What the Welsh Government’s regulatory reforms mean for universities

In 2016, Ellen Hazelkorn’s review of the oversight of post-compulsory education in Wales was published. At its core it included the recommendations that the Welsh Government develop an overarching vision for the post-compulsory education and training (PCET) system in Wales, and establish a new authority with oversight of the post-compulsory sector.

This week, following last year’s White Paper, the Welsh Government published its technical consultation on its proposed reforms to the regulation and oversight of post-16 education in Wales. The hefty 150-page document – although not quite as hefty as the Office for Students’ recent 500 pages of consultation – covers everything from the proposed committee structure of the successor to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) to how quality will be assured across the entire post-compulsory sector.

At the heart of this consultation is the new “Commission”, the successor to HEFCW, which, according to the consultation, would be “the sole funder and regulator for further and higher education, apprenticeships, work-based learning, adult learning and sixth forms”. The consultation also outlines how the Commission will be responsible for research and innovation funding in Wales. Perhaps less an Office for Students and more an “Office for Everything”… or at least it can feel that way for those of us thinking through the implications of the proposals on our areas of work!

What’s changing?

There’s a lot to take in. A key question when bringing together higher education, further education, and work-based learning under one funder and regulator is how that body will manage relationships with providers. One of the more fundamental changes included in the consultation is how these relationships will be managed through Regulation and Outcome Agreements (ROAs). These ROAs would set out core requirements for providers, such as financial sustainability, management and governance, as well as individually negotiated agreements.

These Regulation and Outcome Agreements will also require providers to put in place “Learner Protection and Progression Plans”. These plans form part of a broad set of robust proposals on student representation including the need to have two students on the Commission itself and an emphasis on protecting the interests of learners with the proposal to extend the role of the OIA across the whole system. We at Universities Wales have written before on the importance of any system being student-centred and were pleased to see these commitments.

Perhaps the biggest news from the technical consultation is the inclusion of sixth forms in the reform proposals. Previously the inclusion of sixth forms had been an open-ended question and one that had prompted strong feelings from many in the post-compulsory sector. The decision to include sixth forms gives the new Commission as close to oversight of the entire post-16 sector as it is likely possible to have. That said, the Commission’s relationship with sixth forms will be through local authorities rather than sixth forms themselves. This reflects one of the key threads that runs throughout the consultation: how to balance the existing arrangements for diverse providers such as sixth forms and work-based learning providers with a common approach across the entire PCET sector.

This balancing act is also seen in the wide-reaching proposals on quality assurance and enhancement. The Welsh Government proposes to develop a single quality framework of common principles for the entire PCET sector, although it is one with enough flexibility to cover the different sectors. The Welsh Government also expresses its preference that the Commission works with a single designated quality body to operate across all PCET sectors.

This is a potentially significant change but it is reassuring to see the diversity of providers in Wales recognised, not just the diversity between further and higher education but also between universities themselves. This recognition is made clear by the Welsh Government’s commitment that a “one size fits all” approach does not work. The consultation also acknowledges a single body would need to meet the requirements of the European Association for Quality Assurance.

For research, the consultation discusses establishing a statutory committee within the Commission which will have a level of independence. There is a clear commitment to the principle of unhypothecated quality research funding but it will take time to understand the full ramifications of what is proposed for research and innovation in the consultation. Wales is a leading academic destination for research and has the highest proportion of world leading research in terms of its impact in the UK, so it will be important for Wales’ economic prospects that we get it right.

Different directions

Although higher education has been devolved to Wales since 1999, until recently the legislative and constitutional arrangements in Wales and England have remained consistent or similar. However, these proposals continue the divergence in higher education between Wales and England. As well as proposing a single quality framework and quality body for the entire PCET sector, the consultation reaffirms the Welsh Government’s desire for a “planned and coherent higher education sector”, suggesting little appetite for the marketisation of higher education that is currently encouraged in England. As part of this, the Welsh Government is not proposing to put in place similar arrangements to England on degree awarding powers and university title.

A vision for post-16 education

When the White Paper was published last year, we highlighted how in a fast moving, largely unpredictable global policy and funding environment, a future body must be agile. The risks that Wales faces in the coming decades are substantial as technological change risks shrinking some of Wales’ highest employment sectors.

The careful development of these proposals can bring genuine benefits to Wales. While the proposals provide a great deal of detail on what the thinking is in terms of what this new organisation should look like, they do not yet set out an overarching vision for the sector.

With the scale of these reforms, the level of detail involved and the fact that the impact of these reforms will be felt for decades to come, it’s vital that decisions around the detail are taken in clear sight of what Wales wants to achieve from such reforms.

We feel this provides those of us in the PCET sector in Wales with an opportunity to work together and outline our shared ambitions for a vision of post-16 education and, in doing so, contribute to the development of a system that works for the people, places and employers of Wales.

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3 responses to “What the Welsh Government’s regulatory reforms mean for universities

  1. Great summary of current and prospective policy landscape in Wales. I would, however, take issue with the statement that ‘technological change risks shrinking some of Wales’ highest employment sectors’. Technology is Wales’ fastest growing sector with key clusters of innovation in digital technology in the creative industries and data science. This supports an emerging national and international digital quarter in Cardiff and SE Wales and offers opportunities for economic growth in rural and remote communities to the north and west. Technological innovation has the potential both to sustain important sectors like Food and Drink which are threatened by Brexit and to support new partnerships between FE and HE, as seen in the PCET vision. These opportunities to meet the education, research and innovation requirements of a future competitive Welsh economy provide a platform from which to increase both HE participation and GVA which, at present, both lag behind the UK average. Professor Cara Aitchison, Vice-Chancellor, Cardiff Metropolitan University

  2. Hi Cara, thank you for this. I think you’re right there are great opportunities for digital innovation in Wales and there’s some excellent work going on. The reference in the article is to the occupation shrinkage predicted in sectors where Wales is quite exposed such as administration, retail, and transport/storage. I agree the growth in Wales in the technology sector and other key areas does provide opportunities for the emergence of new jobs to replace the old and it’ll be important that any regulatory reform in Wales enables universities to support and respond to this.

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