Wales needs a lasting legacy from its university

Simon Thomas AM says we need a national strategy for our higher education sector

In all the talk of burials, last rites and funerals for the University of Wales, Geraint Talfan Davies’s article on 11 October has been the only serious attempt to sketch a way forward for this venerable institution, albeit as a legacy rather than a living body.

The last year has been torrid for the University of Wales. But in all the allegations, scams and failures, I haven’t seen any evidence of criminal behaviour by those running the University. Rather, they seem to have wanted to discover a new role for the University after its founding members such as Aberystwyth and Swansea left.  Unfortunately ambition outpaced scrutiny and we have seen a failure of governance.

There may be further revelations but, to date, the failures seem to have been borne of a desire to create a strong, national higher education institution with critical mass and reach in the sector. That is an honourable intention which makes the current mess even more distressing and disheartening.

There is however a warning in this for the current plans of the Welsh Government in the sector. Larger higher education institutions, which are the aim of the current Minister, do not necessarily lead to sustainable success.

There is also a clear warning in the Week In Week Out exposé of the verification of qualifications in external colleges – many of them private institutions. Many other Welsh HE institutions have similar external arrangements. Can everyone be sure that their control of verification and of the entry requirements of those colleges is secure and bombproof? The English HEFC expects the number of private colleges to explode in England with the Westminster government’s combination of high tuition fees and opening the market to private providers.  I am afraid that if the University of Wales and American institutions are any example, then we may expect further scandals in the UK as the market works its perverse way through the HE sector.

The governance failures at the University of Wales can be viewed as a sad conclusion to the dangers of chasing an international market in HE, without a firm grounding in a national strategy for Wales.

The current proposals for its future being taken forward by the new Vice-Chancellor Medwin Hughes have much to commend them. He has certainly taken the right action in pulling out of dodgy foreign relationships that are almost impossible to police.  But moving from a national institution to a regional association with Trinity St David’s and Swansea Metropolitan raises its own questions of governance and accountability.

For over a century, the University has acted as a national actor and has accrued assets and reserves in the name of the nation. This strength is now its weakness – it means that as a national player its failures overseas cannot be overlooked or ignored. The name Wales means the whole sector is implicated. The fact that its activities here in Wales seem to have been governed appropriately and responsibly is no help in this regard.

It’s true that the POWIS scholarships have had the plug pulled on them, but at first reading that seems to reflect the Welsh Government’s wider concerns with governance, rather than any specific concerns. The Centre for Advanced Celtic Studies, Plas Gregynog and the Press all have good national reputations and their future should be considered separately to the new south west regional university.

The name for that university should surely reflect its new regional dimension and any nomenclature should be clear and unambiguous about its reach and role in the nation.

Some would think that the University of Wales should have been killed off when it lost its founding colleges.  Many of us at the time thought that national collaboration deserved a fairly neutral national player to work across the sector as a whole. The High Performance Computing project showed that the University could act in that way. The market unleashed is a cruel beast however, and jealousy, empire building and egos were always going to make such a national player an awkward creation.

We now need to give the new leadership at the University the space and time to forge their new creation. However, it is in the interests of all of us to fight for a lasting legacy to what was once one of the great glories of Wales.

Simon Thomas is Plaid Cymru AM for Mid and West Wales

3 thoughts on “Wales needs a lasting legacy from its university

  1. It is encouraging that an Assembly Member is at last acknowledging that the ‘crises’ around the University of Wales are issues that implicate the sector as a whole. Indeed, it would be interesting to see how any other institution would face up to such scrutiny or continuous attack. For example, appointment of spouses, irregularities in estates departments, and unqualified medics are all examples of crises which have passed within the sector with far less drama – or perhaps less editorial and political interest. Therefore, suggestions by institutions that they divorce from the University because of the tenuously linked ‘exposé’ seem somewhat theatrical.

    Meanwhile, the nebulous questioning over ‘governance’ now seems simply to be a veil behind which the asset-stripping of the institution is being proposed. Activities such as those of the Dictionary, Press and Gregynog Hall are exactly what make the University of Wales a national institution, and without the support of the wider institution base it is unclear whether these would be sustainable. While few step forward to praise this work by the University, far too many seem all too ready to simply watch this good interred.

    While Simon Thomas criticises the University as overambitious, Wales should be more concerned by lack of ambition, effort and delivery. If a fraction of the energy which has gone into the beating of the University of Wales could be focused on delivery within the sector then we would have a truly enviable HE landscape. Unfortunately league tables, for whatever they are worth, show a distinct lack of progress in institutions across the sector.

    Regionalisation is part of the Welsh Government’s effort to create a coherent Welsh HE landscape, and could potentially start to address the co-ordination which should be achievable across a population of 3 million. However, it still shows little impact or real interest in the North West and faces continued resistance in the South East. This perhaps indicates the root of the greatest issue in HE, as tribal parochial perspectives keep looking at what can be taken off someone else or ways to keep others out, rather than what we can build together.

    No-one can envy the Minister’s task in reshaping the sector, but he must not let the tribal leaders distract him with the University of Wales, while the performance of their own institutions continues to decline. It is therefore ironic that the only institutions to actively embrace this agenda are the ones coming together in the University of Wales merger. Et-tu Simon?

  2. The collective failure of the St David’s Day group to improve their global recognition (led by Cardiff’s continued inability to break into the top 200) has been glossed over/ignored by the Education Minister and his cronies in the media in their lust for the scalp of the University of Wales. A little more introspection on the part of those VCs for their own institutions’ failures and weaknesses and less brazen politicking would do them, their respective organisations and the areas in which they serve our society all the better.

  3. I don’t criticise the University of Wales for being overambitious. Not at all. The POWIS scholarships; high performance computing and plans for Gregynog were all ambitious and to be welcomed. But scrutiny and governance in general did not kept pace with that ambition. I think I also address the tribalism and jealousy issues. The question now is what continuing contribution can the University play in its new regional arrangement -as proposed – to the national picture. I believe it could play such a role but it has to be appropriate to a reconfigured sector.

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