Historical forces

Public policy shaped Wales' universities early on, and it shapes and supports them still, says Leighton Andrews

July 19, 2012

In his recent book What Are Universities For?, Stefan Collini says that every politician is a closet historian. To which, I suppose, the only response is that some politicians have studied more history than others. The challenges we face in higher education in Wales demand an understanding of both history and context.

As Times Higher Education recently pointed out ("Lion rampant, sleeping dragon", 5 July), Scotland's universities have a longer history than those of Wales. Scotland does not face as critical a challenge to its higher education system as does Wales when radical changes occur over the border in England. In 2010-11 there were 16,885 Welsh students studying in England and ,710 English students studying in Wales. The cross-border exchange of students between the two countries is very significant, and we are conscious that some English institutions are very deliberately targeting Welsh students for recruitment.

That explains why the Higher Education Policy Institute said that for the devolved nations, "policy autonomy is constrained by the impact of changes in the financing of higher education in England, and the need to maintain funding at competitive levels".

We welcome students from England, and want that cross-border flow to continue. We have adopted a support policy that will permit students domiciled in Wales to benefit from higher education wherever they study in the UK, without themselves having to fund the higher fees that are being charged from this autumn. We have taken a generous approach to student support, which may be why, as THE indicated, Wales has "a higher proportion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds" than Scotland. If you add together our student finance and higher education budgets, the figures for overall per-head spend between England and Wales are in fact quite close. All Welsh higher education institutions will receive more finance under the new fees system than they would otherwise have done.

Hepi is right to say that "reforms in England have been made without adequate consideration of their impact outside England" - a practice I have called English exceptionalism. I am sorry the author of the Hepi report doesn't like my straight talking about higher education, but politicians were even blunter in the 19th century and early 20th century, when Wales' higher education institutions were taking shape.

Public interest has always been central to the development of higher education in Wales. In his History of the University of Wales, J. Gwynn Williams pointed out: "The £2,500 granted to Aberystwyth in 1884 was the first instance of government aid for university education in England and Wales."

Our higher education institutions did not suddenly spring up as private businesses or as creations of a higher education funding council or as works of art conceived by their vice-chancellors' refined imaginations. They have a history. They are the result of a particular set of economic, social, political and cultural circumstances. They have both been shaped by, and later helped to shape, the popular history, culture and indeed national identity of Wales - and they have always required substantial state largesse to support them. Those involved in the creation of the University of Wales had public goals and national aspirations. Public policy shaped our universities at the outset. Public policy shapes them now.

I am not impressed by the personalisation of public policy debates. The reconfiguration agenda facing Wales' academy pre-dates my arrival in the National Assembly for Wales. It has enjoyed all-party support along the way. The Assembly's Audit Committee, chaired by a Conservative member, said of reconfiguration in 2009: "We think that the Assembly Government and HEFCW [the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales] between them need to be much more robust in this area" and "should use the core grant to institutions, as appropriate, to drive forward their goals".

Higher education reconfiguration is part of a process of strengthening Wales' academy, not an end in itself. I would far rather discuss the quality, range of provision, strength of research and the opportunities open to higher education in Wales than focus with quite so much intensity on its structure. But we will complete the agenda.

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