Taking ourselves seriously

Jasmine Donahaye says that if we’re going to achieve international recognition we need to take ourselves more seriously.

Back in March for St David’s Day the Empire State Building was lit once again with the Welsh colours, and the Google doodle featured daffodils. Each year the Western Mail seems to report these American moments with growing delight, as though this is the apex of international recognition. Yet where international recognition matters, there is almost none, and this is a consequence of failing to take ourselves seriously.

In November 2014, in his capacity as a Vice President of the Learned Society of Wales, Professor M. Wynn Thomas convened a meeting to discuss the vulnerability of teaching, research, and academic publication to do with Wales, and to set in motion an Association for the Study of Wales to help lobby for change.

One might assume that, as in any nation aware of itself as a nation – and with control over its education system – Welsh universities would be obliged to offer the opportunity to study Wales, and to conduct research on it across many disciplines. Surprising though it is, there is no such obligation either at the institutional or the governmental level, and nor is there an expectation of this provision either. Where university departments do offer opportunities to study Wales, or conduct related research, this is the result of dedicated efforts by a few individuals. Consequently the study of Wales across disciplines is not only marginalised and fragmented, but also perpetually vulnerable.

Without an explicit, structural commitment by government – and consequently commitment also at the institutional level – support for teaching and research in the study of Wales will falter and fail. This will leave the nation uninformed about its past and its present, which is bad enough, but it will also leave us poorly equipped to shape and control our own future, and it will continue to incapacitate us in our relationship with the rest of the UK, and internationally.

My own area of research in Welsh and Jewish matters provides a telling comparative illustration of one of the consequences of this situation. It is still possible for scholars in the field of British Jewish studies to fold Wales into England in a way that has never been possible, for example, with Scotland. This is not because Scotland provides a greater degree of Jewish material for analysis, but because Scotland demands outside recognition of its own particularity, and it does this by itself according this particularity recognition –at the level of government, in institutions, and in academic publishing. In the absence of such self-recognition in Wales, the ability of the country to project itself in relation to the rest of the UK and internationally is severely curtailed. Of course there are historical, economic and political reasons behind this difference between Scotland and Wales, but there is also simply a difference in assumptions about self-worth.

An Association for the Study of Wales is a necessary development, but it does not provide a solution. There is also a risk that it might help perpetuate rather than challenge the existing marginalisation. To consider the study of our own country as ‘Welsh Studies’ – as it will no doubt be known, no matter the name of any organisation – is effectively to internalise that marginalisation. An illustrative example of this is to be found in visual culture. Much of the substantial body of Welsh visual material we now have, and understanding of a national art tradition, is a recent development, and is the result of efforts by Peter Lord over years of challenging powerful institutional resistance. The biases of an anglocentric view meant that there was no framework in which most of the visual culture of Wales could even be seen, let alone discussed. The compelling evidence which Lord uncovered and which he presented on its own terms, rather than within what he called a connoisseurial tradition, meant that ‘Welsh art’ could no longer be excluded from our national institutions or consciousness. However, even now there is no constitutional commitment in our art institutions to make the visual culture of Wales the starting point, rather than an add-on, or wing, or temporary juxtaposition to the ‘international’ (by which read Anglo-American) art tradition. Consequently, the manner in which Welsh art is shown both perpetuates this marginalisation and makes it difficult to challenge.

At that meeting convened last November, Professor Richard Wyn Jones identified the ‘Diamond Review’ as an opportunity to lobby for a commitment to university teaching, research and publication about Wales. ‘The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements’, to give it its proper name, would seem to have little to do with the status of Wales in the world, but in fact it does, and critically: as Wyn Jones pointed out, it will likely determine the shape and direction of the HE sector for years to come. Consequently, when, in February of this year, there was an invitation to submit evidence to the Diamond Review, the Learned Society of Wales issued a call to action, and there was a significant level of response. Both within academia and outside, and both within Wales, the rest of the UK, and abroad, many people found the revelation about the status of the study of Wales within Wales shocking, outrageous and bizarre.

