What next for the post-16 reforms in Wales?

Changes are promised to the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill, but for Kieron Rees of Universities Wales more is needed to get this landmark bill exactly right

Kieron Rees is Head of External Affairs and Policy at Universities Wales.

And just like that, Stage 1 of the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill is complete.

It’s been a long journey to this point from the publication of the Hazelkorn report, six years ago this month – through multiple consultations and a draft Bill.

And with the general principles of the Bill supported unanimously by the Senedd, there is now a clear path to the establishment of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research which will fund and regulate post-16 education and training, and research and innovation in Wales.

Welsh higher education has always been clear in supporting the broad principles of the Bill and its ambitions for Wales. Although good progress was made between the Draft Bill and the Bill’s introduction, particularly on areas such as academic freedom, there remain areas of concern. Through close and open engagement with Senedd Committees and Ministers, we were pleased to see a number of commitments in relation to those concerns.

Research and Innovation

Clear recognition of research and innovation within the Commission was a key ask for universities. The importance of the Commission’s anticipated allocations to research and innovation – through funding such as quality-related research and Research Wales Innovation Fund – cannot be understated. It provides much of the facilitative capacity that enables universities to secure larger competitive grants as well as maintain their research infrastructure.

The Bill as it stands foregrounds nine strategic duties that include promoting lifelong learning, equality of opportunity, collaboration, civic mission and a global outlook. We asked for an additional duty focused on promoting the carrying out of research and innovation activity.

In a similar vein, we have asked for the Bill to be amended to include duties that relate to balanced and transparent funding to ensure that, in exercising its functions, the Commission would have regard to the balance of funding across its different areas of responsibility, and that those decisions are clear and transparent.

As such, we welcome the openness from the Minister on this site last week, reiterating commitments to strengthen the prominence of research and innovation in the Bill and explore the possibility of a transparency duty.

Higher Education Corporations

A key discrepancy in higher education in Wales, the product of the history of how some institutions were initially formed, is that the Welsh Government has the ability to dissolve certain universities in Wales, those classed as Higher Education Corporations, against their will. We have long argued that holding this level of power over specific institutions, which are also directly registered charities and subject to all the requirements and safeguards that entails, is disproportionate. It was a concern to see this legislation retained and, in some areas, expanded in these provisions.

Our evidence to the Senedd has made it clear that our view is that these provisions should be removed. We were pleased to see the Minister confirm he would bring forward amendments in this area.

Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy

Another key area for universities which the Minister has expressed an intention to address through amendments is how academic freedom and institutional autonomy are safeguarded in legislation.

These are important cornerstones of higher education which play a role in our international competitiveness, our ability to push at the boundaries of knowledge and understanding, and our attractiveness to staff and students. Although there was a strengthening of academic freedom between the draft Bill and the Bill as introduced, we have asked for the introduction of a general duty on institutional autonomy and for academic freedom to be extended to explicitly include research and innovation.

What next?

There are still other areas that we feel should be considered as the Bill moves to Stage 2. The Bill currently would allow for the Commission to apply specific registration conditions to individual providers. We feel strongly that the Commission should only be able to make registration conditions by class, category or type of provider to minimise the risk of an individual institution being subject to a disproportionate set of requirements. We will continue to make this point in our engagement with government and the Senedd.

And, of course, it is important to remember that much of the detail that will matter to universities and other providers will be left to regulations. For example, the categories of registration. Two of the Senedd committees considered this and made recommendations intended to address it. We will continue to seek clarity on what Welsh Government will introduce through regulations to better inform our engagement with this Bill.

As we move into Stage 2, the next two months will see a quiet but crucial period of tabling amendments ahead of the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s consideration of amendments in mid-May. At the same time, detailed consideration of the practicalities of implementation will be needed from government and stakeholders as we prepare to move to a new system of regulation and funding.

With the commitments made by the Minister, and subject to drafting that meets the aims of those commitments, we believe that we are on the path to a workable settlement that can safeguard the benefits that our institutions offer while also providing a stronger platform for collaboration between providers.

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