Welsh universities raise the white flag

Geraint Talfan Davies sees hope for more rational change in the higher education sector in Wales

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA and was a member of the McCormick Review of Higher Education Governance in Wales.

Two statements issued in the last five days suggest that attitudes amongst Welsh universities to the Welsh Government’s ‘reconfiguration agenda’ – that is, mergers – may be changing after years of stubborn resistance in some quarters.

At the end of last week Higher Education Wales – which represents all Welsh universities – issued a statement which broke new ground in terms of seeming acquiescence to the Welsh Government’s wish to see fewer universities or, at the very least, fewer Vice-Chancellors. After a characteristically wordy preamble came this apparently unequivocal statement:

“Though universities are legally autonomous and mergers are a matter for university governing bodies to decide, in this changed environment we are working with the approach of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Welsh Government on the size and shape of the university sector.

“We are clear that this new strategic approach will require further reconfiguration of the university sector and will be of all round benefit. The gains for Wales of fewer but stronger and more successful universities working collaboratively with the Welsh Government will be substantial. Higher Education Wales will therefore be working to fulfill the goals, including on reconfiguration, outlined in the Funding Council’s Corporate Strategy for 2010-11–2012-13.”

Some caveats are in order. I say ‘apparently unequivocal’ simply because it is not easy to assess how whole-heartedly each and every institution is backing the statement. It may depend on whether or not they have a clear view of their desired partner in the new configuration. Not that they are exactly being rushed to the altar by Education Minister, Leighton Andrews. A decade of encouragement by him and his three predecessors towards this end hardly amounts to a speed-dating session. But on the face of it the statement amounts to raising the white flag.

However, it is worth noting that the statement came from Higher Education Wales, the body that is made up of Vice Chancellors, and not the parallel body that represents the Chairs of Governors and University Councils (CHEW). Is that an escape hatch?

If Higher Education Wales means what it says, and wishes to avoid polishing a reputation for prevarication, one must presume that we will shortly see bilateral or trilateral talks between a variety of institutions, that will seek to meet the criteria set out by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales just before Christmas last year. The Funding Council’s criteria were as follows:

  • The number of universities in Wales should cut to no more than six by 2013.
  • There should be no more than two institutions in each of the three Welsh higher education regions – north and mid Wales (which currently includes Bangor, Aberystwyth and Glyndŵr universities); south west Wales (Swansea, Swansea Metropolitan, and Trinity Saint David universities); and south east Wales (Cardiff, Glamorgan, UWIC and Newport).
  • No more than two universities in Wales should have an income less than the UK median –  and neither of these should be in the south east Wales region.

Welsh universities that currently fall below the UK median are Newport, UWIC, Swansea Metropolitan, Trinity Saint David, Glyndŵr, and depending on the precise criteria adopted in calculating the position, possibly both Aberystwyth and Bangor.

The Funding Council has made it clear that it wishes any reconfiguration to be contained within each of the three regions. So, taking its criteria together, and if they are followed by the universities, they require:

(i) The merger of Glamorgan, UWIC and the University of Wales, Newport in south east Wales.

(ii) The merger of Trinity Saint David and Swansea Metropolitan in south west Wales, which has already been agreed.

(iii) Potentially a merger or some kind of grouping of all three universities in north and mid Wales.

As if to underline the apparent change in sectoral attitudes, UWIC announced this week that it was withdrawing from its proposed merger with the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David and Swansea Metropolitan, that was launched with much hyperbole last February. On the face of it you might think that to withdraw from a proposed merger is to fly in the face of the ministerial agenda, but you would be wrong.

UWIC’s involvement in that federation was, in the opinion of many, ill-advised. This was partly on grounds of geography – the proposed merger crossed the regional boundaries. However, many thought it ill-advised because of continued doubts about the University of Wales, especially in the light of the most recent severe strictures from the Quality Assurance Agency. Even some of UWIC’s own governors were sceptical. While it provided a rescue package for the beleaguered University of Wales, there appeared to be little in it for UWIC itself, other than as a way of avoiding merger with the University of Glamorgan, with whom it was engaged in abortive merger talks back in 2003.

Allying a Cardiff-based institution with universities in west Wales didn’t seem to offer any obvious synergies, certainly not in comparison with the potential of institutional mergers within south east Wales. The merger of Glamorgan, Newport and UWIC would still be one of the bigger prizes for higher education in Wales. With UWIC now back in play, this has to be back on the agenda. Reconfiguration in south east Wales has to produce institutions that can compete with the west of England, where Bristol University and University of the West of England are formidable competitors.

But two things will be needed to make this happen. UWIC will have to overcome its traditional paranoia about takeover by a larger institution, while Glamorgan, the larger entity, will have to be more sensitive to the psychology of the smaller entity, as in all merger situations. UWIC has tended to be too fearful, Glamorgan too brazen. Since the collapse of the earlier talks eight years ago, UWIC has improved its position and, if anything, Glamorgan has slipped a little. The two institutions are now nearer together. UWIC’s quality of student experience is something that ought to be of value to Glamorgan, whose high drop-out rate may not be entirely attributable to its readiness to take more disadvantaged students.

Further west the combination of the University of Wales with Trinity Saint David and Swansea Metropolitan will seem like one of the weaker entities, unless they can persuade Swansea University to join the group. Swansea, of course, may find that proposition less attractive.

Much of this will come back onto university governors. As Higher Education Wales’ statement said, “Universities are legally autonomous and mergers are a matter for university governing bodies to decide”. In that context it would be worth reminding governors that, contrary to some advice, they are perfectly entitled to take a wide view of these issues.

At a recent conference of the Learned Society of Wales one heard again the proposition that governors have “legal obligations to look after their own institutions’ interests first and foremost”, as if this always trumped consideration of a long term view of the interests of the existing and future student body and the sector. As the McCormick Review of Governance in Higher Education in Wales stated:

“…governors need to be mindful of national needs as well as government policy and priorities. This does not conflict with their responsibility to the institution, but rather enables them to question more thoroughly institutional strategy, performance and direction”.

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