Williams says that these are “exciting times” to be part of reforms to higher education in Wales. The government’s plans are ambitious, but essential to ensuring that the government delivers for higher education, and that higher education delivers for Wales.
We now move to questions. First up: “how are things going with the Treasury” in Westminster?
Williams states that the indicators so far have “been positive” from Whitehall, and she does not anticipate any problems with the Treasury, so felt confident enough to press ahead with the government consultation before getting formal sign-off.
Our second question is about the Hazelkorn Review and reforming the regulatory landscape in Welsh HE and FE. Williams is frank that her department only has capacity to deal with one issue at a time, but that a decision will be made on Hazelkorn in early January and a public statement made in late January.
Next up is a question on research funding. Williams states that Diamond’s proposals on research funding are still “very much on the agenda”, but that work on this matter is progressing in collaboration with ministers in other departments and will have some dependence on the Higher Education and Research Bill currently being debated in Westminster.
Williams: “No one should underestimate the challenges of implementation when it comes to capacity in the Student Loans Company”, and that her postbag is dominated by angry letters about the service currently being provided for many Welsh students. The current system is “unacceptable” to her but she is “confident” that after discussions with the SLC it will be able to deliver the service necessary in time for implementing the new student support system. She adds that officials at the SLC have been working very very hard to ensure things move forward. There are, however, “contingencies”.
Rob Humphreys jumps in on this point: it is a classic example of the stresses and strains that can be put on a UK-wide organisation in a devolved system. The people of Wales have a stake in the SLC, but it’s only 5% – there is a challenge of scale, and it’s very difficult to prioritise needs and demands from Wales when England owns 85% of the company. Putting Wales at the back of the queue “is frankly unacceptable”.
Williams, with refreshing frankness, says she is determined to deliver on the Welsh sector’s hopes for Diamond and that she has learned from her colleagues’ experiences in Westminster in Coalition. Doesn’t want anyone to say ‘I knew she wouldn’t do it, she’s a Liberal Democrat’.