Does the University of Wales have a future?

Geraint Talfan Davies unpicks the strands that have left a one time national institution facing a more limited future

After a decade of hand-bagging or bludgeoning, depending on which Minister they were dealing with, Welsh universities seem to have grasped that either they change or the Government will force change upon them. At last there are signs that the plates are shifting and, in some cases, just in the nick of time.

There is some irony in the fact that today is not only the closing date for submissions on the future of Welsh universities to the Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, but also the day when BBC Wales will transmit a second roasting of the University of Wales in its Week In Week Out programme.  It was only a year ago that the first programme exposed ‘significant failings’ in the way UoW oversaw degree courses in Malaysia and Thailand, producing a barrage of criticism, not least from the Education Minister himself.

As if to pre-empt another barrage – though that will, no doubt, be denied – this week UoW’s new Vice Chancellor, Medwin Hughes, announced that it would withdraw from its pretensions to grand Welsh alliances and international degree giving to become just a part of a smallish south west Wales institution, though it was phrased rather differently. Not only is UoW throwing in the towel on the validation of degrees abroad – a role which has caused it endless pain in the last year – but also ending its accreditation of degrees at other institutions in Wales, notably UWIC and Newport.

The timing has raised eyebrows. Disregarding the prospect of another television drubbing, some see it as a bold move by the new Vice Chancellor of the University of Wales to draw a line under recent scandals. Others, notably, the Vice Chancellor of Newport, Peter Noyes, see it as a hasty move, made with scant regard for the UoW’s partners and with a disregard for governance niceties or for students. Newport and UWIC were, I gather, given no notice of the announcement until the very last minute before Monday’s press conference. It should also be remembered that the proposed merger of UoW with Trinity St David and Swansea Metropolitan has yet to be completed, so Medwin Hughes (who is also the Vice Chancellor of Trinity St David) has to shepherd his new strategy through three governing bodies.

That said, Medwin Hughes has made a wise move in bowing to the inevitable. What is more questionable is the positive gloss that is being put on it. Trinity St David is not shy of over-claiming, as it did when announcing its formation, proclaiming it as the creation of a “super university for the 21st century”. A combination of Lampeter, Trinity and Swansea Metropolitan won’t cause any sleepless nights at Yale or Harvard.

One of the things that worried the McCormick Review on higher education governance in Wales (I declare an interest as a member of the review) was that a supposedly national brand – that by accident of history had moved from being a public institution to a near private one – was a declining brand that was causing confusion for Wales in international markets. Now it is starting a move back into the public sector, and in all probability from being a national institution to being part of a sub-regional one.

Commenting on the brand value, the review stated:

“Its value may decrease now that it is no longer intimately connected with the older research-based institutions that helped build the brand and no longer represents the whole of Welsh higher education. In this situation brand competition and confusion between UoW and individual higher education institutions, only some of whom are members of UoW, will surely increase. A national brand such as UoW should reflect the sector as a whole not a part of it.”

The merger of UoW with a proper teaching institution and its withdrawal from the international market is a significant step forward both in reducing that confusion and in terms of altering the focus. McCormick again:

“Internationalisation of Welsh higher education needs, among other things, to be focused on developing quality academic partnership, and not just the attraction of fee income from students of validation of degrees overseas.”

It is hard to see what is the future for UoW, especially when it becomes fully part of the new south west Wales institution, under one Vice Chancellor and one ruling Council. It has been validating degrees for 15,000 students across 25 disciplines in 30 countries, and by withdrawing from this very risky business of volume validation will lose some 65 per cent of its income. Although it sits on a pot of money of some tens of millions – the legacy of its past, and a dowry for the new institution – it is not clear what exactly it will do or with what credibility it can continue to trade on the name. If the Advertising Standards Authority were ever asked to opine, UoW might risk the charge of being ‘materially misleading’.

It was only last week that Glyndwr University jumped the gun, by announcing that it was withdrawing from the University of Wales Alliance to offer it own degrees. What did they know, either about the coming announcement or about the forthcoming Week In Week Out programme? If Glyndwr, our newest university, thinks it can dispense with the University of Wales degree then it can hardly be a matter of much moment for anyone else. So much for the valued brand.

An important gain may come in south east Wales, where the ending of UoW accreditation of degrees at UWIC and Newport will remove one of the major stumbling blocks to bringing these two together into one institution with the University of Glamorgan. When UWIC and Glamorgan were last in merger talks in 2003, the fact that UWIC was offering UoW degrees, and that Glamorgan very determinedly wasn’t, was a major stumbling block. That obstacle, at least, disappears.

Newport, although mightly miffed at UoW’s unexpected announcement at the start of the week, has already published its submission to the Minister, and set out a detailed and credible path towards a big south east Wales merger. The smallest of the three institutions, it has stolen the leadership baton from the other two – Glamorgan that has been too openly predatory, and UWIC that, despite its undeniable qualities, has stubbornly occupied the Minister’s ‘naughty step’ for nearly a decade. There is a gauntlet waiting to be picked up.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy