The new chief executive of Wales’ Commission for Tertiary Education and Research – Bridgend College’s Simon Pirotte – gave a personable account of his background and appointment to the Welsh education committee on Thursday.
There was a bit of surface-level job interviewing – biggest challenges, greatest weakness, how you will lead – given that it was technically a pre-appointment hearing. Pirotte highlighted areas of interest such as mental health, apprenticeships, widening participation and pathways through the tertiary system.
The committee also had a dig into any possible irregularities into the selection process, as Pirotte was directly appointed by education minister Jeremy Miles after initial interviews failed to find a suitable candidate. No dirt was forthcoming – the committee heard that he hadn’t applied originally due to being busy both at work and (wonderfully) planning to buy a campervan for retirement. Miles told the committee last week that his priority had been to find a candidate with “good further education or work based learning credentials,” and to move quickly given the amount of work needed as CTER becomes operational.
One concern for the higher education sector, as had been communicated to certain committee members, was around research – Pirotte recognised it as a “blind spot” given his background – where the drying up of EU structural funds has left innovation projects hugely exposed. He promised to work as part of a “triumvirate” with chair Julie Lydon and deputy chair David Sweeney to address this – but there are worries that research is going to be further down the list of CTER priorities.
Two recent committee reports have called for additional responsibilities for the commission, around mental health and corporate parenting for care experienced students – Welsh government responses to both are forthcoming.
CTER is of course not yet in operation, but will immediately have a lot on its plate – its new chief executive wouldn’t be drawn in any depth on initial priorities, limiting his identified strands of work to the commission’s 11 strategic duties, the goals stipulated in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, and any ministerial priorities emerging from the first guidance letter, when this comes through.