Focus on the future: Transformation for higher education in Wales
This past year has been a tumultuous time for education in Wales – resignations, mergers and exam changes have made for eye-catching headlines. Amid the seeming chaos is a plan to strengthen Welsh education and put it in position to compete with its more famous neighbours, Scotland and England.
Making it on their own
Assessment in Welsh secondary education has long been the same as that in UK, until this year. The Welsh government decided to go it alone and develop Wales-only GCSE exams, to begin in 2015. The decision came after England made the move to replace GCSE’s with the ‘O’ Level style English Baccalaureate.
“It seals the split with the exam system in England, which is facing a complete overhaul by UK education secretary Michael Gove.”
The decision to keep GCSE’s while England phases them out was made to provide stability for Welsh students to “study tried and tested qualifications” rather than introduce a new testing system which could cause problems for students. What are the implications for higher education? Students who wish to progress to university must be confident their Welsh qualifications are recognised and accepted at colleges and universities in England, Scotland and throughout the rest of the world. The Welsh Conservatives' education spokeswoman, Angela Burns, said:
“These proposals setting out how Wales-only qualifications could be developed must secure the confidence of employers and universities in Wales and beyond."
Deputy minister for skills Jeff Cuthbert noted that "a UK-wide communication strategy [was needed] 'to raise the profile of qualifications in Wales', especially with employers and universities in England." Meanwhile, Gareth Jones, secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL Cymru, eased concerns by stating: “There is no reason why Welsh students should be disadvantaged, as long as the qualifications are implemented properly and are of a high quality. English universities have been taking Scottish and overseas students for years and they manage the transition well.” By choosing not to follow England in changing assessment methods, the Welsh government are effectively declaring: we are not England, we are different but our education is just as good.
Brain (and funding) drain
A concern for Welsh higher education is that many Welsh students are leaving Wales to study at English or Scottish universities, effectively causing ‘brain drain’. In June Wales Online reported:
“The cream of Welsh students are choosing to study at universities in England…. Figures obtained… provide clear evidence that Wales’ best young brains are being lost to higher education institutions across the border.”
Welsh students are taking their talents elsewhere and hence, taking their money with them. According to figures uncovered by the Welsh Conservative party, Wales is losing up to £15.3 million to five universities in England (Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Liverpool and Chester) which enrol 2,778 Welsh undergraduates. The Welsh government's tuition fee policy subsidises Welsh students up to £5,500 for tuition fees, wherever they study. This means the Welsh Government is paying for undergraduates enrolled in English universities, something which rankles the opposition party. The concern is that this funding is leaving the country when it could be used by Welsh higher education to improve resources, invest in new facilities and hire more lecturers. Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns said:
“We are seeing the damaging effects it is having on our universities by sending much needed resources over the border and makes it even more difficult to raise standards [in Wales].”
Essential to the Welsh economy
Welsh leaders don’t want to see their ‘best and brightest’ leave the country, not only because of funding, but also because higher education provides a big boost to the Welsh economy. The more students who study in Wales, the greater the knock-on effect it has on the local economy. Recent research by Higher Education Wales showed that universities created £3.6 billion for the economy nationwide. This isn’t just from the £1 billion students spend – tens of thousands of jobs are created: “Universities in Wales employ about 16,000 full-time members of staff. However, the research shows that altogether nearly 40,000 people are employed directly or indirectly by universities, which is about 3% of the workforce.”
Higher education is key to economic growth in Wales and there is a focus on developing it to meet future demands and place Welsh institutions on the global radar.
“In the current climate of economic uncertainty, we see Welsh universities as being one of the central drivers of a future economic recovery, and… positive impact the sector has on delivering jobs, conducting award-winning research and creating economic growth,” said Amanda Wilkinson, director of Higher Education Wales. One example is Glyndwr University Business School’s new degree programme in App Development. The University recognised the worldwide need for skilled app developers and saw a gap in the market for a degree in this field. Professor Chris Jones who is the Head of the Business School said, “I think one of the key things that people in Wales should be doing is actually making themselves leaders in that particular area.” The outcome would be job creation and economic development. John Hughes, the vice-chancellor of Bangor University and the chair of Higher Education Wales, agrees. He said,
“If we train people here in Wales, we'd hope they would stay in Wales. But they're only going to stay if the industry is here, if the companies are here to attract them, to keep them. It's one of the things that the universities are trying to do.”
Less is more
One way the Welsh government is hoping to strengthen higher education in the country is by reducing the number of colleges and universities, and concentrating on developing those that are left. The past year has seen two new higher education institutions created in Wales by merging several existing institutions.
- The University of South Wales was created in April of this year by bringing together the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport. The new university is now “the sixth largest university in the UK, with 33,000+ students from 122 countries, and includes campuses in Cardiff, Newport and Treforest. It also boasts that 93% of USW students are in employment or further study within six months of graduating.
- The University of Wales: Trinity Saint David Group (UWTSD) is a merger of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Swansea Metropolitan University and, recently, the further education college Coleg Sir Gar. The University of Wales Trinity Saint David itself was a merger of the University of Wales Lampeter and Trinity University College in 2010. New Education Minister Huw Lewis said: “By bringing together further and higher education in this way, this new institution will be able to offer learners a whole range of different opportunities and build on vital partnerships within the business community.”
is to create “a smaller number of stronger universities in Wales.” This was the goal of former Education Minister Leighton Andrews, who in 2010 “warned universities their future funding, including being allowed to charge higher tuition fees, would depend on a willingness to ‘progress swiftly to merger and reconfiguration.’” It seems to have worked; a recent headline proclaimed that overall funding for Welsh universities will increase by 13.6% in 2013/4, with newly formed UWTSD benefiting from a nearly 20% rise.
Wales as a centre for research
Cardiff University is commonly recognised as Wales’ leading university. But the country cannot rest on the laurels of one university alone; one way to strengthen higher education across the board is to develop Welsh higher ed as a destination for research. The government recently appointed a new Chief Scientific Advisor; Professor Julie Williams will begin her role in September. Minister for the Economy, Science & Transport, Edwina Hart, said: “The role of the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government is an important one, particularly given the Government’s stated commitment to research, development and innovation and its importance for jobs and growth in Wales.” The appointment of Prof Williams is an indication of the emphasis the Welsh government is placing on science and research as a way forward for Wales. The First Minister Carwyn Jones echoed Edwina Hart’s sentiments:
“…the role of science in society and the economy is growing in importance. I am confident that [Prof Williams] will take us to the next level in terms of our ambition to create a strong and vibrant science base in Wales.”
Welsh universities are already being recognised for the quality of their research. A report released in February by the Learned Society of Wales stated that given the lower levels of funding Welsh universities receive, compared to their English counterparts, they are performing well. The report highlighted several research projects taking place across Wales - Fusion in Cardiff, the Institute of Life Science and the Innovation Campus in Swansea, the Pontio arts and science project at Bangor University - and said these will contribute significantly to Welsh economic development. But more can be done to give Wales the boost it needs to be recognised around the world for its research. The Welsh Government stepped up and created the ‘Science for Wales’ or Ser Cymru programme and pumped £50 million into a fund to attract top scientific, academic and research talent to the country. The first point on the Science for Wales Welsh Government Vision statement makes it clear:
“Our goal is to build a strong and dynamic science base that supports the economic and national development of Wales.”
Two more examples include:
- Swansea University received £20 million from the European Regional Development Fund to invest in building an Engineering Manufacturing Centre. First Minister Jones said the EMC as well as the entire Science and Innovation Campus will create “a cornerstone for world-leading research and employment opportunities in the construction industry as work gets underway.”
- A research consortium made up of the universities in Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Bangor, Glamorgan and Swansea received funding from The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) to “create an integrated structure for the commercialisation of new technologies within Wales and internationally.”
Clearly, higher education in Wales is doing what it can to break free from the shadow of Scotland and England’s more well-known colleges and universities. By strengthening the education system at both the secondary and tertiary levels, and investing in growing and developing science and research capabilities, Wales is focused on boosting its economy locally and raising its profile internationally.