Party politics and the future shape of Welsh HE

The headline higher education news in Wales can be summed up in one word: mergers. Nothing gets Welsh education correspondents’ filing copy quicker than a ‘buried’ Government report into amalgamations; threats of ‘judicial reviews’; or concerns about the very future of institutions.

One could argue that the reshaping of the institutional landscape has emerged as the defining policy of the Welsh Government’s “planned” approach to higher education. Not least as it now focuses on Wales’s most populous region – from the capital up to the heads of the valleys and across to Newport and Monmouthshire. The Government is persuaded of the case for a new, merged ‘metropolitan’ university in south-east Wales, following HEFCW advice on the future structure of universities.

Interested parties have put forward proposals for looser co-operation between these (and other) universities, rather than full mergers. There’s an appetite to work together in the ‘regional interest’ but this may not constitute full merger or amalgamation. If it was political parties, it would be a preference for coalition and co-operation, rather than a SDP-Liberal type merger.

In truth, the actual political positioning with regard to higher education policy in Wales is rather curious.  We’ve read on this website of the competing priorities and political games within the UK coalition, and the impact they have on the strategic approach to higher education. Yet, although England is arguably still adjusting to its first peacetime coalition government, we in Wales have yet to experience majority single-party government in the devolution era (since 1999). Between 2000-03 there was a Lib-Lab administration, and between 2007-11 there was a Labour-Plaid Cymru government. Labour has governed alone at other times.

So west of the Severn, we must be used to a political Buggin’s turn approach to the ministerial hot-seat? Simply put, the answer would be no. Whilst Vince Cable and David Willetts combine their intellectual heft in BIS, only Labour ministers have held the higher education portfolio in the Welsh Government.

Despite, or perhaps because, both Plaid (the Welsh nationalist party) and Lib Dems maintain strong associations with strands of the student movement, and historically share populist positioning on fees and funding, neither managed to negotiate their way into the education ministry in their respective coalition governments.

Now on the opposition benches, how do they, and the official opposition (the Welsh Conservatives) tackle the big issue(s) in higher education policy? On the face of it, they have a strong hand. Labour holds exactly half the seats in the Senedd. The budget, and legislation, can only be passed with another party’s support or by cutting a deal.

We may be used to the Cameron and Clegg show in Whitehall, but it was Carwyn and Kirsty in Cardiff Bay in the autumn, as Labour secured Lib Dem support for the budget. In return, the Lib Dems negotiated a Wales-version of the Pupil Premium policy. The English version is described by the Deputy Prime Minister as one of his proudest achievements. One wonders where the UK coalition’s tuition fee policy and approach to university public funding comes in that ‘proud’ list. The Welsh Lib Dems support Labour’s policy of Welsh students having the increase in fees paid for them by the Welsh Government.

It’s difficult to see how a formal Welsh Lab-Lib coalition, were one to emerge amidst this year’s budget negotiations, would alter the course of HE policy in Wales. But it would certainly throw into sharp focus a fundamentally different philosophical approach to higher education public investment for the party on different sides of the border.

Having only been out of government for a year, Plaid Cymru is signed-up to much of Leighton Andrews’s agenda. As Mr Andrews himself is keen to point out, Plaid’s education spokesperson was a special adviser to the previous Lab-Plaid government.

Plaid’s new leader, Leanne Wood, comes from the same part of the world as the education minister – a patch where the University of Glamorgan is a major employer and recruiter of students. Indeed the local authority election in Rhondda Cynon Taf is a hard-fought, sometimes bitter, battle between Plaid and Labour. With Plaid in support of reorganising the sector, there seems little appetite (in the South East in particular) to go toe-toe with the Labour government on the merger plans.

It is the Conservatives, and their determined education spokesperson Angela Burns, who has voiced most concerns about the merger process, and the Minister’s willingness to use the powers available to him to ensure that a merger goes-ahead. With no prospect of a Con-Lab coalition, the Tories may feel that they are more able to articulate a different path in this high-profile policy area.

Mrs Burns has gone as far as to talk of a “hostile takeover” and “bully boy tactics”. These accusations seem to have had little effect on the Government’s commitment to “a smaller number of more robust institutions”. In his remit letter to HEFCW last month, the Minister wrote “I expect the Council to play an active and supporting role as institutions progress towards merger”.

No-one would deny that the possibility of university mergers, in whatever form, is of huge significance to local and regional identity and economy. The outcome of Wales’s council elections next month may affect what credit the parties feel they have in the bank on this issue.

With proposals to review and reform national and institutional governance also to come in the next year, the time has surely come for the opposition parties in Wales to take stock and offer their own visions of a reformed Welsh higher education landscape. The leadership of the Minister offers a compelling and headline-grabbing strategy, but he will undoubtedly need wider support to deliver the Government’s agenda. It may not need a coalition, but it will need co-operation.

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