In Wales we are used to getting all of our regulated institutions around a table. For 2023, we are going to need to buy a bigger table.
Of course, we have worked with partners outside higher education for decades, through our outreach programme Reaching Wider, through our innovation and economy links, through our equality and diversity work. But this time was different in that we brought together all of our regulated institutions, further education colleges and work-based learning provider representatives to…talk. To take stock of the post-16 sector in Wales, and to explore the challenges ahead. Not least the challenge of thinking differently, and seeing the post-16 sector in Wales as one.
So, what could we do together to better meet the needs of learners in a Welsh post-compulsory system?
The Education Minister is committed to establishing a new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) around 2023. For the first time at our conference on 7 March, we brought together the key stakeholders from the post-compulsory education and training (PCET) sector to explore the challenges and opportunities it faced, and how it could respond.
The CTER reforms aim to ensure a ‘whole-system solution’ to funding, regulation and performance in post-compulsory education, training, and research and innovation, to better deliver for learners and the economy for many years to come. Let us not forget the new commission’s research remit; research and innovation are a key part of the remit of the new Commission, as recognised in Professor Graeme Reid’s Review of Government Funded Research and Innovation in Wales. HEFCW has already started to address many of the issues which will be covered by the Commission and its proposed statutory research committee, developing a high-level vision for research and innovation in Wales, and rebranding our Research, Innovation and Engagement Committee as ‘Research Wales’, given the comparable policy support and responsibility with Research England.
At the event, supported by our colleagues in AdvanceHE, we made sure we heard from a range of voices from FE, tourism and business, and east of the border.
So, what did we take away from the day? With a hundred delegates, we cannot represent every voice in the room. But we can look at some common themes that make us hopeful about the next few years.
- There is an eagerness to embrace the diversity of provision in Wales, while upholding parity of esteem between different offers. We are all not so different after all; when we focus on learners and their journeys, we all have their best interests in mind.
- The new commission will have an opportunity to really ‘join the dots’ and cut down on bureaucracy. Furthermore, we should not underestimate the wisdom and knowledge of partner bodies. All have a contribution to make.
- The new commission will need to understand the post-16 continuum, and where students move across different parts of the system. Why can’t someone who doesn’t complete an FE course before becoming a degree apprentice be viewed as progression, not failure?
- It was interesting to hear about the further benefits of a more joined-up approach, such as greater coherence in working together on supporting the mental health and resilience of learners, and understanding the common stresses along the learner journey. And how can better independent career and progression advice be given to learners, from well before 16 years of age to adulthood, and in conjunction with unwavering widening access activities?
- Where are the school sixth forms in this? An excellent question raised by several delegates on the day. Following our first foray into bringing the main PCET players together, we learned that we really need to find a way to involve them in our future deliberations.
- There is a lot of pride in the strengths of the sectors, from degree apprenticeships to university research.
- Any new model needs to be straightforward, flexible and responsive. Government must trust providers, and the new commission.
The show must go on
Of course, the new ways of thinking we are faced with do not come without their challenges.
There will always be – and always have to be – competition between providers and between sectors. Yet this is also seen as a duplication of offer. Can anything be done about it? How can providers get to a place of mutual trust where they can make the difficult decisions about duplicate courses? Collective promotions put the learner first, but there is still competition for students between, for example, sixth forms and FE colleges; and between universities. There is an increasing appetite for providers to work together for learners, and to sell their collective offer in Wales and in the rest of the UK.
So many conversations so far have been about the creation of the new commission, but what of the vision for post-16 education? While there was some disappointment at the lack of a fully-formed vision yet forthcoming from decision-makers, it was also seen as an ideal opportunity for the post-16 sector to help feed into the vision.
The Augar review is just one in a long line of reviews that has a potentially far-reaching impact on Wales, with barely an acknowledgement of its sphere of influence in what continues to be a Wales/England higher education market. Thanks to the clear-sighted decision of the Welsh Government to implement to recommendations of the Diamond Review, both our part-time and full-time undergraduate domiciles can access living support (including grants). Postgraduate students are also supported, while we now have improved capacity to invest in the higher education experience. The Diamond package is a promise, most of all, to the students and, in the context of ever pressured public finances, we need to ensure we keep that promise.
The challenge for the new commission will be to try to find ways in which providers can thrive by playing to their core strengths to meet the needs of Wales. The challenge for providers will be to ask themselves whether they are doing all they can – with resources which will always be limited – to meet the needs of learners.
Leading the way
PCET is arguably the strongest engine Welsh government has for social and economic change. As a single system, it would also have immense potential. We need to do more to focus on an ‘investment’ narrative for the Welsh government and other funders – and an investment that is not just cast in economic terms. Post-compulsory education is about more than skilling an economy.
Change is a challenge for all of us. There is scope for us all to work better on what we agree, rather than just focus on small areas where we don’t. We in HEFCW have always been supportive of this bold move in principle. And we do look forward to what the future will bring.