A big letter in Wales

Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams has now sent her annual “remit letter” to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, detailing her expectations, funding allocations and priorities for the year ahead.

We have long kept an eye on what was previously the Higher Education Funding Council for England grant letter, and what is now the Office for Students strategic guidance letter, for signature, style, length, and even content. So given how short this year’s missive was from Damian Hinds to Michael Barber, we thought it essential to look closely at this year’s communique from Kirsty Williams to HEFCW Chair David Allen, not least to see if we could detect any major differences in approach to funding, regulation, or priorities.

Naturally, the first thing we did was spend ages fiddling with the PDF to generate a word count, and letter fans will be pleased to learn that this is a long one, clocking in at 3,751 words – some 2,323 words longer than Hinds’ effort, and a good deal longer than recent Welsh letters:

  • 2016-17: 1788 words
  • 2017-18: 2488 words
  • 2018-19: 3751 words

The frame game

The opening paragraphs of the letter are fascinating, insofar as they frame higher education in Wales in a very particular way. It is a “local, national and international asset,” and “belongs to all the people of Wales.” Economic prosperity and social mobility are in there of course, but so are cultural prosperity, and higher education as a “force for democratic debate.” There is also a commitment to “innovation and radicalism” in education policy – things that have felt in distinctly short supply in England in recent months.

The first big section concerns Brexit. Kirsty Williams is keen for the sector to continue to internationalise, promote “partnerships with other Governments and higher education systems,” identify and develop areas for research collaboration, and create study opportunities for students and academics. These are fine intentions, but given both EU exit and immigration are out of the Welsh government’s hands, this may be a tough ask – even with a Welsh government-funded outward mobility scheme to achieve a target of doubling student numbers spending time abroad as part of their studies.

There is also a note on the tertiary reforms that we have been expecting in Wales for some time – very interesting in the context of Augar. Professor Ellen Hazelkorn was originally commissioned to look at the concept of a single tertiary sector as far back as 2015. That report appeared in 2016, the government accepted its recommendations in 2017, a white paper appeared later in 2017, a technical consultation was launched a year ago and a summary of the responses has been left languishing on the Welsh government website since last July. “My officials continue to develop the policy areas”, she says. Maybe it’s more complicated than it looks.

Sweeties

Then we get to the meat. First, there’s confirmation of new grants for postgraduate students and news that Wales will be introducing a top-up fund to incentivise Welsh students to come home for postgraduate study in key sectors. There’s “delight” at early evidence suggesting that there has been a big increase in the number of applications for part-time and postgraduate courses, known colloquially as a Diamond dividend. And there is £5m to fund the delivery of degree apprenticeships in Wales, although only the same amount to help mitigate the impact of the decision to freeze the maximum tuition fee level. Overall funding for the sector is up both year-on-year and on intended plan, but the financial pressures facing Welsh institutions are still significant, as the press picked up on with THAT PHOTO last week.

There are interesting echoes of UK policy panics. Improving transparency around the use of English fee income has disappeared off the radar, but here in Wales Williams wants HEFCW “to consider how it can increase openness and transparency” around the use of fees, as well as monitoring fee levels for postgraduate and part-time provision, in order to protect students from “disproportionate and unwarranted” fee increases. Not a duty that was ever placed on HEFCE or OfS.

“Students can also expect to have access to accurate information and guidance to enable them to make informed choices,” but a bespoke Welsh TEF is notably not on the cards. HEFCW is to instead merely to consider whether the current arrangements “require strengthening to provide greater clarity” for students on courses, outcomes and destinations. There are also references to grade inflation and essay mills, although of the constructive “I’d like a report on my desk please” sort, rather than the “deliver a huge crackdown please” sort that has started to characterise the framing of OfS over these panics.

Later on, there’s some classic funding council-ese to address some of the more colourful stories that have dogged the Welsh sector in recent months: “Given the increasing challenges facing the sector and the need… to respond and react quickly to developing situations, I would like the Council to consider, in conjunction with the sector, a protocol or framework for handling communications between us. Such a system would enable the development of a ‘no surprises’ culture and provide Government and the Council with timely information, particularly where significant announcements are planned by institutions.” That is, as they say, one way of putting it.

Areas of interest

Three other areas offer an interesting contrast to the English approach. Wales’ whole-system approach to mental health and well-being through the healthy universities framework is “UK sector leading,” and has some funding attached. There is a strong emphasis on civic, and an associated commitment to explore “how we can deliver a new Welsh right to lifelong learning” and place-based adult, community, and life-long education. Wales is even confident that soon, all universities will be accredited as “real” living wage employers – a challenge it set both as part of its civic mission work, and to deliver “the values we want the sector to have”

Of course, looming across the arrangements in Wales is the Augar review and the impact that it could have here. Wales imports slightly less than half of its students from England, which makes the need to make a rational offer post-Augar acute. Genuinely more collective and communitarian framing – along with more generous student funding arrangements – all cost money.

One response to “A big letter in Wales

  1. Excellent article. Minister has set out a lot of challenges for all unis in Wales but is the funding council able to take this forward with the sector, I’m not so sure. living wage seems to be taking a while and can they do deliver on bringing post-grads home, need a proper all-wales sector-led campaign – can all of us work together on this?

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