It’s Welfare 1, Free Speech 0 as full-time draws near on Wales’ Tertiary Bill

It’s all over bar the detailed implementation and creation of a new tertiary commission.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In Cardiff Bay on Tuesday afternoon, the Senedd reached the end of its Stage Three consideration of the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill 2021.

In a gruelling few hours of debate over government-sponsored amendments, opposition amendments and technical amendments, the final shape and size of the powers that will be given to CTER/CADY (pronounced see-ter or cad-ee) were agreed, with just a ceremonial Stage Four and royal assent now to go until things start to get real.

Arguably the big headline of the afternoon was the government’s tabling of an all-encompassing amendment on student welfare. Education Minister Jeremy Miles outlined a new initial and ongoing condition of registration regarding the effectiveness of providers’ arrangements for supporting and promoting the welfare of their staff and students – covering everything from harassment policies to mental health support, and in doing so serving to clarify their duty(ies) of care:

Everyone has the right to a happy education experience and I want Wales to build a reputation within the UK and internationally for putting wellbeing at the centre of our education system. Lack of support for mental health and well being can be a critical barrier to success in education for many learners and students. It is therefore vital that we ensure that providers are attentive to addressing these challenges, and supported to do so by the Commission.”

Having noted the issues that students face – more likely to experience sexual assaults than any other occupational group, nearly a quarter experiencing racial harassment on campus, lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety than the general population – he was keen to remind the Senedd that over the border, neither the Department for Education nor the Office for Students has this particular act together:

We will therefore be going further in Wales by ensuring that the new commission is empowered to prioritise oversight of these vitally important matters. I hope that these amendments will command cross party support.”

They did.

A sensible clarifying amendment on academic freedom notwithstanding, free speech was another story. The Welsh Conservatives had a go at CTRL+C ing chunks of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and pasting them here. But Miles was having none of that, calling the Westminster Bill “fundamentally flawed and misguided”:

Far from enabling greater freedom of expression and breadth of debate in universities their effect would risk stifling and suffocating free speech and a greater bureaucracy…. a well-respected survey of students released just last week by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that the overwhelming majority of students report that they hear a variety of opinions expressed on campus, including those different from their own, and a similar majority feel comfortable expressing their own point of view.”

Naturally, those amendments fell.

One thing to note here is the head-scratching to come as some of the long-tail implications of these sorts of divergent approaches start to manifest. Does the divergence mean that Trinity St David’s Birmingham Campus will attract the ire of Conservative ministers for its failure to actively promote free speech? And where the standards surrounding the prevention of harassment differ for the students at a college in England franchised from Wales and the students at that college on another course franchised from England, will procedures even be compatible, let alone interact properly?

This isn’t just a theoretical. Remember right now we have Michelle Donelan in England arguing that the Race Equality Charter is a “dangerous initiative that undermines scholarship, divides our society and undermines the global standing of our university system”, while Wales’ anti-racist action plan the other week said that it will expect HE institutions to achieve the Race Equality Charter mark within three years as a condition of funding! There’s fun to come where those worlds collide, especially now that amendments clarifying the position of franchise provision have been passed.

There were a couple of other bits and bobs during the debate. A Plaid amendment that passed means that “research and innovation” are now included in the academic freedom definition, which Universities Wales will be pleased about. They’ll be less pleased that powers will be retained by the commission to dissolve higher education corporations in Wales, although it’s a nuclear button that’s more worrying for the sector in theory than is ever likely in practice.

Many of the amendments seemed to relate to questions surrounding the relationship between ministers and the proposed commission, and the relationship between the commission and providers. MSs are probably right to worry about that in the round given the shift from funding council to regulator, the variable length of arm expected between government and different types of provider, and the fact that we’re talking a single tertiary body.

But the wording of the legislation was beside the point here – much more important to what happens next and the implementation of Miles’ wide-ranging vision for higher education will be the initial remit letters and budget, and the names and character of those who are appointed Chair and CEO of CETR as it now gets off the ground.

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