“Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans”
On the political battleground of recession, jobs and growth, the rhetorical weapon of choice is the “plan”. Whether you’re signed up to the UK Coalition’s ‘Plan A’, prefer to think there’s been a subtle change towards ‘Plan A+’, or you’re more of a Two Eds ‘Plan B’ supporter, you’re nobody if you’re not a “man with a plan”.
We have grown accustomed, or rather tried to keep up, with a “man with a plan” in Welsh higher education too. Leighton Andrews, education minister in the Welsh Government, doesn’t wear that label lightly either. At a pre-Christmas speech in Cardiff, he reminded his audience that:
“We need to complete the implementation of our (Welsh Government’s) strategy swiftly, before the market system being implemented in England bites. In Wales, we prefer to plan our HE provision, not leave it to the market.”
Colleagues working within the higher education policy environment in England are seeing “a fundamental recasting of the university’s place and purpose in society”. As the Minister’s quote above suggests, the Welsh Government is not working in isolation in pursuing a more dirigiste approach, it is undoubtedly shaped by the intertwined nature of higher education, and cross-border flow of students, between England and Wales.
Andrews’s agenda includes ensuring that no full-time student from Wales will not pay any more in fees in future years than they do currently (through a non-means tested tuition fee grant); changing the shape of HE in Wales so there are “a smaller number of stronger universities”, and a regionalisation agenda so that universities have to work together on provision and avoid “unnecessary duplication”.
The sector, the government and funding council have not marched step in step on these issues. This, of course, is to be expected, but it also betrays the wider issue of how poorly universities have engaged with policy-making, critical culture and political developments in the new post-devolution democratic Wales. From a policy and public affairs perspective one has to question the effectiveness of (some) universities in Wales in how they operate, horizon-scan and indeed contribute to wider debate and the policy process. The Minister himself identified a problem in a 2010 speech:
“”I have begun to wonder whether the higher education sector in Wales actually wants the (Welsh) government to have a higher education strategy, or whether it even believes that there is such a thing as a Welsh higher education sector.”
There is now, no doubt that Wales is following a different course to England. Andrews is keen to stress, in his view, that it’s not Wales that is the exception, rather it is England. On promoting a role for Government in moulding the shape and structure of higher education provision – through mergers, regionalisation and provision of grants for example – the Minister claims that it is Wales that is in the mainstream of European HE policy “while England swims in a different direction”. James Vernon of the University of California, whilst sensing a global trend for a change in how universities are viewed, does claim that “England’s university system… has been privatised further and faster than anywhere else”.
So, how sustainable is the brave new world of planned provision in Wales, whilst one of the world’s oldest and biggest higher education systems is on our doorstep?
In one way it’s a simple answer. It is as sustainable as the Government (and Funding Council) want it to be. With the pledge to keep the cost to the full-time student at current levels for the rest of this Welsh Government’s term being a high-profile Welsh Labour election promise, the Minister can expect other departments to come to his aid if there are any miscalculations or unexpected developments.
Or one can turn the telescope around and look at the system in England. How confident are universities in their ability to plan in the new era with huge reductions in public investment in higher education and the recently announced decrease in university applications?
From my experience and perspective of part-time HE in Wales, we’ve seen a Government that is willing to involve the sector in the “plan”. Though the Welsh Government’s proposals for part-time student support were more generous than in England (providing non means-tested grants and loans), there were unresolved issues around eligibility, employer involvement and thresholds. The Government decided to defer implementation, so that it could bring stakeholders in to help shape the new system and ensure its sustainability.
But, what of sustainability of the wider “plan”? The recent threats of legal action, the fine balance of cross-border student flows, and the way in which the Welsh Government itself is funded, mean that there is still some way to go before changes are seen through.
The rapper and songwriter Plan B called his first album “Who Needs Actions When You Got Words”, we’ve got plenty of both in higher education policy in Wales, and if it all goes to plan it’s unlikely to be different anytime soon.