The new bill can deliver on Wales’ promise

The Chair of Universities Wales urges Senedd members to focus on the value that the new bill can provide for the future of tertiary education

Elizabeth Treasure is the Chair of Universities Wales, and Vice Chancellor of Aberystwyth University.

Today sees the introduction of the Welsh Government’s Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill.

It proposes to reform the regulation and funding of post-16 education and research under a new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, which would supersede the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

Five years in the making

The creation of the Commission was recommended in Ellen Hazelkorn’s 2016 review of post-16 education for Welsh Government. The five years since the review was published have been anything but quiet – Brexit, Augar, the creation of the OfS and UKRI, the implementation of Diamond, the Reid review, a pandemic, two general elections and two Senedd elections.

Our world has changed, in ways that we couldn’t have predicted. The pandemic has reshaped our understanding of how we can work and learn, disrupting established industries and accelerating many of the workplace changes forecast by those who discussed automation and a fourth industrial revolution. The broader societal impact of the pandemic is still unknown. What will it mean for our health and well-being? What will the disruption to all levels of education mean for a generation of children and young people?

These questions will only be answered with time. And that perhaps sets out the key challenge for the Welsh Government’s Tertiary Education and Research Bill: how do we reform a system in a way that delivers not only what we need now but also what we need in the future?

Future focused

Such a task is difficult but not impossible. It requires flexibility within the legislation and for the Commission. It requires an agility within the system to respond to challenges as they arise. An agility our universities demonstrated through their swift response to the pandemic: from supporting communities through to research and innovation that has helped the world respond to the impact of coronavirus.

From the draft Bill to the Bill as introduced on 1 November we can see welcome and important steps towards providing this flexibility, supporting the Commission to operate at arm’s length and strengthening academic freedom.

The arm’s length principle and academic freedom were two key areas we highlighted in our response to the Welsh Government’s consultation on a draft Bill last summer. Our response highlighted other important areas for higher education such as the importance of international recognition for our quality assurance and enhancement arrangements, and the need to support our research and innovation infrastructure.

Scrutiny and forward thinking

An initial reading of the Bill suggests many of these areas have been meaningfully addressed while other areas may have further to go. There will inevitably be discussions, debate and challenge on the provisions within the Bill as it makes its way through the Senedd, but we must also look beyond the scrutiny of the legislation to what this Bill can achieve and what role we can and should play in delivering its aims.

Wales faces a set of demographic drivers more pronounced than elsewhere in the UK with a shrinking of the working-age population over the next 20 years. As we consider the economic shocks that have been felt in Wales as a result of the pandemic, along with the existing economic, social and health challenges, we begin to grasp the difficult set of circumstances Wales faces.

But at the heart of higher education is a belief in our potential to find solutions to our problems through education, research and innovation.

We see a great deal of discussion in both the political sphere and the media around the role of education in addressing economic need. While this is, of course, an important facet of the role of higher education, we are pleased to see the Bill recognise the importance of areas such as promoting lifelong learning, promoting equality of opportunity, encouraging participation and promoting a global outlook. This is a clear statement that education is as much about access and opportunity as it is about responding to the skills needs of the economy.

It is an important reminder that education must provide opportunities for all students to realise their full potential.

Collaboration

Exploiting the benefits of collaborations will also be key to facing future challenges. This is both an area of existing success in Wales and one where there is more that we can do. Already we see partnerships between different providers across Wales, such as the Skills Factory partnership in North Wales or the diverse set of partnerships that underpin degree apprenticeship provision.

And collaboration is wider than just in education provision. European Structural Funds have fostered Wales-wide collaborations in research and innovation including KESS2, Astute and FLEXIS which are support sustainability through applied innovation and knowledge transfer, including with SMEs. Welsh universities recently committed to taking this collaborative approach further, forming the Wales Innovation Network (WIN) to leverage the diversity of our institutions through collaborative activity.

The types of benefits that WIN will seek to achieve are already felt in areas of international education and research. The collaborative Global Wales project has pioneered system-to-system relationships with countries such as Vietnam. Collaboration between HE, FE and work-based learning has been at the heart of the development of the formative International Learning Exchange Programme.

The sectors that make up the post-16 education and research landscape are diverse and operate within a wide range of regulatory and legislative environments; bringing them together is an ambitious task.

But as we follow the Bill’s passage through the Senedd, we must remain focused on what it can help us achieve, how it can support us to deliver for the people and places of Wales, allowing us to tackle the challenges we face, supporting students to achieve their full potential, and build a future that delivers upon Wales’ ambitions and promise.

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