Welsh Education Minister Jeremy Miles has successfully steered the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill through its first stage on the floor of the Senedd – with unanimous approval of the general principles of the bill and the associated financial resolution.
Similarly to Second Reading in Westminster no amendments are taken at this point in the process – but in contrast to the English process a lot of scrutiny has happened in advance of the bill reaching this point. Since the draft bill was published back in 2019, we have seen a long consultation process and a great deal of discussion – joined latterly by the work of three key Senedd committees.
The Children, Young People, and Education Committee has been the most visible of these – the stage 1 report it produced contained some 37 recommendations, most calling on the minister to amend or clarify aspects of the bill. Jeremy Miles spend most of his opening statement doing just that.
We learned that the bill will be strengthened via government amendments covering Welsh language teaching and research, with members welcoming a commitment to go beyond the “reasonable demand” to actively encourage Welsh language research and education.
Consideration of learner views will be added to the strategic duties of new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER), though Miles stopped short of requiring that learner and worker observers of the board should have full voting rights – noting that the functioning of the CTER board should not take higher education provider boards as its model.
We will not be seeing a full consultation on CETRs statement of priorities – these will be high level and strategic priorities, and thus apparently not suitable for public consultation – but there may be powers for ministers to amend these priorities. Research will become more visible on the face of the bill following government amendments, and it is possible there will also be more emphasis on issues of autonomy and academic freedom.
One of the least popular parts of the bill is the powers for ministers to dissolve providers, based on the strength of feeling around this there will be amendments here.
Much of the feedback from the Finance Committee and the and Legislative Justice and Constitutional Committee focused on transparency and clarity – the equality impact assessment and regulatory impact assessment will be updated at stage 2 of scrutiny. There has already been a ministerial written response to the issues raised in the latter report.
Committee scrutiny takes precedent over opposition statements in this part of the Senedd process, so it was later in the debate when we started to get a sense of what amendments may arise at stage 2.
For the Conservatives Laura Jones called for more heed to be paid to the student voice, and for the Commission to have a greater independence from government. She asked for more detail on implementation (and heard that a Strategy and Implementation Committee has already been set up and has met to consider this), and for the government to provide draft regulations that could be made under the bill to aid scrutiny (here Miles noted that many of these related to issues that the Commission itself needed to decide).
It fell to Plaid Cymru to remind the minister that he needed to consider recent changing to funding models in England, and to the Liberal Democrats to push on regulatory oversight of provider governance.