Universities can build the future of Wales

Universities Wales chair Julie Lydon sees the forthcoming elections as a chance for universities to play a central part in the nation's future

Julie Lydon is the Chair of Universities Wales, and Vice Chancellor of the University of South Wales

The last Senedd election in Wales was in May 2016. Before Brexit, before coronavirus.

David Cameron was UK Prime Minister and Barack Obama was in the closing months of his Presidency. In the Welsh political landscape, every political party had a different leader to now.

A lot has changed.

Manifesto launch

In our manifesto, we have reflected on some of that change, and the change that is still to come both for universities and Wales as a whole. Throughout this Senedd term, universities in Wales have not stood still.

There has been an increasing focus on universities’ civic mission. The sector has come together to form the Civic Mission Network which provides a vehicle to promote and share best practice. We are developing a Civic Mission Framework for Wales which will be launched in January. We are in a unique position with every university in Wales being an accredited Living Wage Foundation employer.

Collaboration has been a focus over the past five years. Welsh universities commissioned Professor Graeme Reid to look at how universities in Wales can better collaborate in research and innovation. The sector has committed to implementing the resulting recommendations from the “Strength in Diversity” report.

Since 2016 more people of all ages and backgrounds have been able to access higher education. We have seen a remarkable growth in part-time and postgraduate study since the introduction of the new student support package recommended in the Diamond Review, as well as the introduction of the first degree apprenticeships in Wales.

The Global Wales programme’s work with partners is now internationally recognised. The work with Vietnam has led to greater partnerships particularly on leadership and governance. The programme has introduced new scholarships with schemes such as Fulbright and Chevening, as well as Global Wales’ own scholarship scheme.

The Covid moment

Perhaps nothing better reflects the speed and resilience with which our universities can respond to the challenges we face than the response to the crises presented by Covid-19: from new online learning, to the delivery of pastoral care for students; from PPE manufacturing, to researching treatments for the disease. All the while, many students and staff across Wales volunteered to be on the frontline, both in healthcare and in our communities.

Overseeing all this change has been Kirsty Williams MS who will be the second longest serving Minister for Education in the Welsh Government – the longest being Jane Davidson AM who served between 2000 and 2007. The Minister’s focus through the term has been on priorities such as civic mission, the new student support and funding arrangements, and well-being.

With Kirsty Williams’ recent announcement that she will not be standing for re-election it is now a certainty that Wales will have a new Minister for Education in May 2021, even if the electoral arithmetic means that, again, loose coalitions or cross-party agreements are required.

As we get closer to the election, there are big questions for political parties to consider. What does the end of the transition period mean for Wales? How can Wales recover from the pandemic, with large occupation areas in Wales hit hard? What do the new ways of working prompted by the pandemic mean for Wales: both its urban centres and rural communities?

These questions are in addition to those that have already been prominent throughout this Senedd, including the impact of automation and technological change on the workplace, increasing demand for higher level skills, the climate change emergency and the challenges posed by Wales’ ageing population.

University roles

In “Building Wales’ Future” we set out the role universities can play in delivering Wales’ ambitions, an opportunity that must not be lost this time around. This includes how we build our regions, deliver a sustainable, green Wales, prepare our workforce for the future and ensure Wales is an outward looking, globally competitive country.

But most of all, we have sought to set out how universities can work collaboratively with the next Welsh Government and the Senedd. To support this, our asks are focused around: research and innovation, skills, international activity, and sustainable funding including continuation funding for mental health and well-being.

By working with the next Senedd and Welsh Government, universities can be at the centre of a national recovery, helping to build Wales’ future by delivering upon Wales’ ambitions and promise.

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