It’s not just the torrential rain and gales that have hit university campuses and rattled Vice Chancellor’s whisky cabinets across Wales over recent weeks and months – the whirlwind reform and restructuring in higher education demanded by the Welsh Government and HEFCW also took its toll. But the publication last week of the Government’s White Paper on Further & Higher Education had the effect of bringing some calm to the storm.
There are considerable changes being proposed, which although difficult to predict their exact destination, may yet prove to have a significant long term-effect on the relationship between the student, the university and the state. I’ll deal with one of those changes below. However, many in the sector have had sandbags ready in anticipation that national and institutional governance was to be the next big reform.
Both the Welsh Labour 2011 manifesto, and the subsequent Programme for Government, pledged to introduce a “single strategic planning and funding body” for higher education in Wales. The review of HE Governance (2011), chaired by John McCormick, recommended creating “a new funding and regulatory body” to replace HEFCW, bringing together a board comprised of independent members and from within the HE sector, and with powers to intervene in institutional governance.
But fast-forward to the White Paper and the Government recognises that “there is already significant transformation under way”, and that new student support measures, funding arrangements and sector structures are still “evolving”. Therefore it is adopting what it calls a “staged approach”, before “looking afresh” at governance arrangements “in the round” in 2013/14, “before determining whether legislation is required”.
In fact, the Government proposes to give HEFCW new powers and responsibilities, in line with the switch from teaching grant to student-led funding (although the money would still come from the public purse, “the principle that the state will subsidise HE and maintain opportunities for all” as explained in the White Paper). HEFCW will have “regulatory oversight” of all HE provision; a duty to “assess and enhance the quality of provision”, monitor and require that universities comply with financial and quality standards, as well as producing information on the quality of provision and better opportunities for the student voice. The paper describes students as “active participants” in influencing and shaping their own learning and university decision-making. The language about the ‘student voice’ is similar in both England and Wales, but the Welsh Government emphasises an approach where “students must not be considered as more homogeneous consumers of education”.
Combined with the desire to concentrate on reconfiguration and the bedding-in of new funding arrangements instead of governance reforms, this “staged approach” may be a recognition that HEFCW, like the sector is already navigating through a difficult period of constant consultation, financial modelling and mergers.
What about those other ‘considerable changes’? Arguably the most striking is the Government’s proposal to change the law so it can directly fund universities and higher education/lifelong learning partnerships.
I have written before about Welsh Labour’s commitment to a ‘planned approach’ to higher education provision in Wales. The White Paper reaffirms this position, explaining that quality will not improve “on the basis of competition and customer choice… (we) do not rely on market mechanisms”. The message is clear – the higher education ecosystem in Wales will not be shaped according to the blueprints of David Willets, Vince Cable (or Lord Browne).
The White Paper explains that the Government would use the direct funding power if there are “significant failures to meet employer needs and learner demand”. It suggests that the Government could fund partnerships that include schools, FE colleges, as well as universities, cutting costs in bureaucracy and developing “shared mission and reducing competitive behaviour”.
This policy will surely play a major part in the future development of the three regional strategies for higher education in Wales, an initiative itself designed to “target the eradication of nugatory local competition and wasteful duplication of provision”. The mention of ‘employer needs’ in the White Paper could prove to be significant, especially at a time when the shift to a student fee-led system, especially in part-time HE, raises issues on the future sustainability of employer and union sponsored student support.
There are of course wider policy debates to be had regarding the desirability of Government directly finding universities. Labour does not have a majority in the National Assembly, and the other parties may find common ground on the substance of university and academic ‘independence’, if they wish to characterise this proposal in such a way.
And if the publication of a White Paper wasn’t enough, news came through last week that Newport and Glamorgan universities have begun talks to create a new ‘merged’ super institution. Proof as if it were needed, that it never rains but it pours if you’re trying to follow the twists and changes in Welsh higher education.