A former Aberystwyth SU president is Wales’ new First Minister

A new First Minister in Wales knows his way around the higher education sector. Universities Wales' Kieron Rees asks what Vaughan Gething might do next

Kieron Rees is Head of External Affairs and Policy at Universities Wales.

The Welsh Labour leadership contest result, announced on Saturday 16 March, saw Vaughan Gething MS elected. He’s set to become First Minister following a vote in the Senedd later this week.

He will be only the fifth First Minister since Welsh devolution in 1999, with Wales having the lowest turnover in national leaders of any of the four UK nations, and he will follow Mark Drakeford MS who has held the role since 2018 and attained perhaps the highest public visibility of any previous First Minister.

With Wales set to soon have a new leader, it poses the question: what does this mean for universities?

Engaging with universities

Vaughan Gething has a long history of working with universities. He was President of Aberystwyth Students’ Union prior to becoming NUS Wales President in 1997, during which time he campaigned for devolution. He has maintained positive relationships with NUS Wales over the years and delivered the keynote speech at the organisation’s 40th anniversary dinner.

In office, his most extensive engagement with universities has been as Minister for Economy. That portfolio included responsibility for research and innovation, skills, and apprenticeships (with degree apprenticeships a shared responsibility with Education).

Innovation proved a focus in recent years; not least through the development of Welsh government’s Innovation Strategy (Wales Innovates), which was a commitment made in the cooperation agreement between the government and Plaid Cymru.

Manifesto commitments

Many of the themes in ‘Wales Innovates’ are reflected in Vaughan Gething’s manifesto: from innovation in healthcare to a focus on clean energy and responding to the climate emergency. Key sectors such as advanced manufacturing, including compound semiconductors, and the creative industries also feature prominently in both documents.

There is an inevitable emphasis on the number and quality of jobs and the size of the economy: a continuing challenge for Wales with historic low levels of productivity which is reflected across wages, research and development investment and the loss of talent to other parts of the UK.

For the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER), which received its Statement of Priorities from Welsh government a few weeks ago, there is an indication that there may be a shift in expectations with the manifesto committing to “structuring CTER to focus on cross cutting themes such as lifelong learning and green skills”.

One of the core themes of the manifesto is “Ambitious Futures” –  which foregrounds educational opportunity at every age and stage of life. This will be a key challenge. As Universities Wales has highlighted previously, the higher education participation gap between Wales and the UK is wider than at any point since 2006, the earliest comparable data point. At the same time, 16-year-old participation in education and work-based training in Wales has dropped 10 percentage points since 2017, meaning a smaller proportion of young people are able to progress up the skills ladder.

Replacement EU funding

Many of the areas within Vaughan Gething’s remit as Minister for Economy – such as research and innovation, apprenticeships, and skills – have previously relied heavily on investment from EU Structural Funds and, since our withdrawal from the EU, have faced significant pressures as a result. Universities alone received over £300m in EU funds as lead partners in projects over the last funding period (2014-2021). These projects spanned Wales and delivered in areas such as advanced manufacturing, collaborations with businesses, skills development with SMEs, life scenes, and energy capture and storage. The importance of this work was recognised in Welsh government’s Regional Investment Framework which set out how Welsh government would use replacement funds.

Vaughan Gething’s manifesto emphasises Keir Starmer’s commitment at the 2023 Welsh Labour conference to devolve replacement funds to Welsh Government and highlights how those funds would support a Fair Work fund and also return lost investment to apprenticeships. A key question for universities will be whether those funds will also be used to mitigate the loss of capacity and jobs in research and innovation resulting from the withdrawal of EU structural funds.

A new Cabinet

Although Vaughan’s manifesto sets out the top-level commitments, what they mean for universities will depend on both the structure of the Cabinet – where responsibilities fall between roles – and who is in each role. Higher education, further education, skills, and research have all, at different points, been the responsibility of ministers or deputy ministers across education and economy.

Although I am not unwise enough to speculate about who may be Minister for Education, whoever it is will be responsible for an extensive reform programme already underway with the establishment of the CTER along with a range of challenges across the education environment including low participation and the difficult financial pressures institutions face.

The position of universities

It is an uncertain time for Welsh universities with downward pressure on public funding, a difficult cost environment, concerns around international recruitment, and significant participation challenges among Welsh young people.

While the policy change that comes with new leadership always offers opportunities and risks, many of the pressures we face are external to Wales and, in some cases, the UK.

But the ambitions outlined in Vaughan Gething’s manifesto are ones where Welsh universities are well-placed to support. Whether it is leveraging the research and innovation expertise of Welsh universities to build the green economy or innovate in the public sector, or utilising universities’ export strengths, which account for 12 percent of Wales’ service sector exports, to support growth and jobs.

And at the heart of this is the central issue of the opportunities young people have, how to raise the aspirations of communities in Wales, and identify how we tackle the education participation challenge that is urgent and crucial to Wales’ social and economic future.

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