramatic improvements in performance. These will take time and be difficult to achieve in the face of constraining cultural, institutional and legal realities. They may also require a less confrontational approach than that so far employed, albeit with notable successes. His preferred open, plain speaking and combative style has been particularly evident in his approach to Higher Education.

IWA and Cardiff University Lecture

6pm Wednesday 29 June, Julian Hodge Lecture Theatre, Cardiff Business School

Education Minister Leighton Andrews AM

Improving School Standards

In February the Permanent Secretary predicted that the Welsh Government’s robust response to the poor PISA education attainment published last December will prove a transformational moment in the first 20 years of devolution. In this keynote lecture for education policy in the fourth Assembly, the new Welsh Government’s Education Minister Leighton Andrews will set out in detail how he intends to make this happen.

To attend the lecture register here

As the third minister charged with transforming higher education in Wales, Leighton Andrews bristled with impatience and frustration over the collective failure to achieve the reconfiguration sought in Reaching Higher, the Welsh Government’s first major policy statement on Higher Education published by Jane Davidson in 2002.

When Jane Hutt published For Our Future: The 21st Century Higher Education Strategy and Plan for Wales in November 2009, she acknowledged that while Reaching Higher had played a useful role in setting out a vision, it had failed to prompt the necessary response from the sector to achieve it. This was no longer acceptable. Welsh Higher Education needed to change and change fast. The need for step change was acknowledged in the Jones Report (see Agenda, Spring 2010, pp 62-63), the sector’s self-appraisal commissioned by Jane Hutt. No opportunity was missed in For Our Future to invoke the findings of Jones to substantiate critical evaluations and justify reform. The new policy statement was a much stronger, unambiguous challenge to Higher Education in Wales than Reaching Higher. It left few doubts about the Welsh Government’s expectations and the means by which they were to be fulfilled.

Armed with For Our Future Leighton Andrews took on the sector with vigour and determination. Not for him the kind of ‘concordat’ favoured by Jones and endorsed by Hutt. He much preferred robust confrontation, open discourse and debate and the establishment of clear lines of accountability between the Welsh Government, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the universities. Last year in high profile appearances in academic settings, most notably on 25 May at Cardiff University and on 5 December at Trinity St David’s University, he made no bones about his intention to mount a sustained assault on an unresponsive sector.

In his keynote address delivered to the IWA Conference Opportunities of a Confederal University for South West Wales, held at Carmarthen in December, he was explicit and unequivocal about the need of Welsh universities to adapt or die, indicting the sector for a failure over many years to face up to the need for real change. Drawing on evidence from several sources to corroborate his case, he concluded that Wales had been held back for years by too many institutions which were 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 Minister’s ability to keep up the pressure was facilitated by a constellation of circumstances which shifted the balance of power, authority and influence significantly in his favour, a shift which he used to implement a radical agenda. Further evidence of his political acumen is seen in the institutional weaknesses he identified for external scrutiny.

The first was the size of the general administrative overhead carried by institutions, diverting scarce resources from ‘front line’ services to ‘back office’ bureaucracy. The consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers were brought in to identify the scope throughout education for a correction of this imbalance. And, indeed, their initial report uncovered potential for significant rebalancing in higher education. The findings of the PwC Review (based, it is claimed, on a flawed model but not forensically challenged) were among the arrows fired at the leaders of HE at Cardiff on 25 May 2010, who were directed to look very carefully to the deployment of resources in their own organisations.

The second area identified by Leighton Andrews for external scrutiny was university governance. This time the task was given to a formidable Task and Finish Group, the membership of which was announced on 14 July. Chaired by the former Controller of BBC Scotland John McCormick, the Group was asked to carry out a thorough, rigorous and analytical consideration of the purpose, the underlying principles, and the operational and legislative framework of our current system of governance in HE.

The Minister had already set out his stall the previous March in an address given at a Governors Development Day organised by the Chairmen of Higher Education Wales. We do not want governing bodies to act simply as a bunch of cheer-leaders for university management. Rather, he invited chairs and governors to become central agents in supporting and taking responsibility for delivery of national priorities and the meeting of national needs.

