Following Welsh Labour‘s largely unexpected electoral triumph, the new Welsh Government is firmly in place.
Not only that, but the revised ministerial portfolios have been announced – as well as the membership of the relevant Senedd committees that will scrutinise and hold those ministers to account. As such, it is reasonable to assume that, organisationally speaking, devolved politics in Wales is set fair at least until the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, stands down in good time to allow his successor to prepare for the next devolved election scheduled for May 2026. All of which means that this is an appropriate moment to ask what the next Senedd term holds for universities and researchers.
Don’t look back in Bangor
While the appointment of Jeremy Miles to the role of Education Minister has cheered the sector, it remains the case that he’s being charged with implementing a Welsh Labour manifesto that was notably thin on HE policies. The most eye-catching pledge is to establish a North Wales Medical School at Bangor University. Details of the scheme remain scant, but it is already clear that finance is set to be a key issue. Thus far, Welsh Labour has said nothing about how much additional funding it is willing to commit to fund the country’s third medical school. This raises the spectre of a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario in which investment in Bangor would come at the cost of reduced resources for the country’s current medical schools in Cardiff and Swansea.
It also remains to be seen how quickly the Bangor pledge can be redeemed. While the new government will surely be keen to have shiny new buildings welcoming the first cohort of students before May 2026, it is far from clear whether such a timetable is practical given the various hoops – not least regulatory – that will need to be jumped through.
Paying the Bill
Welsh Labour’s other big pledge is to pass the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill, creating a new regulator for the post-16 sector and bringing further and higher education closer together. While for the government this bears the hallmarks of a tidying-up exercise — the Bill was initially tabled in the last Senedd – it risks generating a stand-off with the sector for little apparent reward.
Given the huge challenges facing HE in Wales (the after-effects of Brexit and COVID-19, the weak financial position of some Welsh HEIs, etc.) it is vanishingly unlikely that anyone with knowledge of the issues would answer “a new regulator” when asked what would really help. At best, TERW appears to be an irrelevance. But the centralising tendencies that underpin the draft legislation have also raised concerns in universities about loss of autonomy. This in turn raises the prospect that, without deft handling, the passage of the Bill will generate tensions between the sector and the government at a time when – frankly – both sides have better things to be getting on with.
Now Reid on
The decision to move research out of the education brief into the portfolio of the new Economy Minister Vaughan Gething appears to have been generally welcomed by the sector. This reflects the widespread perception that research had – euphemistically – struggled for attention when pitted against pre-16 curriculum reform, student fees, exam grading challenges, and the other issues filling the previous Education Minister’s in-tray.
The challenges facing Welsh universities have been well-canvassed. They will be disproportionately affected by a likely drop in regional development investment under the formula of the UK Government’s mooted Shared Prosperity Fund. Separately we know that university-business collaboration post-COVID is particularly imperilled in Wales. For the Welsh economy to prosper, the Welsh Government needs to nurture and make better use of the nation’s research base.
There is even a ready-made solution to hand. Gething could choose to make good the Welsh Government’s previous pledges to implement in full the recommendations of the Reid review into government-funded research in Wales. This would see a boost to quality related (QR) research funding, an increase in HEFCW’s innovation and engagement budget to £25m (it is currently £15m), £35m for innovation competitions and hubs and a £30m fund to reward institutions that attract investment into Wales. The Senedd’s own Economy, Infrastructure & Skills Committee recently supported the implementation of these recommendations as a matter of urgency. Unfortunately, however, recent months have seen the Welsh Government and its outriders obfuscating about rather than implementing the Reid recommendations.
A subsequent report from Reid, this time commissioned by Universities Wales, recommended the creation of a Wales Innovation Network with a small amount of collective funding. It now appears that this second review is taking precedence over the first, with the Welsh Government all too happy to allow its support for the Wales Innovation Network – small beer by any estimation – to absolve it of the major funding commitments it entered into following the publication of the original Reid review. It can only be hoped that the change in both portfolios and personnel will provide an opportunity for a reset and that research will finally get the political prioritisation it requires.
Shine bright like a Diamond
The one HE-related issue guaranteed to receive significant political attention is, of course, student funding. Welsh Labour regularly burnishes its own progressive credentials by hailing the system introduced in Wales following the Diamond Review. It is safe to assume that whatever its drawbacks (and expense), it would prefer to leave that system unchanged for the next Senedd term. Yet when and if the changes that are widely expected in England are finally announced – namely a cut in fees to £7,500, a slashing in support for the arts and humanities, and potential increases for STEM subject – the current arrangements in Wales will simply become untenable. The Welsh Government will be forced into another reform, dictated by a UK Government timetable that it cannot influence let alone control.
At present, we have no indication what if any thinking has taken place within Welsh Government about this now likely eventuality. There are certainly no signs of any discussions taking place with or within the sector. Indeed, given that it is doubtful that the Welsh Government has ever had a coherent vision of what Welsh universities are for, it is unclear what the starting point for any discussion of the issues might be?
In their approach to HE thus far, Welsh Labour and indeed all the other political parties in Wales have sought to avoid hard-decisions and difficult trade-offs. There is every prospect, however, that this is exactly what will be thrust upon them post-Augar. Like it or not, even if HE did not feature prominently in its election-winning manifesto, it will surely end up featuring prominently in Welsh Labour’s policy agenda for the next parliamentary session.