In a classic ‘Take out the Trash Day’ move last Friday, it was announced that University of Wales would move under the royal charter of Trinity St David once it merges with Swansea Metropolitan, effectively abolishing an institution which has stood for 190 years.
I have reflected a great deal about how my grandfather, a Welsh nationalist and academic, would have reacted to recent events. The University of Wales was an important symbol for the Welsh identity, but I am sure he’d agree the effectiveness and relevance of this symbolism was waning long before recent events. With the more respected universities like Cardiff, Swansea and Bangor looking to move away from the UoW collegiate, it became harder for the university to hold the same significance it once had in Wales. This was evident when I first heard rumours of an institution in trouble back in late 2008, during negotiations between a private college and Universityof Walesover-of all things-course validation (which I wrote about previously).
The University had already suffered one validation scandal with Trinity College of the Bible in Indiana and the rumour inCardiff was that UoW needed to get 20,000 new students to justify their funding; a tricky target the Assembly had seemingly set up so that UoW could fail and have its funding cut. This could be what led to the University maintaining such a transparent validation process which allowed colleges like Ryat and Tasmac to easily navigate through. It was shocking that even back then; no-one at UoW understood how damaging another scandal could be.
With all that in mind, I am sadly unsurprised at recent events. Although I may, in place of my grandfather’s ability to, mourn University of Wales’ demise, I can’t regret it, especially as it could now completely change the make up of the private higher education sector. But only if other universities heed the warnings in UoW’s tale.
There are two ways a private college can award higher education degrees. They could take on a degree written by a university to study on their site or they could write a degree programme and have it validated. The former is far more expensive for the college. The latter should call for top expertise but worryingly, I’ve seen the validation process outsourced to academics for hire, who can throw together the degree programme for the private college on the cheap.
I would advise all universities to withdraw validation and only allow their own courses to be taught at other colleges. This makes sense for a number of business reasons. Validation obviously exposes the university to higher risk as the processes have become easily navigable for the private sector. More importantly, it’s a very easy way for universities to use their market forces as a supplier to drive up the prices of private sector colleges and possibly drive them out of the market. Add to this the fact that colleges need to show a history of higher education tuition to earn degree awarding powers, it’s clear that universities could create a very large barrier of entry to a market and somewhat ironically use market forces to nobble David Willetts’ plan for a true higher education public/private market system.
University of Wales’ motto was “Goreu awen gwirionedd”, the best inspiration is truth. The truth is obvious: the university allowed itself to be compromised to the extent that it wasn’t fit to survive. The question is; what will the death of University of Wales inspire other UK higher education institutions to do next?