“There shall be and there is hereby constituted and founded a university in and for Wales, for both men and women to be eligible equally for north, mid and south Wales, and for the advancement of the nation.
Jeremy Miles – the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Welsh Language – chose a choice quote from the founding charter of the University of Wales to open a speech to the sector on his vision and priorities for HE, held at the impressive Swansea Waterfront campus of Trinity St David.
The passage was chosen to emphasise that while he’d been invited to speak on HE in Wales, he was keen to stress the contribution of universities to Wales – a neat reframing of Scotand’s “something for something” outcomes agreements culture that managed to emphasise both history and an appropriately tempered bit of national pride.
Miles took over from impressive Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams almost a year ago to the day, and inherited a pretty much fully-formed Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill, whose passage through the Senedd had only really escaped her grasp because of Covid.
Over the year, other than speaking on the initial stages of the Bill and having to awkwardly explain why Wales seems to have to implement most of the regressive changes to student loan repayments that England keeps cooking up without consultation, he’s not had much to say about the HE part of his portfolio – so the speech was an important opportunity to both carve a distinctive tone (both for him and for Wales), and do that “vision” thing that lots of ministers try but few succeed in.
The good news is that he pretty much nailed it.
First of all we got a retelling of the purpose of the Bill. No pitting of FE and HE against each other here – and much more of a sense of the importance of articulation through distinctive components of the system, by putting values and ambitions into law that will guide the new commission:
A renewed commitment to lifelong learning, a focus on wider participation and equality of opportunity, global in outlook with a clear civic mission, continuous improvement, competitive and collaborative research and an expansion of provision through the medium of Welsh – building on the work of Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol which celebrated its own anniversary of ten years last week.
That might sound like your classic cakeism – and to some extent it is. But you can do that with a straight face if you’re envisioning an integrated tertiary education system in the way that Wales is.
The detail on which bits of the Welsh national mission might be more appropriately carried by different parts of that tertiary sector will come later – as will inevitable rows about funding – but for now Miles managed to carve out a role for his new Commission that sounds neither like the funding council of old, nor the unnecessarily adversarial market regulator of England – all without posing simplistic comparisons between producer and student interest:
The commission will help institutions build on their own strengths and mission. And at the same time, it will support each one to operate and complement each other, as part of a whole sector approach, distinctive institutions working in partnership, partnership between universities, and between universities and other providers. And in getting that right, I think we can ensure that students of all ages have the widest possible access to the fullest learning and training opportunities possible in both Welsh and English. That institution based research and innovation is part of a thriving national and international environment. And that by being responsible and active in each community and region, we maximise the potential of all citizens or companies or communities.”
Setting out the stall
Three themes followed. First – acting as music to the ears of the amassed vice chancellors – was institutional autonomy, on the basis that “we all benefit from a system of strong complementary institutions” and in “delivering for a wider range of learners at different times in their careers and lives”.
In England ministers and OfS are frequently contradictory about autonomy and responsiveness – demanding diversity of provision while running regulation that seems to run counter to it, frequently caveating autonomy in the student or public interest. Not so in Wales:
I want to urge university leaders, senior teams, chairs governing bodies, to be clear and focused about the unique role that your particular institution can play within the tertiary system in Wales… those who are recruiting, educating continuing to develop our key workers must be funded and supported to keep innovating in how they teach and train. Others have a greater capacity and capability to produce world leading research across the disciplines… We must, I think better shape and articulate how those strengths complement each other, be confident of our place in that landscape, knowing that it will be recognised.
Circles duly squared, theme two was arguably much more interesting. Here Miles suggested that we can all agree that “a university education” is transformative, broadens the mind, builds social and cultural capital, and nurtures skills and knowledge which help us succeed and work in life and in society. But his question on this “students as citizens” theme was whether the sector is articulating that – asking whether communities, businesses and public services know and understand the “added value” that students get from university.
