White Paper reforms will reach into Wales, whether welcome or not

The Welsh Assembly

Since the publication of the White Paper, wonks across the whole of the UK have been analysing its implications. As is often the case with policymaking, the impact on the devolved nations has been relatively unexamined so far. Three areas will need to be directly considered: the TEF, creation of UKRI, and the new requirements to publish admissions data. However, there will also be indirect consequences as the regulatory regimes in England and the rest of the UK continue to diverge.

A multitude of influencing factors has led to a great deal being up for grabs in Welsh higher education policy. A new Labour government has been formed – despite some obstacles. It includes the surprise appointment of Kirsty Williams, the sole Liberal Democrat AM, as cabinet member for education. The first thing to cross her desk is the long awaited Diamond Review of Welsh higher education.

Tuition subsidies for Welsh students are likely to be cut after extensive disquiet about Welsh government money crossing the border. Labour’s manifesto promised to adopt the outcomes of Diamond, but one wonders just how much the Liberal Democrats wish to be made responsible for a post-election rise in tuition fees once again.

The passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill will leave Wales as the only place where large parts of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act remain in force. HEFCW was founded by that act (preempting devolution by five years), but Labour’s manifesto and the Hazlekorn Review propose abolishing the council and introducing a single funding council that covers further and higher education together. The funding outcomes of Diamond might also point towards a new model for regulation, although an Act modifying HEFCW’s powers was passed only last year. That Act also included restrictions on alternative providers entering the market.

It is likely that any new body (the suggested name, ‘Tertiary Education Authority’, has an unfortunate acronym) would continue to act as an ‘intermediary’ organisation in the manner of HEFCW and HEFCE, rather than taking the tougher regulatory role anticipated for the Office for Students in England. However, HEFCW’s current plans for quality are to take on proposals from HEFCE such as annual data-monitoring returns, but also to maintain 6-year reviews against baseline standards. Welsh universities have already expressed their concerns about this, nominally out of wanting to avoid ‘fragmentation’ with England, but perhaps also out of fear of over-regulation. However, some embarrassing episodes in the not-too-distant past have made the Welsh authorities keen to keep a lid on quality assurance.

Yet on top of this, Welsh universities are keen not to miss the boat when it comes to the TEF. The short timeframe of the technical consultation presents a problem for the sector which is currently preoccupied with the haggling over Diamond. Decisions about whether to participate and how this should impact the funding arrangements need to be made quickly.

Furthermore, the recommendations from Diamond are almost entirely based on looking at the English funding system which is about to be changed. Welsh institutions will not be able to fully assess the relative pros and cons of the TEF until they understand their own funding settlement and the outcomes of the TEF’s technical consultation. In both cases, the priority for Welsh institutions is to remain competitive and comparable with the English sector in funding, regulation and league tables, and they will settle for an outcome that gives the best deal on all these fronts.

There are also some choppy waters to be navigated in research. The Nurse Review recommended that a UK-wide single research body, which we now know to be UKRI, should engage in “regular dialogue” with the devolved governments, but was light on detail. There will be some nervousness in all the devolved nations about whether their representation and input into the new body will be marginal. Effective collaborative habits will need to be established straight away in order to avoid conflict in the future.

There is thus a great deal for Welsh higher education to consider in the coming months, and the detailed interactions between new regulators, funding structures, quality assurance, TEF and UKRI are almost impossible to predict. While the Welsh sector might be spared the more intrusive and direct regulation that looks likely in England, it is far from establishing its full independence from Westminster and Whitehall influence.

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