It can be a challenge of the imagination for any minister in designing and delivering legislation so that it comes alive for our constituents and citizens. In voting for the general principles of our Tertiary Education and Research bill this week, Senedd Members have given me the opportunity to grasp that challenge.
We have already taken a new approach to how we articulate the strategic imperative and objectives of this bill and the new Commission that it will create. That starts with the strategic duties I have placed at the heart of the legislation. These provide the long-term strategic planning framework for what this valuable and varied sector needs to deliver.
For the first time in law, we are not only bringing together all of Wales’s tertiary education and research, but we are putting our values and ambitions into law. From lifelong learning and global outlook to civic mission, continuous improvement, bilingualism, and widening participation, the strategic duties provide a clarity of purpose. They will frame a relentless focus on the success and wellbeing of learners, of all ages, across all settings and in all communities.
These take inspiration from the beginnings of our education story, providers being of and for their place, democratic learning, and Welsh internationalism. I am pleased that the Children and Young People Committee in the Senedd and the broad range of stakeholders have welcomed our approach.
Room for improvement
There are, of course, areas where MSs, students, unions and institutions have suggested improvements to the bill. I have listened carefully to the evidence presented to the committee and will bring forward amendments.
I will do this in a spirit of collective endeavour, and in line with our shared ambitions to narrow educational inequalities, expand opportunities and raise standards in every corner, community and campus across the nation.
Matters of institutional autonomy and academic freedom are an essential part of our tradition, but are also important for a successful and diverse sector. We will strengthen these provisions in the bill, and I thank the work of UCU and Universities Wales in particular on this.
Our introduction of a learner engagement code requires providers to address how they will involve learners in decisions on all aspects related to their learning, interests and concerns. In developing the code, the commission has the opportunity to work towards common principles, which apply across all tertiary education. I also recognise that we can go further on including the learner voice within our strategic duties, and I will bring forward an amendment to this effect.
Senedd Committees have recommended that the future Commission is clearer in publishing how and what it funds. Whilst I believe this is more a matter of providing assurance rather than a fundamental change, I do accept that the Commission should be open and clear, through its reporting, in respect of funding decisions.
This will not simply be a copy and paste from our current position. Wales will move to a fully integrated sector-wide planning and funding system, with more effective targeting of resources.
This will be made possible by having a clear, coordinated and coherent overview of the whole system, where the government prepares and publishes a statement of national strategic priorities that will guide the commission’s own strategic plan and funding.
We have looked at similar systems such as New Zealand to understand how they operate, and I note with interest that former English education ministers, the Association of Colleges and the Civic University Network have proposed a similar model for England.
Sharing the burden
I see the administration in England grappling with how to share the burden of higher and further education funding, but without taking a moment to look at our success in Wales in funding part-time and postgraduate students through a mix of grants and loans.
We will build from this strength, rejecting a model based on unnecessary competition, instead supporting a tertiary sector that supports the different but complementary strengths of all institutions, so that learners of all ages have access to the full range of opportunities and are able to contribute economically, academically, and to our communities.
There have been calls for matters such as research and the Welsh language to have greater and more appropriate prominence in the bill. These have chimed with my own reflections as we have gone through the parliamentary process and we will bring forward amendments to deliver on this.
This is not the end of the story, and as we head into the next stages I remain open to further feedback and suggestions. I still intend to establish the Commission during 2023, through a phased approach in how it exercises the functions provided for in the bill through the following eighteen months or so.
As I recently confirmed, we have rescheduled the closure of HEFCW to early 2024, at the latest. HEFCW continue to play a constructive role in how we plan CTER’s implementation and the details of moving forward on issues such as lifelong learning, quality enhancement and research and innovation.
The Commission will, for the first time, provide Wales with a national steward for our whole tertiary education sector. It’s not enough to just imagine a future where we break down the barriers between sectors, institutions and students, we need to make it happen. This bill will help shape a diverse and dynamic Welsh sector that supports learners throughout their lives, delivering for communities, employers and the nation as a whole.