An important part of the submissions that people made to the Diamond Review also concerned University of Wales Press, because of course academic publishing is an inextricable part of teaching and research. As the country’s sole reputable and internationally highly regarded academic publisher, UWP plays an essential role in providing the platform by which we might know ourselves, by which future generations might know themselves – and by which we can project ourselves confidently in the world. However, given the poor credibility of Welsh subject matter beyond the borders of Wales, it is difficult to place scholarly work with academic publishers. By their nature, such works have a niche readership and are not economically viable without subsidy. At present, there is a strong, deep commitment at UWP to support publication of research on Wales despite the challenges in funding, and despite the fact that there is no constitutional obligation to do so, nor the institutional or financial support to ensure that this is viable. As with the efforts of individuals within academic departments to lobby for a Wales focus, so the current commitment to publishing Wales-related research at UWP is the product of the committed vision of its director and the University of Wales, of which it is a part. Nevertheless, without constitutional obligation, and without committed funding support, the publication of Wales-related research is dangerously vulnerable, because all publishers are under the pressure of contradictory economic, cultural and political imperatives.

Yet when UWP is situated in the wider context of the publishing sector in Wales, the funding situation looks both bizarre and indefensible. New books of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction published by Welsh presses with a definable publishing list are all potentially eligible for funding through the Books Council. So, too, are the journals that discuss them, and provide a platform for their authors. Indeed, works that are of cultural value to Wales are grant-supported in recognition of their limited potential readership. Other more commercially viable works are also supported: it is understood that the profit generated by these more ‘popular’ titles will help support a publisher’s unprofitable works of cultural value.

By contrast, academic works – both journals and book publications such as those published by UWP – are not eligible for support. It is certainly appropriate that they not be subject to the same funding criteria, because what pertains in the one market (which, on the English-language side, is in competition with UK and US publishing conglomerates) does not pertain in the other. The expectations of peer review demanded by any reputable academic press and practised rigorously by UWP are as alien to the Books-Council-funded commercial/cultural publishing sector as are the promotion requirements of a debut novel to the academic sector. But funding criteria aside, the huge disparity in the amount of public funding for the two sectors is wholly inappropriate.

Until recently, UWP was able to publish works on Wales with the help of a small sum from HEFCW. That fund of £132k was recently withdrawn and, despite protests, will not be reinstated. By contrast, the Books Council distributes some £2.7m annually to non-academic publishers. The two publishing sectors are, nevertheless, interrelated: some of that research on Wales published by UWP also profiles and legitimises literary works published with WBC support. This makes the disparity in funding even more indefensible.

HEFCW now allocates its £132k in funding to universities, rather than to UWP. However, individual university funding for publishing is allocated according to the priorities of that institution. If neither teaching nor research in the study of Wales is a priority in any given institution, support for publication on Welsh subject matter is even less of one – and yet, as will be immediately apparent, teaching, research and academic publishing are inextricably bound up with and mutually interdependent on one another.

If the government itself does not accord to the study of the country its due status and recognition, how can our higher education institutions do so, or our academic publisher? If the government doesn’t explicitly require and support the teaching, research and publication of the study of Wales, what hope is there for its future, when economic and market pressures will dictate other priorities?

By all means let the Western Mail celebrate the daffodil Google doodle once a year – but if we want to leave a more lasting impression, we have to rectify this failing in self-worth first. For if we cannot take ourselves seriously in this way, how can we expect others to do so?


Jasmine Donahaye is a Senior Lecturer at Swansea University. Her latest book is The Greatest Need, a biography of Welsh Jewish author Lily Tobias. She is a former editor of Planet, and was formerly Publishing Grants Officer at the Welsh Books Council.

30 thoughts on “Taking ourselves seriously

  1. Something to do with the great majority of academics in Scotland being Scottish, while those in Wales are English?

  2. For a start, the government could stop paying Welsh students to leave Wales. Welsh students will be more likely to want to study Welsh subjects, and in turn become Welsh academics.

