The assembly is committed to seeing higher education remain the linchpin of Wales, argues Jane Davidson.
When Labour came into office in 1997, universities faced a crisis because the previous government had failed to address the implications of the expansion of higher education. Across the United Kingdom, the government had tough decisions to make. In Wales, the national assembly, since its instigation in 1999, has also had to take tough decisions as it prepares the ground for the emergence of a more confident and prosperous Wales.
The assembly understands the concerns of the Welsh higher education sector, and it recognises the contribution the sector makes to the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of Wales. The comprehensive spending review produced a settlement for higher education in Wales that was the best for years and narrowed the gap with England for 2000-01 to less than 1 per cent. In its allocation for 2001-02, the assembly has maintained that position.
Recognising the importance of higher education, a partnership agreement of the assembly, signed in October 2000, commits the government of Wales to establish a strong future for Welsh universities by producing a ten-year strategy for adequately funded development and expansion.
In addition, the assembly's education and lifelong learning committee has begun a review of higher education policy for Wales. It will take evidence from a wide range of people and bodies, and it is being assisted in its work by a senior academic from within Wales. The review will ensure that the right solution is found for Wales. Until the review is completed, we cannot say what the budgets will be for future years. But I have already indicated that the outcome of the review will be critically important to the settlements for 2002 and beyond.
Responsibility for policy on tuition fees and student support for Wales and England rests with the Department for Education and Employment. Nevertheless, the assembly has powers to make available access and hardship funds, and it has increased funds for higher and further education by 15 per cent in 2001-02. But, more importantly, I have appointed an independent investigation into student hardship and funding in Wales. I have asked it to report to me by spring.
The assembly is also making £34 million available from 2000-04 under the knowledge exploitation fund to boost wealth-creating capabilities in higher and further education institutions in Wales. The fund will help accelerate the exploitation of research and development and other knowledge and expertise in institutions. There will also be opportunities for higher education institutions in Wales to benefit from significant sums of European money under the Objectives 1, 2 and 3 schemes.
The UK funding councils' report on performance indicators in higher education in 1997-98 and 1998-99 shows that Wales has, for the second year, had considerable success in encouraging participation among groups that are under-represented in higher education relative to the population as a whole. Welsh institutions have a higher proportion of both mature and young full-time undergraduate entrants from under-represented groups than the UK as a whole.
Welsh higher education performed better than the UK average in terms of the percentages of young full-time entrants from state schools and colleges, from skilled manual, semi-skilled or unskilled social groups and from low-participation areas. Welsh institutions also attracted more mature, full-time entrants from low-participation areas and with no previous higher education qualification than any other UK country. In Wales in 1998-99, 18 per cent of undergraduate students were mature, full-time entrants from low-participation areas and with no previous higher education, compared with 14 per cent in England, Scotland and the UK overall.
Despite the high participation rates among disadvantaged groups, dropout rates for full-time first-degree students in Wales are projected to be at the same level as those across the UK as a whole. This reflects the quality of support given to students at Welsh higher education institutions. We are committed to widening this participation still further.
I know that the higher education sector in Wales is concerned to maintain a good future. The assembly shares that vision. The assembly is also mindful that the sector exists in a competitive environment and not just with the rest of the UK. It is clear that top academics are internationally mobile. Given that, we shall ensure that higher education in Wales remains competitive and is able to make an effective impact on the Welsh economy, community and culture and bring about the assembly's vision of Wales as "the learning country". The assembly will want to ensure that Wales remains a good place to live, study and work, and we are committed to achieving that aim.
Jane Davidson is minister for education and lifelong learning in the National Assembly for Wales.