Reforming higher education ‘the Welsh Way’

Wales will become the first system in Europe to offer equivalent maintenance support to full-time and part-time undergraduates, as well as postgraduates, explains Kirsty Williams  

December 1, 2017

My daily commute from the family farm in Brecon to Cardiff Bay doesn’t allow for much sightseeing during the winter, as I’m heading south before the sun rises over the Beacons. 

On the other hand, summer and autumn provide a stimulating contrast between rural and post-industrial Wales as I allow thoughts to turn away from the ministerial day ahead. These different shades and scenes came to mind recently as I was reminded of Gwladys Williams’ 1918 report, Welsh Education: In Sunlight and Shadow

In that report, Williams proclaimed that once Britain emerged from the war, Wales should build its education “anew on sounder and juster lines”. She warned that the personal and professional sacrifices made to establish the University of Wales, to secure a Welsh dimension in compulsory education and gender equity, were at risk. 

These were the shadows, and the sunlight needed courage, independence and enlightenment. A century on, a new dawn is breaking over Welsh education. 

At the school level, we are moving forwards confidently with the largest set of reforms anywhere in the UK since the Second World War. This includes introducing a transformational new curriculum, reducing class sizes, reforming teacher training, establishing new professional standards and leading the way on digital competence.

Next week, I will be making a statement to the National Assembly, responding to our recent consultation on the Welsh government’s White Paper on reform of the post-compulsory education and training system. 

Our proposals have received broad support. At the heart of our policy direction is establishing the new Tertiary Education and Research Commission for Wales. This will not only replace the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw) but provide oversight, strategic direction and leadership for the whole sector, including colleges, work-based learning, research and innovation, and adult community learning. 

As such it was interesting to note Michael Barber’s article last week. As chair of the new Office for Students, his remit is an England-specific one. Although from his references to the UK-wide sector, you may have been forgiven for thinking that his body, and universities minister Jo Johnson, spoke for a wider constituency. 

Many in the Welsh sector, and friends in Scotland and Northern Ireland, share my concerns about this muddled metropolitan thinking. It is important that each of us across the four nations and governments do our best to be clear with our citizens about our different approaches and responsibilities. 

In Wales, we are just about to embark on a new public information campaign about our new student finance offer. We will be the first system in Europe to offer equivalent maintenance support – through grants and loans – to full-time and part-time undergraduates, as well as postgraduates. 

This is substantially different to the English approach. Perhaps their much-heralded but lesser spotted “major review” might take a look at our solution. It’s certainly something that Janet Beer, as chair of UUK, has proposed. In fact, I’d argue that England doesn’t even need to spend time and energy on a new review. I’m more than happy to send eduction secretary Justine Greening (and Mr Johnson) a copy of the Diamond report in the post. 

Of course, we have just seen the recommendations of the Scottish review of student support. This has echoes of the Wales solution but doesn’t go as far with maintenance grants or support for part-time students and postgraduates. 

My main challenge was to convert our principles of equity and excellence into radical and rational reforms of student support and higher education funding. I was able to take forward my Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge on this, and thanks to Sir Ian Diamond’s work, deliver an innovative, thorough and progressive solution. 

And although the student support reforms are the most high-profile changes, we have found a solution for funding the whole system. This then links to taking forward the White Paper proposals for post-compulsory education and training. Particularly in ensuring that we better connect research and innovation in our universities, companies and public services with education and skills development in these organisations and in our colleges and work-based learning providers. 

In government, I have challenged our universities to work with me in strengthening the mutual relationship between citizens, communities, researchers and providers. I know that to help make this happen, the framework for our post-compulsory education system itself needs greater clarity. It must promote a sense of purpose and ensure high-quality options and outcomes for our citizens. I will be taking this forward next week. 

Over time, too much complexity and unnecessary complication has developed. Learners, businesses and providers are too often working in the dark. Quite simply, we need to build on our research success and build capacity, while also making it easier for people to learn and acquire skills throughout their careers. 

Despite the darkness of winter mornings and evenings, there is a sunlit path ahead as we follow the Welsh way in reforming education. 

Kirsty Williams is the Welsh government Cabinet secretary for education.

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