Leader: Welsh backers of federal case must get in gear

January 11, 2002

Wales's federal university is under attack on two fronts. Members of the National Assembly are sceptical about the federal structure, regarding it as expensive and counterproductive, while Cardiff University, the principality's biggest and (according to the research assessment exercise) best institution, agrees and wants to cut loose.

Cardiff's arguments echo those of the big London colleges, which see few gains in a federal structure to compensate for its costs and complications. In Wales, the federal university is regarded as a barrier to innovation - although the National University of Ireland has not stopped many new institutions springing up on the other side of St George's Channel.

Wales is a leader in many areas of education planning, especially credit transfer, and it might seem odd for it to be thinking of junking its national higher education structure just as regional confederation moves up the agenda in England. But the federal university, which is anticipating a sceptical National Assembly report next week by issuing a petition in support of its continued existence, does not seem to have adapted to the reality of post-devolution Wales. The assembly will be increasingly involved, and the university's old role of planning Welsh higher education is being taken by the Welsh funding council. Rather than bidding to swallow the independent University of Glamorgan and take over all Welsh higher education, the federal university would do better to reform itself and find ways to protect Wales's smaller institutions, which are less able to look after themselves.

If Wales had fully independent universities, each with a direct relationship with the funding council, they would be better able to develop their strategic missions and their leaders could build the Heads of Higher Education Wales into a powerful lobby group, analogous to Universities Scotland. If that is not what the federal system's supporters want, they need to make a better case than they have so far - and fast.

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