The Tertiary Education & Research Commission for Wales: opportunities and challenges

There’s a lot to welcome in the proposals for a new Tertiary Education Authority, but it’s the detail and delivery that matter most, says Rachel Bowen

Rachel Bowen is Director of Policy and Development at ColegauCymru

The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is alleged to have said that “the only constant is change. That’s certainly the case in Wales as we look to drive up standards and improve learner experiences across education.

Following on from the Donaldson Review, Professor John Furlong’s Teaching tomorrow’s teachers, and changes to higher education funding via the Diamond Review, next up is the implementation of the recommendations made by Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, specifically, the recommendation to develop a Tertiary Education Authority –  a single regulatory, oversight and coordinating authority for the post-compulsory sector.  

Published in March 2016, Towards 2030: A framework for building a world-class post-compulsory education system for Wales proposed a different approach to post-compulsory education governance. It would ensure more effective co-ordination amongst public institutions and Welsh societal goals to enhance educational and career opportunities and quality, across the whole post-compulsory spectrum, and people’s lifetimes; anchor and underpin regional social, cultural and economic development; and, boost institutional and national global competitiveness.  Responding to the report in January 2017, Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, announced plans to consult on proposals for establishing a single, strategic authority, responsible for overseeing all aspects of post-compulsory education and training.

This consultation – Public Good and a Prosperous Wales: Building a reformed PCET system was launched on 20 June 2017.  At its heart is the proposal for a new body, ‘The Tertiary Education & Research Commission for Wales’ (TERCW).  

There is much in here to welcome.  A ‘made in Wales’ approach to post-compulsory education and training which makes it genuinely easier for people to learn and acquire skills throughout their careers is something we can all endorse.  But it’s the detail and practical delivery that matter most and often proves difficult to get right.

ColegauCymru has long called for a strategy to address post-compulsory education in Wales.  This was complemented by the Hazelkorn recommendation that the Welsh Government should develop an overarching vision for the PCET system, with stronger links between education / training policy and providers and social and economic goals. Further Education colleges are achieving great things in a variety of areas – from work-based learning to higher-level apprenticeships; from getting more students to be active through sport and wellbeing activities, to vocational work placements in catering, engineering and even seal sanctuaries across Europe via the Erasmus+ scheme.  All this is in addition to traditional academic routes and helping to improve basic skills and open up vocational pathways at a younger age.  With many HE courses now delivered in FE settings, this demonstrates the need to better integrate post-compulsory education in Wales.

Calls for vocational and academic routes to be equally valued have a long history but progress here is slow.  The current Welsh Government consultation says that a key focus of TERCW is equal value being placed on academic and vocational routes.  However, this could be made more explicit when establishing the new body and making it responsible for treating vocational and academic education equally in its decision-making and planning processes.  We must move beyond warm words into practical implementation if we genuinely want to achieve parity and ensure future learners can choose from the full range of options available to them.  TERCW also needs to play a significant role in helping Welsh Government address its aim of reaching a million Welsh speakers by 2050.  A post-compulsory approach to learning through the medium of Welsh and developing Welsh language skills across the sector is vital if we are to reach the Welsh Government target and meet employer demands for Welsh language skills.

The thorny issue of school sixth forms and their place in the post-compulsory landscape is also raised in the consultation.  Any approach to post-compulsory education and governance which excludes sixth forms cannot be said to be truly post-compulsory.  There are valid arguments as to why the inclusion of schools will be challenging.  However, we cannot continue with a system where, for instance, learners studying identical A Levels in FE are treated differently to those studying in sixth forms.  

The easy option here is to take the route of establishing TERCW without initially including sixth forms– the “long grass” option.  If Wales is serious about taking an holistic approach, this should be avoided.  Better to take longer to develop a system that is genuinely post-compulsory than try to bolt on sixth forms at a later date into a system designed without them.  

Likewise, all parts of the post-compulsory sector must approach ideas around TERCW with an open mind.  This cannot be a matter of trying to absorb FE and other areas into a reformed version of HEFCW, or concerns to protect existing boundaries and responsibilities.  A thoughtful response is needed from across the post-compulsory sector. There is much to be discussed and work to be done ahead of the October deadline!

 

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