Posted tagged ‘Wales’

Reforming higher education in Wales

July 17, 2013

For those (like me) who are not always aware of what is happening in the Welsh university system, there are some current developments worth noting. Yesterday the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, announced his legislative programme for the coming year. This includes plans for a Higher Education (Wales) Bill, which will have the following purpose:

The Higher Education (Wales) Bill will provide the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) with a robust regulatory framework within which to operate to ensure quality of higher education and provide assurance about the financial health and governance of higher education providers and the quality of their provision. It will also enforce fee controls and to safeguard equality of opportunity for those accessing or intending to access higher education.

This announcement follows the Welsh Government’s recent Policy Statement on Higher Education, published last month. This set out a number of objectives for the system, including more ambitious research goals, a greater focus on access, better integration between higher and further education, and a drive to ensure that innovation in higher education benefits economic growth.

It will be interesting to see how the proposed Bill addresses the regulatory backdrop to all this. There have already been considerable structural changes in Welsh higher education over recent years, and it seems that further change may lie ahead.


Tuition fees in England: the Offa outcomes

July 12, 2011

It is well known by now that England’s universities are to be allowed to charge tuition fees of up to £6,000, or up to £9,000 if they reach an access agreement with the Office for Fair Access. This latter body, Offa, has now released the full list of tuition fees and details of agreements reached with individual universities.

First, it is clear from the data released that the planned fees have not been adjusted in the case of any university. As a result 47 out of a total of 123 English universities will charge the maximum permitted fee of £9,000. On this basis the average fee payable by students to English universities will be £8,393. However, in the table produced by Offa allowance has been made for fee waivers, bursaries and scholarships, and when these have been taken into account the average is reduced to £7,793. Again according to Offa, institutions will now invest £602 million in access measures that will improve participation by members of disadvantaged groups.

At the same time we also now have information about tuition fees in Wales: the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has announced that the average fee in Wales will be £8,800, though Welsh students will have a significant proportion of this refunded by the Welsh government.

What the impact of all this will be on higher education, participation levels, student attrition, student migration and access for the disadvantaged remains to be seen. It is also not at all clear at this point how effective the Offa régime is turning out to be. It is certain that a lot of attention will be focused on the higher education experience in England over coming years.

Fewer but stronger? The ongoing push to merge

July 4, 2011

It has become an article of faith in some political circles that it is better to have fewer universities. The thinking behind this appears to be that university mergers allow the pooling of resources, and the achievement of critical mass.

The latest push for mergers has just emerged in Wales. Higher Education Wales (HEW), the umbrella body for Welsh universities, is reported to have agreed that it will ‘cooperate with proposals to halve the number of Welsh institutions’ – the current number being 12 (already down from 15 a couple of years ago).

Stakeholders in the system, from the Welsh government to the trade unions, have broadly welcomed the HEW position, and so it appears that a process to achieve these aims will get under way quickly. Whether this makes as much sense as the commentary would suggest is debatable. Reducing the number of institutions by six over a short period of time is no easy task, and is likely to involve very difficult decisions and some disorientation within the system. Whether the outcome will provide Wales with stronger institutions may also not be as obvious as is being suggested. Mergers only add strength if there is a already a high level of strategic collaboration that involves academics working on the ground. A top-down merger process is much more vulnerable, as some unsuccessful attempts have shown (most notably in London, with the failed merger of Imperial College and University College nearly ten years ago). Furthermore, the most immediate impact of mergers tends to be higher costs, and these may create issues during a time of public expenditure cuts.

On the other hand, strategic alliances and partnerships can be very effective. In that sense the approach that has been adopted by the universities in Ireland – to work towards clusters of strategic collaboration, in which provision can also be rationalised – may be rather more effective.

Wales may end up in a position where all universities have been in a merger process. Whether this will produce stability and strategic innovation is very debatable. But no doubt the rest of us will watch with some interest to see how it goes.

Does it matter how many universities we have?

December 23, 2010

Over the past two years or so, one of the under-currents of debate on Irish higher education has been the assertion that the country has too many universities. This claim appeared in the government’s 2008 paper, Building Ireland’s Smart Economy, and has since been repeated from time to time by various commentators. As I have pointed out previously, this is a very debatable claim, and if anything Ireland has fewer universities for every thousand of the population than almost any other comparable country.

One interesting comparison might be our Celtic neighbours in Wales. The population of Wales is about 1 million smaller than that of Ireland, but it has 11 universities to Ireland’s seven. Now, however, the Welsh funding agency (the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales) has suggested that this number should be reduced to six, and the Education Minister Leighton Andrews has told universities they must ‘adapt or die’.

The basis of this Welsh policy perspective appears to be that universities, to be internationally competitive, must have critical mass in income – measured against the median university income in England. This argument would need to be developed a little further before it would convince me; it is clear enough that resources need to be adequate to develop strong academic performance, but this should be measured against specific subject areas  and student numbers rather than the overall institutional position. Nor is it clear to me that a higher-income multi-campus university – particularly where those campuses are widely dispersed – is at any kind of advantage over a somewhat smaller single-campus institution.

There are good reasons for analysing much more closely what it is that makes a university viable. The answers lie in its strategic purpose, its inter-imnstitutional links and partnerships, its non-state revenues, its market position, and so forth.  How many universities there are in the country is a relatively uninteresting factor in the analysis, and governments and their agencies should stop obsessing about it.