Few opportunities were missed to drive these messages home and they featured prominently in the May 2010 Cardiff lecture. On this occasion they were accompanied by critical observations (derived from anecdotal evidence) of the way governors were appointed, such that Higher Education governance in Wales had become the last resting place of the crachach. This gratuitous gibe did little to endear the Minister to those he wished to recruit to his cause. They find their unpaid roles onerous and demanding. Agendas are long and challenging; supporting documentation is voluminous, often esoteric and technical, requiring many hours of preparation for the conscientious member with time to spare.

The level of expectation, already high, will rise much further if the recommendations of the McCormick Report Achievement and accountability published in March this year are implemented in full. The Report came out strongly on the side of the Minister over the seriousness of the challenges facing Higher Education in Wales and the urgent need for radical reform, involving reconfiguration. This is not entirely surprising given the terms of reference presented to the McCormick Group. However, it is evident from a recent address presented by John McCormick to the Learned Society of Wales that the sector failed to provide a convincing alternative view (Western Mail, 19 May). The overwhelming impression given to McCormick was of an overly defensive sector unwilling to contemplate essential change. In the absence of a step change McCormick predicted a slow withering on the vine.

Presented with further ammunition and aided by an armourer eager to fire his bullets, Leighton Andrews will not simply stand by and allow the sector to wither on the vine. If this year’s Remit Letter sent by him to the Higher education Funding Council on 16 March is to be taken as a portent of his intentions, then he is seriously considering the scope for using powers available under the Education Reform Act 1988 to force mergers. His readiness to go so far as to threaten the closure of an uncooperative institutions and face the resulting political fallout cannot be discounted, given his determination to use the levers at his disposal to maximum effect.

So far he has found the funding mechanism managed by the Funding Council to be a less potent means of enforcing reconfiguration than he would have wished. He has already been forced to row back from the position set out in the consultative document Higher education and student finance 2012/13, circulated on 14 January. In an Annexe appended to the document the Minister declared an intention to acquire supplementary legal powers which would enable him

“…to issue guidance to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales on the content of tuition fee plans which will include provisions relating to the reconfiguration of the higher education sector and other ‘For Our Future’ priorities.

In the wake of this retreat and further legal cautions, the Funding Council is handling discussions with Higher Education institutions over fee structures with advisable circumspection. In other respects, however,  the Council has become a willing agent of the Minister, a fact recognised by him in his Remit Letter which opens with an expression of gratitude for the pace and determination shown by the Council in its commitment to For Our Future.

As the McCormick Report acknowledges, “For Our Future has forged a more direct relationship between government and the Higher education Funding Council for Wales”. Indeed, it may be argued that the role of ‘honest broker’ or ‘buffer’ between the Welsh Government and the sector seems to have been largely abandoned for the time being with primary statutory allegiance claimed by the Government.

The Funding Council’s Corporate Strategy 2010/11-2012/13 welcomes the fact that it has been tasked to deliver For Our Future. The introduction declares:

“Our primary aim within the planning horizon will be to work with higher education providers in Wales to deliver For Our Future and the structure of the Corporate Strategy is based on its key themes.”

Officers have been particularly resolute in tackling the reconfiguration agenda. This is in keeping with a long-held conviction in favour of mergers that was first made known to the Assembly in 1999 (HEFCW Circular W99/101 HE). The institutions are not as well placed to subvert the Funding Council today as they were in 1999, a fact spelled out in the Corporate Strategy. An urgent, compelling case is identified for improving performance through mergers. Only by this means, it is claimed, will obtrusive weaknesses exposed in comparisons made with England and Scotland be remedied. The challenge set by the Funding Council for itself and the sector, therefore, is that:

“At least 75 per cent of the Welsh Higher Education institutions will have an annual income in excess of the UK median, with no institution to be in the lower quartile by 2012-13.”

The onus is firmly on Vice Chancellors and Chairmen of governing bodies to respond. The Funding Council has made it graphically obvious to them in its Information Toolkit for Higher Education Governors how each institution is positioned and the general vulnerability of the sector.