  3. Yes, Wales needs to establish a much stronger international profile, but, with respect, more ‘Welsh studies’ research at Welsh universities is not the obvious way to do that. Indeed, as has been debated elsewhere, the ‘Welsh studies’ option, rather than local specialisation within established disciplines, may not be the best way to research Welsh subjects, but, leaving that aside, more inward-looking research by Welsh universities would not make any objective list of ‘Top 100 Ideas to Make Wales Better Known.’

    Universities might, however, play a prominent role in such a list. Near the top should be the development of at least one outward-looking truly world class university. Depoliticising the existing Welsh university system would be a good place to start.

    Similarly, depoliticising our even more inward-looking cultural Establishment by taking it out of the control of subsidy junkies would at least give us the opportunity, whether we take it or not, to see if we can develop something of real cultural value and global significance.

  4. Perhaps it would be easier to take ourselves more seriously if the headline news in our country for the last 3 days hadn’t been about a Garden centre not having bilingual signage!

  5. All very worthy but isn’t the issue (Welsh) universities themselves? It’s not as though they are exactly cash starved given the salaries etc. they award their higher elite. Just take our wonderful Katey Hopkins School of Management at Swansea. If they exclude or low grade “Wales” as a subject area maybe its because Wales does not “market”. And that’s what universities have become, Argos.

  6. I am aware that this contribution is essentially about education and I have a great deal .of sympathy with the issues raised.
    However, I can’t help but be bemused (or irritated by the irony…) by the picture of the First Minister at the New York Stock Exchange. There has over the past few years been a series of research documents, publications and workshops presenting evidence on the very positive role stock exchanges play in successful economic development all over the world and the enormous potential of a Wales Stock Exchange.
    The arguments have been well rehearsed and I refer readers to them, especially the research by Professor Rob Huggins (paid for by the Welsh Government…) which showed substantial interest.
    In a later workshop in Cardiff in 2010 organised by consultants, a representative of the Dublin Stock Exchange offered the use of it’s trading platform to remove the major barrier to entry for such an exchange.
    Since then…..
    Ironically, this month sees the launch of the Gibraltar Stock Exchange; population 30,000, area 2.5 square miles. Is anybody out there listening?

  7. Yay! Well said Jasmine. It’s about time somebody spoke up for Wales, we need to raise our profile and aim high. Brilliant article.

  8. This is clearly a plea from the heart and, as importantly, points to the way in which the life is being drained out of intellectual Wales. And this will persist for as long as research funding bodies located in England make all the decisions regarding research funding in Wales as well as the strategy for Welsh research. I think many people will be under the impression that, because higher education is devolved to Wales, this includes research. But the political control of that remains with English institutions.

    There was of course one body that used to fund research and publishing in Wales and that was the Board of Celtic Studies. It had four committees, Welsh Language & Literature, History & Law, Archaeology & Art and Social Sciences. The main advantage of this Board was that it brought together academics from all corners of Wales who could meet across the disciplines and discuss ideas and agendas that related to Wales as a country. In 2007, almost unnoticed, the University of Wales abolished the Board and distributed its functions to the University of Wales Press in Cardiff and the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth, thus successfully breaking up the national link that had been so productive in advancing a Wales-focused intellectual agenda.

    Since then, universities in Wales have pretty much followed uncritically the market-led corporate model that was promoted in England. It’s interesting that in Scotland there still seems to be an understanding of the role of the university as being a producer of social good. It is no coincidence that Nicola Sturgeon is able to argue for a social democratic politics so confidently since she is a product of that very educational system.

    Jasmine is right in that it can be seen as a measure of our lack of self-worth that we appear to yield to an English view of Welsh-centred studies as being of little worth. But as 1963 proved at Pont Trefechan, we are capable of standing our ground and striking back. University politics is of course more complicated and capable of quite sophisticated manipulation and it will take intelligence and effort to insist that Welsh-centred studies across the academic range have their proper share of academic resources, something that is vital in a developing democracy such as Wales. But this will require not only the Government to take a firmer line on this, but also academics to organise effectively within the University system as well as the IWA, the focus of civil society development, to provide a channel for those voices who insist that Wales as a focus for study should not be marginalised in our own universities.

