What does another Welsh Labour Government mean for higher education?

Now that the dust has settled, Richard Wyn Jones sets out the higher education challenges that face a new Welsh government

Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre and Dean of Public Affairs at Cardiff University

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.

3 responses to “What does another Welsh Labour Government mean for higher education?

  1. Oh dear – there’s clearly some tension (or jealousy?) in Wales that perhaps those of us outside don’t realise.

    From here it looks like the Welsh government has a track record of making ‘hard decisions’ and has been much better at articulating what universities ‘are for’.

    Off the top of my head I can think of the envy we have in seeing a system across the border that properly supports part-time and post-graduate students with grants (not just focusing on 18 year olds) so as to widen access; that stood up to Westminster and put it’s money where it’s mouth is on funding an Erasmus replacement; led the way on the idea (and funding) of university civic mission; is properly supporting a bilingual HE system and so on.

    Perhaps social mobility, adult education, civic mission, internationalisation and dealing with debt aren’t the author’s priorities and ‘hard decisions’ but they shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed.

  2. Always good to see Wales-related pieces on here. But, I’m sorry to say that I get the impression that a of the self-interest reflected in this article is exactly the kind of stuff the government is actually trying to tackle in the first place?

    The author opens the piece talking about government investing in a new medical school which he worries will reduce resources to his own university. It’s understandable that he worries about his employer, but I would hope the government is also thinking about the NHS, saving lives, recruiting staff, healthier population etc ?

    Then next section covers the Tertiary Education and Research Bill – a reform countless authors on Wonkhe call for in England, but the author grandly states that it is unlikely “anyone with knowledge” wants a new regulator. Well quite…. Hopefully he’ll recognise that the reform is about a more coherent overall system that better supports, dare I say it… students! (rather than the self-interest of various sectors and individual institutions).

    We then move onto the Reid review. No doubt as a benefactor of research funding, it makes sense for the author to call for it and more research funding sounds sensible tbf. But where to get the money? Let me guess… students! Please let us not raid student finance support.

    The article then finishes by moaning that the government hasn’t spoken to him about multiple planning scenarios so it therefore can’t be happening.

    I’m sorry, but we need much bigger picture thinking here and less self-interest! Let’s not lose sight what education is for and how much of a difference our fantastic institutions can make to benefit wider society!

    1. I think the comments above are a little unfair to Professor Wyn Jones, although the Erasmus replacement is a good point.

      The thing about the third medical school is that it’s a good idea but shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. If you fund a school by shrinking two others, you’ll just end up with no overall gain for Wales. Surely that’s an all-Wales stance, rather than a Cardiff-centric one? It’s also worth noting that Swansea and Cardiff do train medical students across Wales – not all placements are in the south.

      On the Bill, the principle of post-16 reform is good. But asking if it is the absolute priority between now and 2026 seems a fair question.

      The Reid point doesn’t seem to be up for debate. The Welsh Government accepted the recommendations and spending commitments, so they should be honoured. I’m not sure why that would mean defunding student finance or where that suggestion comes from – funding research does not preclude supporting students. There is no need to create an opposition between students and research – pointing out failings on research is not an implicit criticism of support for students.

      In fact, a strong research base improves education. We should want Welsh universities making breakthroughs and expanding academic fields – Wales’s researchers aren’t just there to teach about other people’s work. At the moment, the financial incentives for institutions are heavily weighted towards students, especially international students. If capacity isn’t built in research, it won’t help the “difference our fantastic institutions can make to benefit wider society”.

      The comment about the Welsh Government and Augar is also a bit harsh. There hasn’t been any public debate about how Wales will need to respond to changes in England’s fee system. And I’m not aware of any major analysis taking place anywhere (but would be happy to hear of any).

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