Bolstered by the Funding Council’s assessment, the Minister felt able to issue the ‘merge or die’ warning  at Carmarthen on 5 December. He confidently predicted that there would be fewer Higher Education institutions in Wales by 2013 and fewer Vice Chancellors. This prediction was subsequently firmed-up by the Funding Council into a reduction from eleven to six independent institutions. For a time it appeared that an irresistible momentum for reconfiguration through merger and collaboration was being generated. It was revealed at Carmarthen that plans were well advanced for a major reconfiguration in south-west Wales involving Trinity St David’s and Swansea Metropolitan University which had the Minister’s blessing. Attention turned to south-east and north-east Wales with UWIC, University of Wales, Newport and Glyndŵr known to be in the Minister’s and the Funding Council’s sights.

The preferred outcome in south-east Wales was a single institution for the conurbation by the merger of Glamorgan, UWIC and University of Wales, Newport. For a very short period this was being talked of as a serious prospect. However, although staff have been reported to be generally in favour, this was to ignore the depth of the hostility of key decision-takers at UWIC to a merger with Glamorgan University. Their preferred option was to join the South West Wales consortium in an arrangement involving the University of Wales.

It is not yet known how this surprising development is being regarded within the Welsh Government and the Funding Council. Is it a subversive stratagem to be opposed or a serious proposal to be accommodated? It may well be that neither the Minister nor the Funding Council have a choice in the matter, given the legal framework currently in place. However, they do have available to them the highly critical analysis of the University of Wales and the tough conditions set out for its survival, presented in the McCormick Report. Will the proposed reconfiguration be able to satisfy McCormick? Meanwhile, it is not yet known which way the University of Wales, Newport intends to jump.

As the future of the south-east Wales conurbation returns to the melting pot, it should be remembered  that while mergers  may be a necessary condition for achieving those elements of ‘critical mass’ sought by the Minister and the Funding Council, they are not sufficient for achieving the desired improvements in performance and positioning. Much will depend on the processes employed for bringing institutions together and the organisational arrangements subsequently put in place. And this is just the starting point since it takes many years to realise the full benefits after early dislocations and daunting set-up costs.

As my study of The Cardiff Experience 1976-98 showed, the initial success of the merger between what was then University College, Cardiff and the University of Wales Institute for Science and technology in 1988 depended critically on the preparatory work of an Executive Commission and Management Team. Success in the longer term depended on strong leaders who found appropriate styles of management at key stages of development.

With the prospect of victory so nearly in sight, the Minister has been made very aware of the contextual realities which constrain his powers and the ease with which they can sometimes be  subverted. Above all, the hassle associated with mergers may soon pale into insignificance compared with the fallout created by the new student fees regime, predicted to develop into a potential financial and strategic planning nightmare for the Higher Education Funding Council. It will have no choice but to fund Welsh students studying in England while fulfilling its obligations to EU students, leaving discretion over numbers and residual funds available for Welsh students only.

There is little incentive for Welsh universities to charge other than the maximum fee, which will invalidate the assumptions fed into the financial model on which Welsh Government policy is based. Faced with the prospect of an unsustainable mess, which could seriously diminish his credibility, the Minister would be well advised to contemplate a less abrasive and confrontational style.

There is also the fallout from the critical reception anticipated for the McCormick Report, which is yet to go out to consultation – why the delay? For his second term in a less favourable constellation of circumstances Leighton Andrews should be looking for allies rather than adversaries within Higher Education. He will know that as long as he continues to act as its severest critic, institutions will be hampered in attracting the best talent to Wales. Without such talent there is little prospect of achieving the Minister’s high ambitions for the sector.

Sir Brian Smith won membership of the Russell Group of leading research universities for Cardiff in 1998 by successfully recruiting academic ‘stars’. This set in motion a virtuous circle of rising achievement, most recently celebrated with the accumulation of a record £150 million in research grants in 2009-10, an outstanding feat enthusiastically praised by the Minister. Many now argue that it is time for Leighton Andrews to change tactics and switch roles from scourge to champion. Today our Higher Education institutions desperately need a champion, especially given their seeming inability undertake the job collectively on their own behalf through their representative organisation Higher Education Wales.

Gethin Williams is Honorary Research Fellow with the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University and a former Deputy Principal, University of Wales Newport. He is the author of University Management in an Era of Strategic Change: the Cardiff Experience (2006) and Government Policy and the Development of Public Sector Higher Education in Wales 1982-92 (2009). Both can be downloaded here.

Also within Politics and Policy