Leighton Andrews, the former Welsh Government Education & Skills Minister resigned on Tuesday in a shock move. The former Minister has long been a divisive figure, hitting national headlines with his Welsh student support package, the reconfiguration agenda and his qualifications spat with Michael Gove. But despite negative headlines and plenty of arguments, the Minister has rarely been on the back foot. Indeed, he has reshaped the landscape and topography of Welsh higher education – far reaching policies that are likely to reverberate for many years to come.
Andrews’ introduction of the tuition fee grant, announced in late 2010 but implemented alongside £9k fees in 2012, is one such policy. The fee grant ensured that all Welsh full-time undergraduate students, wherever they studied, would not suffer from the tripling of tuition fees that year. A distinct direction for Welsh HE that brought praise and criticism in equal measure.
The tuition fee grant is guaranteed until the end of the current Welsh Assembly in 2016 but has brought with it a range of implications. Significantly, the fee grant will have a colossal impact on the ability for the funding council to fund Welsh Government priorities as HEFCW’s budget is increasingly squeezed.
The success of the policy and the financial stability of Welsh universities are also ever more dependent on students from the rest of the UK bringing tuition fees into Welsh HE. Currently, the cross-border flow is looking promising with UCAS reporting a 10% rise in English students applying for Welsh Universities, but the uncertainty that unpredictable flows bring to the policy should not be underestimated.
And part-time students in Wales are still waiting for a support and funding package as generous as those who are able to study full-time. The predicted reappraisal of the part-time support never materialised, other than in the expectation that universities would maintain current part-time fee levels and the announcement of a non-means tested loan for part-time students.
And with HEFCW’s role as principle funder now rapidly declining, it is finding it increasingly difficult to influence university policy.
Fee plans outlining each university’s annual targets and expenditure of additional fee income have become the key way through which the funding council are able to exert influence, but their ability to enforce fee plans to date has been limited.
The current Welsh Government technical consultation on higher education seeks to address this by providing HEFCW with additional powers and ability to sanction, changing its role from a funder to regulator.
Theoretically, HEFCW will be strengthened to hold institutions to targets around such areas as widening access and Welsh-medium provision.
Perhaps more so than student support and funding, Andrews’ reconfiguration of the sector and the associated mergers has dominated the higher education agenda in Wales for the past two years.
The merger in the south west of Wales of the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David and Swansea Metropolitan University in 2012 made its own headlines. But it was the merger of the University of Wales, Newport and the University of Glamorgan this year that saw the real fireworks. The process was a protracted one and the Minister had originally intended to include Cardiff Metropolitan in the deal.
Leighton Andrews made his merger intentions absolutely clear when he commenced a consultation mid-2012 to look at the possibility of dissolving Cardiff Met, whether voluntarily or forcibly. The very public to-and-fro around a forced merger saw serious resistance from Cardiff Met’s including legal threats and much talk of going ‘private’.
This situation was resolved when Newport and Glamorgan asked for the consultation to be withdrawn so that they could progress in a two-way merger which was granted by the Minister, effectively ending his threat to force these institutions together.
The new University of South Wales is now a behemoth of an institution. For student numbers, it the biggest in Wales and the sixth biggest in the UK. The future of Cardiff Met is still uncertain, swamped geographically by two much bigger institutions, but most likely relieved to see the back of Leighton Andrews.
When in December 2012, the former Minister announced a move away from the reconfiguration agenda and then, earlier this month, unveiled his new ‘Policy statement on higher education’ there was a marked a shift in rhetoric. The statement was enthusiastically received by the Welsh HE sector. Many of them felt the talk of forced mergers and reconfiguration had been damaging to the sector’s reputation. But the resignation has left many wondering where this statement now stands given the appointment of Huw Lewis, the former Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty to the Education and Skills brief.
So far, the new Minister has given an early indication that widening access will be high on his agenda. And his background in tackling poverty and finance, most recently through his work with credit unions, could prove beneficial when considering the very real financial challenges students face in Wales from transport to living costs.
Leighton Andrews had been one of Wales’ most prominent politicians in the UK. Many of his spats and squabbles have played out very publicly across Twitter and the media, often to the amazement of students and onlookers. But it is likely that we will not understand the impact of his policies for some time.
As we wait to find out the future shape of the Welsh Government’s HE policy, perhaps the only thing we can say with any certainty is that after the fights in the last two years, the word ‘reconfiguration’ is unlikely to feature heavily.