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

7 thoughts on “Does the University of Wales have a future?

  1. It is a pity that Geraint Talfan Davies seems to have simply joined in on the UoW kicking which is the regular distraction to the real challenges facing Higher Education in Wales. IWA should be an independent wise voice, not simply jumping on popular bandwagons.

  2. I have read Geraint Talfan Davies’ article regarding the University of Wales. I am not a habitual letter writer, tweeter or blogger but I feel I have to comment. When will we in Wales stop destroying our own assets? It seems to me that the BBC, the Western Mail and now even the Institute of Welsh Affairs, are engaged in a feeding frenzy intent on destroying one of our great brands as a nation. Future generations will curse them for this.

    In my circle of friends and acquaintances it is clear that I am not alone in this view. If we are not careful the rest of the world will leave us behind while we engage in parochial, malicious, negative self-destruction. We have seen the Arabs spring, why don’t we have a Welsh Autumn and banish this negativity and destruction into history. No doubt the University of Wales, like every other Institution has made mistakes, what we should do is close ranks, deal with the negatives, celebrate the positives and build a future. I sincerely hope that others who believe in this will have the courage to stand against the Welsh Tafia and build a positive future for our nation.

  3. Mmh, it seems to me that there are a lot of wordy opinions expressed here, unfortunately and inappropriately being stated as facts. Publically available documents, such as the glowingly positive QAA report, evidence nothing more than the significant – and successful, efforts of the University of Wales to respond to the needs of Wales as outlined in the McCormick report and requested by the Welsh Government. This obsession with the “Week in Week out” story does not seem to be warranted. The story merely shows the University is a victim of criminal activity and the only damage to the University’s reputation will be the misleading coverage in the media. Conjectural statements such as that relating to the brand do not find substance in reality, where I have seen international students, especially those from outside Europe – who pay significant fees, studying in former University of Wales Colleges because of that association but unaware that those links have disappeared. It seems that the duty of the University will now be that of taking control of the quality associated with its brand as described in its press release of Monday. Indeed, this seems to be exactly what all the critics have called for.

  4. Consider the following: First, serious flaws are found in the oversight by the University of Wales of courses in far flung lands. Second, the government agency that itself oversees these things confirms those shortcomings. Ministers are deeply concerned. Third, the University of Wales forges an Alliance with UWIC and institutions in West Wales, and a few months later UWIC withdraws citing its dissatisfaction with governance processes. Fourth, the University of Wales’ new Vice Chancellor, without ratification by his own Council and without prior warning to Welsh universities offering its degrees, announces its withdrawal from validation and accreditation of degrees affecting 70,000 students. Do Jack Huws and Rob Thomas think that we should just close our eyes to all this?

  5. University of Wales – Enough is Enough

    Anybody who has followed the development of the University of Wales should be appalled at the situation that has been allowed to transpire.

    Medwin Hughes, the new Vice chancellor of the University has been woeful in his defence of the now toxic brand, the University of Wales. He insists that he will continue to tout, after a re-structuring, the national brand domestically and internationally. This resurrection will based on the academic powerhouses of Trinity St David and Swansea Metropolitan universities. By any measure these institutions are marginal in terms of the quantum (the total number of students they serve is around 11,000), staff and their research outputs. The institution in no way represents Wales and the university sector within the country.

    The market both in the UK and internationally is not sophisticated enough to identify the subtleties between the University of Wales and other Welsh-based universities. Allowing the University of Wales brand to continue in an institution that is lightweight and has employed some of the key characters that took the University of Wales to where it is today is a national disgrace.

    The Welsh Government should take the brand and either do way with it or create an umbrella organisation encompassing all higher education institutions in Wales using the brand to promote their quality activities.

  6. I can only assume the apologists for UoW are lost in some nostalgic haze for past glories. The present day UoW has nothing to commend it being merely self-serving to those who run it. Far from defending it anyone interested in the reputation and credibility of Higher Education in Wales should demand it relinquish the UoW title now and then let what remains try to build some semblance of credibility serving the local communities in west Wales.

  7. How many internationally competitive universities can Wales support? I’d guess two at most. The obvious arrangement is to have two: Cardiff and a Federal University of Wales, awarding degrees. We had such a thing in embryo until the constituent colleges, instead of rationalising, got hubristic and bolted. The trend continues with Glyndwr now proposing to award its own degrees. This has not just devalued the brand “University of Wales” it is devaluing the brand “university”. Why stop in Wrexham? Let’s show Wales is a super-educated country by making sure every village has its own university. I look forward to the day when some self-important academic will award PhDs from Pontsticill.

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