  9. Without proper knowledge of our history, culture and achievements how do we build self-confidence ? And self-confidence makes total economic and political sense. How many times have I heard people say `Oh, it`s Welsh, it can`t be any good` – not least about the Welsh Government itself ? They would be among the first to benefit if study and knowledge of our own country were adequately funded and promoted.
    How many people are ware, for instance, that the prestigious Peking University grew out of a language school founded by a Welsh missionary from Cwmafan, Port Talbot, who became a mandarin ? A useful link ?

  10. An interesting point Sally, but on the other hand shouldn’t the Welsh now grow up and stop existing on ‘handouts’ of various kinds?
    Where is the pride and the quality that Scottish people have reflected in their legislation, media, theatre & literature and where is that quality in Wales?
    We do not have a ‘national’ newspaper anything like ,’The Scotsman’ and here the political debate , in my opinion is gagged while literary ‘gatekeepers’ who exist on subsidies guarding the literary output and the status quo.
    Grow up Wales and smell the coffee.

  11. A thought provoking article drawing much needed attention to an important issue. Gratifying to see the responses.

  12. Honestly, Gillian, you really don’t want a newspaper anything like what the Scotsman has become these days, although in former times it was indeed a noble institution.

  13. ‘New books of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction published by Welsh presses with a definable publishing list are all potentially eligible for funding through the Books Council.’
    Well this may well be (partially) true (and Donahaye should know) but I have to say that as a Welsh publisher with a ‘definable’ list of over 40 new books of all genres in the last 2 years, the criteria applied by the WBC implies that there must be a ‘Welsh interest’ to any work that might be eligible for funding (a horrendously off putting application in any case which we have never managed yet to understand or complete or bothered to submit).
    Although some of our books have a ‘Welsh interest’ in that they are about Wales or written in Welsh by a Welsh author, the message we get loud and clear from the authors themselves is that they are really writing and hoping for a worldwide literary audience. They are not in the business of promoting or marketing Wales or Welshness. Moreover, it is well understood by even the most naive of writers that the Welsh market/readership is too small with an underwhelming number of recognisable literary critic or review channels. You can hardly call the Hay on Wye litfest Welsh orientated (or funded)!
    Fortunately, you can’t stop Welsh writers and Welsh talent writing/performing and this will go on with or without academic or book council support. This is something to celebrate.

  14. Gillian, what is it you are suggesting? Smelling coffee is a metaphor. What are you actually urging us to do?

  15. POI:
    Not many ‘ Welsh writers’ are ever centre – stage at HAY I think. It is a festival held in Wales and not a ‘Welsh” festival hence it’s lack of parochialism.

  16. Wales will continue to be an irrelevance on the world stage, be it intellectual or artistic, as long as it persists in relying on the taxpayer.

    Until the Welsh learn to stand on their own two feet, then Wales will neither flourish nor prosper.

    Wales is an unforgiving grant junky, from the private and public sectors to the writing of a piece of doomed poetry.

    The truly bright and talented will continue to say ‘Goodbye’, never ‘Au revoir’!

    Julian Ruck

  17. @ Gillian

    We are not here to second guess the inner workings of your thoughts. R Tredwyn asks a perfectly legitimate question which you are unable to answer. If you are confident of your position, then you will have nothing to fear from elucidating. Otherwise the only conclusion that can be drawn is that you have nothing to elucidate.

    @ Julian Ruck

    “The truly bright and talented will continue to say ‘Goodbye’ …”

    By which you mean Michael Sheen, Gareth Bale, Ruth Jones, Rhod Gilbert, John Cale, Cerys Matthews, Bryn Terfel, Stereophonics, Super Furry Animals, Manic Street Preachers, Terry Matthews, Karl Jenkins, Katnerine Jenkins, Colin Jackson, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Joe Calzaghe, Nicole Cooke, Geraint Thomas, Jade Jones, Owen Sheers ………

  18. To Rhobat Bryn Jones,

    Many of the folk you mention now live in England or abroad. As is the case with Sir Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Ken Follett, Michael Howard, Huw Edwards, Catherine Zeta Jones…….. even Lord Kinnock and I should know, I recently interviewed him.

