A national institution: should it be left to die or is it worth reviving?

If the University of Wales survives the calls for closure, its leaders need to clarify its purpose, cautions alumnus Deian Hopkin

October 20, 2011



Credit: James Fryer


It is almost 120 years since the University of Wales was established as a federation of three university colleges - Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff. Over the years it expanded and there were substantial changes to its structure so that by the beginning of the present century, the university was the second-largest in the UK. Then the individual universities began to assert their own identities, fragmentation followed and now the institution is retreating to a narrow geographical footprint in the south-west corner of Wales. Meanwhile, a succession of critical reports have led to its brand being described variously as "tarnished" and "toxic". Other Welsh vice-chancellors have called for the university to be closed altogether - a view echoed last week by Leighton Andrews, Wales' minister for education and skills.

For the tens of thousands of graduates from the university, of whom I am one, this is a not entirely surprising prospect. For one thing, the current university is very different from the one we remember. In the past, the institution was a modest structure. It was largely a registry in Cardiff with some important ancillary branches, such as the University of Wales Press, the Board of Celtic Studies and later the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. It awarded degrees, approved professorial appointments and even ran its own Guild of Graduates. Yet it was not a university in the conventional sense.

We were students of our respective colleges (in my case Aber, like my father and aunt before me). We maintained distinctive college traditions, such as kicking the bar at the end of the prom and singing our own college song, and established deep rivalries with other colleges in sport and culture. To this day we have our own, highly successful alumni association. We shared some University of Wales facilities such as the wonderful conference centre, Gregynog Hall in Powys, but there were no University of Wales teams on University Challenge or in any sport. The University of Wales was a respected but distant organisation. For us, the real university was always Aber.

The University of Wales was created during the country's political renaissance in the late 19th century when symbols of national identity were all-important, hence the contemporaneous creation of the National Library of Wales and the National Museum Wales. It took many years for this to be translated into more formal governmental structures and in the process, new agendas have emerged. History is now less important than the current contribution of individual institutions to the economy and to society more generally. In a harsher climate, Welsh universities are criticised for underperforming; it is noticeable, for example, that there are none in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-12, in contrast to five from Scotland. Although not everyone accepts the validity of league tables as a surrogate for social or economic value, politicians tend to be more sensitive to position and reputation. In Wales there is now an urgent call for fewer, larger and more effective universities and the University of Wales, until now, has been seen as a part of this process of realignment.

But whether Wales needs a federal national university at all is open to debate. After all, there is no university of Scotland or of England and it is difficult to find any national federal universities outside these islands. This is not to say that the model is unworkable: the National University of Ireland performs a similar function but, unlike the current Welsh example, it is genuinely national. Nor have the Republic of Ireland's institutions experienced the problematic international reputation that may unfairly be visited, by default, on all universities that happen to be in Wales.

So what next? Former members of the University of Wales may have already made preparations for separation; a few name changes, at the very least, are in the offing. The demand for abolition will remain and there will be intense pressure on the new vice-chancellor, Medwin Hughes, who is sincere in his beliefs, to explain more fully the new, more limited arrangements he has in mind.

Former students of the University of Wales will be anxious about the currency of their own qualifications, while many scholars will be concerned for the future of the eminent research institutions maintained by the university. Beyond this, there are issues for the rest of the sector. How will they respond collectively to the needs of Wales? Indeed, will the potential turbulence of merger and reorganisation produce the right results, and at what cost?

It is paradoxical that as Welsh political identity has become more marked through the Senedd and the Welsh government, the need for iconic structures has become less obvious. The University of Wales was born at a particular historic moment; perhaps its time has passed. But should it, in the words of the minister of education, be given a "decent burial"? The challenge for those who want to keep the University of Wales is to explain what life it has left.

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