A living will for the University of Wales

Geraint Talfan Davies writes an open letter to the Vice Chancellor of the beleaguered University of Wales

Annwyl Medwin,

Commiserations on a rough old week. Not what anyone would have wished on you in your first week as Vice Chancellor of the University of Wales. Life must seem unfair when you get walloped for things that did not happen on your watch, especially when it’s splashed all over the BBC and our national newspaper. Strange that we should have both been in the radio studios at Llandaff at the same time – you in Radio Wales and me in Radio Cymru – and then swapping places. No chance to have a decent chat.

If we had had more time, I would have tried to persuade you not to rush to the barricades to defend the University of Wales, even though many will think that an honourable cause. Defence of a ‘national institution’ is a reflex to which we have been understandably prone in our nervous existence. But in this case it is time to put it aside, in the interests of a higher education system for which you have done so much.

It was at an IWA conference at Trinity College that our combative Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, delivered one his famous demands for change in the system. The conference was held at Trinity because you were someone who had grasped the need for change. You had made a success of Trinity College, rescued St. David’s Lampeter, forged another merger with Swansea Metropolitan, and delivered the beginnings of a coherent regional model in south west Wales. You were also, through Trinity, important in facilitating the emergence of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. That’s a record of real achievement.

And on top of that you had, quite early on, spotted the risks that were inherent in the University of Wales’s imperial ambitions overseas, and had the guts last week to announce that, with another scandal pending, it was time to end the validation and accreditation of courses that it did not control. By the way this scandal could dog the University of Wales for a very long time, as we await police investigations, and possible criminal charges and trials.

Perhaps it was too much to ask of anybody that they shut down an historic institution in their very first week in charge. However, I hope you can see that such a decision cannot now be long delayed. The University of Wales’s well-known troubles overseas, and now at home, are only part of the problem. The primary reason why the University of Wales should now slip quietly away, is that it no longer fits the structure of higher education in Wales.

It causes immense confusion in the UK and international marketplaces, as the leaders of Welsh universities try to explain to perplexed customers, prospective students or overseas partners that they are not part of the University of Wales. The very institutions – Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff – that founded it in 1893 when the Welsh population was half what it is today, believe that they have now outgrown it, a view also shared by Swansea and Glamorgan universities.

The continued existence of the University of Wales – a seemingly national brand that is, in fact, scheduled to become part of a relatively small regional institution – needs national consensus if it is to have any legitimacy. That consensus has rarely existed in the past, evidently does not exist now and will not return. That is a fact that neither you nor the Council of the University of Wales can ignore. To battle on would be to ensure a continuing, unnecessary and distracting tension in the higher education system at a time when it is facing problems that are much more central to its performance and our national well-being.

That said, I can fully understand that the university would wish to avoid a rushed demise under unflattering circumstances, as well as the unseemly sight of people dancing on its grave. The University of Wales has a proud history, even if we forget sometimes that it was founded some 21 years after Aberystwyth opened its doors and, ironically from today’s standpoint, in the face of protestations from the then Anglican St. David’s College at Lampeter. The other irony is that in the 19th Century the public, according one old college history, was “decisively in favour of a teaching, against an examining, university.” They have been proved right.

The history of the University of Wales means it deserves a more dignified end and some permanent memorial. It is not difficult to imagine what form that could take. An early declaration that the University of Wales would be wound up in a year’s time, would allow space for the writing of a ‘living will’ that might provide for the following:

  • The transfer of the Centre for Advanced Celtic Studies to Aberystwyth University – where it is already physically located – thus boosting a proper university institution by bequeathing it a 4* rated research centre of excellence.
  • The negotiation of the future ownership of the University of Wales Extra Mural Centre at Gregynog. It could be owned and run by the new south West Wales university, or by a new company in which all universities would participate, or it could be transferred to the Welsh Government to become a civil service staff college.
  • The creation of a University of Wales Memorial Trust that would take over and administer the extensive reserves that are the legacy of the university’s past – the annual report for 2008-09 put these at £27.3million – to act as an endowment to support Welsh national purposes such as the following:

–      To sustain and develop the work of The Learned Society of Wales, created only last year as an embryonic national academy, and to which HRH The Prince of Wales could transfer his patronage.

–      To fund a scheme to be administered by the Learned Society that would offer two annual University of Wales Memorial Medals for Welsh academic achievement, in the sciences and humanities.

–      To provide core funding for a Welsh Public Policy Institute – see the last Welsh Labour manifesto – that would be able to mobilise intellectual resources from many sources, including all Welsh universities, for the benefit of Welsh policy-making. Such independent funding would provide some protection from excessive political influence.

–      To provide support for academic publishing in both Welsh and English to be undertaken by a successor body to the University of Wales Press owned by all the universities of Wales and re-titled the Welsh Universities Press.