There’s no shortage of ministers UK-wide that have stressed, over the years, these sorts of wider benefits of participation in HE – but it’s one thing to open a speech with this stuff only to then drift into economic and personal instrumentalism, and it’s another to set out a collaborative ambition around it:
All of you share that commitment to nurture your students as active citizens. And you do that in different and exciting ways. But I believe we can work together for a national Wales- wide “student as citizen” offer – and recognition so that wherever you’re studying, wherever you’re from, whatever your subject, Wales guarantees you the experience, knowledge and skills that will help you be an engaged and responsible citizen, contributing locally, nurturing well being and resilience, employability entrepreneurial skills, drawing strength from diverse communities, and being a true citizen of Wales and the world.”
The study environment
As part of this theme, we got the first real news of the night. Mental health and wellbeing, student safety and the study environment have been concerns of ministers UK-wide for a number of years – so it was curious when the Bill emerged that Wales wasn’t taking the opportunity to regulate in that space through the new Commission. That looks set to be rectified at Stage Three:
I can also confirm that I’m exploring how learner wellbeing can be an ongoing condition of provider registration with the new commission. The Commission will develop the detail, but I would expect this to include safely from harassment, and the recognition of the role that universities play in suicide prevention and safe campuses.”
There was some more meat on those citizen bones – outcome agreements will have to reflect the Lifelong Learning duty in the Bill (online taster courses, public lectures and seminars, working with local employers) and he was keen to “guard against part time learning and distance learning meaning one of the same in all circumstances.”
And as well as warm words on access and diversity, there will also need to be “genuine empowerment, democratic engagement, and skills development for students as citizens” – something which, if they’re smart, Wales’ students’ unions will already be thinking about how they can help to deliver.
Doing the right thing
Welsh ministers tend to find it just as hard to talk about HE without comparing to decisions in England as Wonkhe editorial staff do – and we got a bit of the usual in the speech. Noting that Wales has “the most progressive funding offer in the UK” while across the border “they are contemplating deeply regressive changes to postgraduate repayment conditions as well as entry to universities”, all he could say about the way in which he’s frequently trapped by decisions on loans was that he is “exploring with the UK Government a basis on which we can have the practical delivery powers to match our devolved policy powers” – although so was his predecessor.
What was refreshing was at least to see a minister set out a principle around student financial support while his counterpart in England dodges the issue:
I am steadfast in my commitment and our commitment as a government to supporting all students of all ages, across all modes with funding support when they most need it. It’s progressive. It widens access, it opens up learning and quite simply, it’s the right thing to do.”
One inescapable conclusion when looking at the coming chaos of course cuts in parts of the sector in England is that government can’t (or doesn’t want to) join up its higher education and levelling up agendas. Here in Wales, Miles’ theme three took familiar discussions on “place” and “civic” and made it difficult to spot the join:
As university leaders, I’m asking you to look outwards, into your communities and regions. To use Raymond Williams, his phrase, I worry that there is a crisis of understanding, are we doing enough to ensure the benefits of a university is real and understood in your communities and regions? I know there’s been great strides in how you work both institutionally and collectively on a civic mission. And I applaud that. But how about the social and economic contract with public and place beyond your immediate surroundings”
Related to that was encouraging students to stay in Wales after graduation, knowledge exchange, and even some circle squaring over the old citizens of somewhere and citizens of nowhere debate:
Being of and four place does not mean being parochial. As Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous expression shows us, internationalism is key to the success of our universities and host communities. The 65 million pound investment in Taith ensures that our learners and staff will have opportunity to spend time abroad as part of their studies and to benefit from international approaches, culture and diversity.”
As ever with this type of stuff, the funding thing in the context of a cost of living crisis might well come to scupper some of the ambition Miles is keen to see from universities – and the detail on all all of the circles being squared will need skilful navigation from the team he’ll soon be recruiting to run the new Commission. And there are those who will still worry about the relative lack of focus on research, or the powers he’d handing to what in law will be a regulator that’s quite similar to the Office for Students.
But not every day has to be about the tough decisions. Sometimes it’s about tone – when you get to talk with some passion, and sense of real understanding and vision, about the sector you’ve ended up looking after – and what it can do for students, society and your country. There’s a skill in challenging universities to do better without denigrating and demotivating them. Miles has it.