A commencement order from Welsh education minister Jeremy Miles means that work at the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research will begin in earnest from 4 September.
For those who’ve not been paying attention, the commission will take over regulatory and funding responsibilities from the soon-to-be-shuttered Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). But it’s to be much more than this, with a remit to oversee the tertiary sector as a whole – apprenticeships, adult learning, HE, FE, research – in a way that’s regularly held up as a possible model for other nations (and Labour in Westminster) to pay heed to.
It’s been a long time coming. After a tricky recruitment process, Simon Pirotte was confirmed as the new regulator’s inaugural chief exec earlier this year, and he should be starting in post any day now. It was hardly on par with the cases of James Wharton or Toby Young, but the direct appointment (without a panel interview) of the former Bridgend College chief executive attracted some polite ire from the Welsh education committee and opposition parties – and yet his background in further education was broadly welcomed, and looks to have been the ministerial priority.
He fastened onto the word “triumvirate” in his pre-appointment hearing to describe CTER’s leadership team – he joins up with already appointed chair Julie Lydon and deputy chair David Sweeney, who together bring an absolute boatload of higher education experience.
The coming term will see the commission receive its first ministerial guidance letter, which Jeremy Miles noted in a statement is intended for publication in December. The commission will then start putting together its first strategic plan, due 15 December 2024. So we’re not talking immediate action, but a slow ramping up of activity over the next 18 months, with consultations to follow.
But let’s have a look at the to-do list. The commission will need to prepare specifications for providers’ initial and ongoing registration conditions, undertake preparatory work on how it will then monitor compliance with these conditions, and start preparing a statement on funding policy.
Meshing with these (very complicated) bits of plumbing are the big picture statutory duties which are hard-wired into the commission’s role via legislation. These include promoting equality of opportunity, promoting both a global outlook and a civic mission, encouraging participation, and supporting collaboration both across the tertiary system and between providers and trade unions. And promoting education through the medium of Welsh. And plenty more.
One registration and funding condition (added late on in the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act’s passage) will require CTER to set out clear expectations for universities and colleges regarding the effectiveness of their policies, services, and processes for supporting and promoting student and staff wellbeing, welfare, and safety. The Welsh government’s response to a recent education committee report on student mental health made clear that the development of a common framework for mental health support across the higher education sector (and beyond) should be an early priority.
Connecting it all up
CTER’s statutory requirement to promote (and fund) research is another tricky area, given that at a governmental level research sits in the economy department rather than in education – there have been concerns bubbling up that the commission will inevitably be drawn more to the E than the R in its name.
This coupled with the end of EU structural funding hitting research in Wales disproportionately hard and an overdue implementation plan for the nation’s Innovation Strategy mean that the commission will be picking up a slightly frayed system. How it navigates between different ministerial portfolios will be crucial.
Another potentially significant development this summer has been First Minister Mark Drakeford’s announcement that he will not seek another term in office – with both Jeremy Miles and economy minister Vaughan Gething leading the pack of candidates tipped to replace him, there’s also the likelihood of some future interruption in at least one of the key branches of government that CTER needs to work with.
Now, while that all makes for a bulging in-tray, the transitional period still has a way to go. HEFCW is due to be dissolved on 31 March 2024, with the new commission becoming fully operational from the following day (though this will be a handover rather than sudden change to regulation, as set out above).
But it all makes for interesting times in Wales and beyond. In many ways the new commission represents many onlookers’ ideal way of regulating, funding and (yes) working in partnership with an entire tertiary ecosystem – with the result that its successful roll-out has gathered additional importance.
As English and Welsh tertiary systems diverge (student maintenance of course being another area where the two nations are increasingly far apart), it’s also inevitable that any significant missteps will be pounced upon. The summer saw the Conservative administration in Westminster dust off its periodically recurring strategy of attacking Wales’ Labour government over public services. This was primarily over the NHS, but challenges in the apprenticeship system also got an airing too.
Budget constraints risk being a deciding factor, with strains on the public purse (to say nothing of university finances taking their ongoing battering) problematising the capacity of a new organisation to achieve all that its founding was supposed to promise. Expansive change and a new approach to post-compulsory education was never meant to be done on the cheap.