What role for universities in post-Covid Wales?

Julie Lydon highlights the importance of Welsh universities in our recovery from the crisis

It is difficult to think of a time in recent years when the word ‘unprecedented’ has had quite so much use.

But the uncertainty that faces Wales, the UK, and the world, at this time is unlike anything we have experienced in many decades. As we remain in this period of lockdown and social distancing, with no clear idea of when restrictions will be relaxed, it is difficult to know what we need to plan for or when.

On Tuesday 14 April, the headlines focused on the OBR’s projection that the UK economy could shrink by a record 35% in the second quarter of the year although with the small note of cautious optimism that the economy could quickly rebound to pre-virus levels. 

But as we hear stories of immense hardship and difficulty, about the impact that the pandemic is having on people including disadvantaged and vulnerable groups across the world, the steps we will take in the future, as restrictions are lifted, can seem a long way away. 

For universities, the flurry of activity that has taken place over the past five weeks has seen staff, through considerable effort, move provision online, change plans for assessments, and put in place support for staff and students who are now, for the most part, operating remotely. 

And as well as the immediate operational challenges, recent weeks have also seen universities step up to play a crucial role supporting local communities and the health service as we have highlighted in recent articles

And now, inevitably, thoughts turn to what happens next, and what role universities will play in Wales’ recovery from this crisis. In Wales, perhaps more than elsewhere in the UK, we are often made acutely aware of the local importance of universities.

We know that Welsh universities are proportionately more important to their regional economies than than those elsewhere, generating £5bn of impact and nearly 50,000 jobs across Wales, but the role of our institutions goes beyond gross value added. 

They bring people to live and work in areas across Wales, they provide cultural centres and facilities for the local area and businesses. In 2018/19 in Wales there were nearly 300,000 attendees to music, dance or drama events organised by universities in Wales and 250,000 attendees to exhibitions organised by universities.

And the impact is felt beyond what many would consider the traditional areas of learning and teaching, and research. In the 2018/19 Higher Education Business and Interaction Business Survey, Welsh universities delivered 284,343 days of continuing professional development to employers across Wales. And Wales continues to punch above its weight for graduate start-ups, having the highest number of graduate start-up businesses in the UK per capita. 

There were uncertainties for the sector before Covid-19. We have spoken at length about financial risks posed for universities in Wales as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

So far, in the current round of EU structural funds since 2014, Welsh universities have secured over £280m as lead partners on approved projects. There are still uncertainties on how these funds will be replaced in the coming years. 

And more recently, the financial pressures coming to bear on the sector as a result of Covid-19 have been highlighted by Universities UK in their paper outlining a package of proposed stability measures for the sector.

As well as the financial impact of lost income and refunds in this academic year – including a possible £35m from loss of income of accommodation, conferencing and catering services – there are risks from the possibility of a decrease in the number of students – home and international – studying next academic year. 

Current estimates suggest that if there was a 50% reduction in international students, the possible loss of income would be a total of £88m. And if 15% of home students deferred until the following year, that would be another £36m.

When we emerge from this crisis – a process that most experts seem to think will be staged and step-by- step – in many ways the role that universities play in Wales will not be that different but may be even more important.

The contribution to local economies across Wales, the international links, the role providing pipeline for key sectors including the health service. But, perhaps crucially, the offer of continuity that our institutions offer people and communities across Wales from Aberystwyth to Bangor, Wrexham to Swansea. 

Like many parts of our lives after this crisis, it won’t be business as usual; it can’t be.

The economic and social fabric of our country will have changed in ways we are unable to predict.

But just as Welsh universities have stepped up to be at the forefront of the national response to the immediate crisis, so too will the continued contributions to communities, regions and the nation be important in whatever comes next. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Julie Lydon is Chair of Universities Wales.

Also within Politics and Policy