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

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