    As far as I am aware none of them live in Upper Cwmtwrch anyway- had to Wiki that one!

    Need I go on?

    As for one of the few seriously successful Welsh and unsubsidised free marketeers? Dear me….

    Come to think of it, this humble (well, maybe not) unsubsidised scribbler will be off shortly too. Back to rare beef, Yorkshire pud, Cox’s apples and the English speaking taxpayers who keep Wales afloat.

    Dow mon, there’s a few clever clogs on here mind! Bit too rich for me, so adieu and good luck!

  19. I can’t imagine many students lining up for a degree in Welsh navel gazing with an associated ~£50K of debt hanging round their necks when they leave Uni…

  20. My apologies, Julian. I mistook you for someone making a serious point.

  21. PS Unable to resist, but I really fail to see how Glendower’s Dentures and Dylan’s failure to maintain his twelve stepping deliverance from alcoholic rectitude, are going to be of much use to a young ‘un seeking his/her (note the non-sexist empathy) fortune in that big wide world beyond the Severn Bridge?

    Further, any comparison between Wales and Scotland is at best fanciful. Scotland has a rich tradition of international cultural endeavour, historically, artistically, philosophically and economically – although the founding father of modern day banking, the Royal Bank of Scotland, appears to have gone a wee bit astray in recent times!

    Wales has none of the above, not even a dodgy bank.

    All this taxpayer funded ‘Library of Wales’ book series for example and push for Welsh Studies’ is nothing more than a sop to nationalist insecurity and inferiority complex.

    Bottom line?

    No-one is interested, apart from those who whisper intellectual pomposity and delusion in the sneaky bowels of an unreal and rarefied university staff room.

    If the Welsh want to start ‘taking themselves seriously’, dumping the ‘entitled’ reliance on the taxpayer would be a good start and to hell with romantic notions of non-existent cultural greatness.


  22. @ RBJ
    Why not dear Mr. Jones , use plain English to express yourself rather than contorted prose ? You see I hate to see the English language tortured in this way.


  23. To Mr Jones,

    Welsh academia has put itself on a stage of comedic derision and no-one else eg Cardiff university accepting two grade ‘E’s’ at ‘A’ level to study Law and Biology.

    Young Welsh students leaving in droves to English universities in order to avoid the backward Welsh nationalist angst of Saunders Lewis and John Jenkins.

    Estyn and PISA reports.

    Gwyneth Lewis’ unwise and discredited (albeit amusing!), juvenile rant against me in the Guardian, who incidentally had to correct and withdraw part of her jolly attempt at levity within hours of publication or face a libel suit.

    As for your message of hope Mr Llyr, internet trolls adopt puerile provocation in the hope that their irrelevant and solipsistic lives will finally receive some artificial validity.

    You merit no further comment.


  24. As confirmed in the public record, M/s Donahaye herself, along with numerous other Welsh creative academics, is a recipient of generous taxpayer largesse.

    Wales is unable to publish a book or even an anthology of verse without the taxpayer paying for it, and this applies to both Welsh publishers and the majority of Welsh writers.

    And before anyone starts, neither myself personally nor any of my work has ever received a taxpayer hand out, neither has it ever been applied for.

    Guess what?….I stand on my own two feet!

    Like I say, Wales is a grant junky.


  25. @ Julian

    The only one referring to insecurities and inferiority complexes is yourself; perhaps there’s a payoff for you in belittling literature simply because you don’t understand it. The substantial point however is that you fail to distinguish between self-worth and self-importance.

  26. Ah, well now Mr Jones, I admit that the odd ancient Greek dramatist and come to think of it even the satirical Horace, forced me to reconsider my youthful exuberance where the female of the species was concerned, but failure to distinguish between inflated, high brow flatulence and razor sharp polemic I think not.

    As for my ‘self-worth’ and ‘self-importance’, both I hazard are more notable than insignificance.

    I’m off now to read some D H Lawrence, if only to remind myself of what a self-piteous obsessive he was – echoes of the Welsh literati perhaps?

    Pax vobiscum and cheerio!

    Julian Ruck

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