The Welsh Government can do better on student voice

Jez Harvey is a Student Voice Coordinator

The announcement from the Welsh Government on the first appointments to the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) was another, expected and disappointing, step on a journey I have been on for more than 4 years.

No one with a background (particularly not a current role) in the student movement, student experience or student engagement has been appointed to the Commission.

It wasn’t even tempered with the expected announcement of the appointment of the NUS Wales President to an “Associate” position.

Why has this riled me so much? Currently there’s only an Associate position for the NUS Wales President on HEFCW Council – so what’s the big deal? Well, there are a number of them.

Step back in time

Firstly, some history. When the Tertiary Education and Research Act, which created the new Commission, was being drafted, we (NUS Wales) was approached about whether or not we would prefer a full seat or an “associate” seat on the Commission.

We indicated a full seat, but to make the point clearer, we invited the Welsh Government to our annual officer training to present to the newly elected Welsh SU officers and suggested they ask them. Unsurprisingly, the preferred option was a full seat.

18 Covid-disrupted months later when the draft Bill was released, we were surprised to find that there was no full seat for the NUS Wales President, with no convincing explanation as to why.

Secondly, whilst there is not quite the full “students at the heart of the system” that the Westminster Government were pushing at the time of the OfS creation, repeated statements from the Minister and this Principles for Change document published by the Welsh Government, as well as other pieces of legislation, suggest that they are firmly in favour of “user” involvement.

The recently passed Social Partnership and Public Procurement Act puts a duty on the First Minister to seek nominations to a new Social Partnership Council from the TUC Wales. The TUC Wales are also named in the Tertiary Education and Research Act as a body to be involved when it comes to worker representation.

TUC but no NUS

Thirdly, during the Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee scrutiny of the Bill, it was made clear by organisations ranging from HEFCW, QAA, the Welsh Local Government Association, and by the committee members themselves, that there should be more student and learner representation in the Bill and on the Commission.

Again, despite unanimous support for more student and learner representation, the best that was done was the inclusion of the importance of student voice in the strategic aims of the Act – something that should have been there in the first place.

I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why TUC Wales should be recognised but not NUS Wales. The Minister’s response to the Committee on the floor of the Senedd talked about conflicts of interest, but somehow, there is no conflict with the TUC.

Furthermore, he ended his remarks on this issue with…

However, I note the views of committee and stakeholders, and I’m exploring options for even greater provision in this area.

In the year and a half since this statement, I am aware of no other options being discussed publicly.

The failure of the Welsh Government to live up to its own expectations on “user involvement” is something that somehow still comes as a surprise, even more than three years into this. It’s in the interests of the sector, the students, and the Commission for their to be proper student and learner representation on the Commission.

The recent appointments, including the leadership of the Commission, are strong. Having worked with a number of them in the past, I know that they take their role seriously, and are properly mindful of the impact the decisions they make will have on students.

But there is no proper substitute for the authentic voice. A government that recently gave the vote to 16 year olds, mindful of the reality of the responsibilities on young people, should do better.

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