My guess, Medwin, is that if the Council of the University were to concern itself with the creation of an imaginative legacy, rather than the prolonging of a tense and troubled existence for itself, people might more readily acknowledge not only its past contribution but also a legacy of continuing value for Wales that everybody could applaud – the sector, Ministers and the public alike. You could then get back to building a successful university for south west Wales.

Hope this helps.

Pob hwyl


Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

10 thoughts on “A living will for the University of Wales

  1. At last the plot becomes open, as the BBC family and other institutions working through their asset-stripping of the University of Wales. It has all the trimmings of jealous greedy children trying to finish off an elderly relative for the inheritance. If they had been interested in these assets they would not have left the University in the first place.

  2. A compelling argument I have to say.

    For me, yes as a former UWA graduate, it’s ironic that at a time when we have an Education Minister who (at last!) reminds the universities of their role to Welsh society, culture and economy and where, 140 years after founding Aberystwyth we now have a grown-up plan for increasing teaching in Welsh, that we’re going to get rid of a national structure – even if it was a shell.

    My biggest concern then is how we can keep and coordinate the gains made over the past few years – gains, who which I presume need a national context and plan? Will we in effect, be reinventing the UofW in a few years time?

  3. A sensible and pragmatic way out of this mess. Let’s hope he reads this and then has the courage to act on it!
    However, I would still like to see those responsible for years of mismanagement held to account. They should not be allowed to walk away from their (in)actions and simply reappear on some other Governing body or management team as so many failures seem to do these days.

  4. Sion, The ‘national context and plan’ that you rightly seek could be provided by a reformed Higher Education Funding Council, as recommended by the McCormick Review of the governance of higher education in Wales. McCormick envisaged that the reduced number of universities would be represented directly on this body.

  5. A very interesting thesis Mr Davies.
    I agree with the core principle of your letter – namely, that the UoW should be disbanded. The UoW and the concomitant insitutional resources required to operate this academic body, serves to dilute the limited intelligentsia available within Wales. I qualify this by referring you to the QS World University rankings for 11/12 – not one Welsh university in the top-200; our celtic brothers (Eire/Alban) boast a combined total of 10!
    Mr Davies, are we (Wales) guilty of navel gazing…again?

  6. I don’t agree with all your suggestions but infinitely prefer ‘living will’ to ‘decent burial’ if that’s the choice. I’m a 1980s University of Wales graduate, now working at Swansea University at its Institute of Life Science. I read Professor Palastanga’s letter today in the Western Mail. He made some good points, but it’s too late. Where was he, and others, over the past few weeks? Where was his defence of what had happened and how it might affect Welsh Higher Education? Wales needed explanation and direction but nothing was forthcoming. So in that vacuum, the media took over.

    I made a promise that if the UoW finally spoke out, so would I. I’m not sure UoW has, but a promise is a promise. And at the risk of a p45, here goes…

    The UoW messed up, big time, and it deserves castigation for that. And by jove, it’s had it. But it has done some wonderful things as outlined in the previous essay. So why kill it off? Whatever your political beliefs, the Univerisity of Wales is worth saving. It’s a national instition and can and should be resurrected. Surely, the grown-ups in Welsh Government and Higher Education Vice-Chancellors can find a way through this?

    Don’t let political dogma and media hype prevail. It’s the UoW today, but it could be any of us tomorrow.

    Sian Newman

  7. Before getting too excited, it would be sensible to have regard to the complex legal position. The disposal of the assets of a charity, and the tenure of Gregynog, for example, cannot be reconfigured without recourse to the Charity Commission and HEFCW. Indeed, a private Act of Parliament may well be required – particularly in the case of the disposal of the Welsh Church Act obligations and assets. Ditto the crystallising of liabilities for the University’s Supperannuation Scheme (which will make a significant inroad into the residual assets.
    Nothing can happen quickly. And it’s all governed by law.

  8. I agree with Sian Newman. UoW is well worth saving. I cannot understand why Wales has allowed Leighton Andrews and his cronies at the BBC to destroy it.

    Why has no one questioned the amount of BBC and exBBC who have been involved in the downfall of UoW?

    Ciaran Jenkins BBC
    Leighton Andfrews exBBC
    Geraint Talfan Davies exBBC
    John McCormick exBBC
    Rhodri Talfan Davies Current Director BBC Wales

    Now we see the story that we all knew was bound to come – the asset stripping of UoW. And where does the story originate? From an exBBC official. It all seems somewhat incestuous.

    It just goes to show that Wales is certainly not ready to have a truly devolved Government. In fact I would argue that it is time UK took control of these BBC despots who are intent on destroying every asset Wales has. UK Government would not get rid of an international brand they would be sending in a team to address preceived problems making sure that it came out the other side intact as the only true Wales International brand that it is.

    Why are these people so intent on destroying it to the detriment of 130 people who work there, 70,000 students and 250,000 alumni? Answer: Power and money! Disgusting behaviour! These people have no vision.

  9. One of the more amusing conspiracy theories, and a good try at distraction from the real argument, on which there can, of course, be more than one view.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy