Kirsty Williams is Cabinet Secretary for Education in the Welsh government and Liberal Democrat AM for Brecon and Radnorshire.
It is an exciting period for education in Wales. We are delivering a transformational new curriculum; reforming teacher training and professional standards; and introducing the most progressive and equitable student support system in the UK.
Taken together, our education reforms are a national mission to reduce the attainment gap and raise standards for all. Post-compulsory education and training (PCET) is critical in improving lives and well-being, and is essential to individual and national prosperity. This morning, we are publishing a White Paper (Public Good and a Prosperous Wales) that sets out the Welsh Government’s proposals for reforming the PCET system. It also signals the start of nationwide conversation on the way forward for our institutions, learners, businesses, public services and researchers.
Our reforms take place within a challenging context. Not least the uncertainties associated with Brexit, and the technological transformation of economic and working lives. It is increasingly important that we connect research and innovation in our universities, companies and public services with education and skills development in these organisations and in our colleges and work-based learning providers. Without a high quality labour force, the potential of other productivity drivers – infrastructure, innovation, enterprise and competition – cannot be fulfilled. Skills enable workers to exploit infrastructure and innovation, to be more enterprising and to create a more competitive offer.
Our PCET providers will be key to the way in which learners and companies, citizens and public services are able to respond to these pressures. We need all of our educational and research institutions to make a contribution locally, while being aware and active internationally. We must work together to shape a system where institutions of all types are encouraged to co-operate to meet learners’ needs, enabling progression and building strong links with business, so that skills gaps can be addressed.
At the heart of this approach will be a new body, ‘The Tertiary Education & Research Commission for Wales’. It draws on models of best practice elsewhere in the world. But, crucially, we aim to maintain the benefits of national and institutional links between research, innovation, teaching, skills development and work-based learning. I am convinced that “linking teaching and research to societal needs and opportunities” is crucial to a strong, civically engaged post-compulsory education system.
In government, I have challenged our academic institutions to recapture a sense of civic mission. I recognise that to support this activity, and to ensure a strengthened mutual relationship between citizens, communities, researchers and providers, the framework for our post-compulsory education system itself needs greater clarity. This must promote a sense of purpose and ensure high quality options and outcomes for our citizens. The Commission will be essential in supporting this, not least through delivering a step-change in Wales-relevant data on progression, outcomes and associated conditions.
Innovation, responsiveness, institutional autonomy and academic freedom are principles that both the Welsh Government and the new Commission will continue to respect. I expect relationships and arrangements between providers and the new Commission to be within the context of a provider’s own medium and long term ambitions and objectives.
There is a growing complexity within our current system and landscape. Regulation and funding differs and diverges, even as boundaries between sectors and institutions break down. We have seen a welcome growth in employer investment in skills, which has risen faster than in other UK nations, and the increase in proportion of staff trained has matched UK progress. However, employers have become less willing to use further education colleges and universities to meet their training needs compared to commercial providers. Changes elsewhere in the UK will also have a knock-on effect on Wales and we need to ensure our system is fit for purpose and benefits learners of all ages, employers and communities.
As far back as the 1880s, the great progressive and educationalist Elizabeth Phillips Hughes advocated for a Welsh approach to shaping and delivering for our citizens – “education must be national, and must be in our own hands”. The White Paper proposes a ‘made in Wales’ approach to post-compulsory education and training so that it is easier for people to learn and acquire skills throughout their careers.
Our lives and economy are undergoing huge technological change. The knowledge and skills needed in a transformed workplace mean that ‘average is over’. Doing nothing, or maintaining the status quo, is not a viable option.