Ideas of Marches

April 26, 1996

Wales has the supreme good fortune to be far away from Whitehall. It has been possible for the universities, colleges and funding councils there to work away quietly at devising a system for post-compulsory education without much attention or interference from the centre.

Wales has a second Secretary of State to fight its corner and he has access to development funds separate from the education budget. The funding councils, being smaller and further away, do not excite ministers with macho ambitions to control further and higher education in the way the English councils inevitably do. It is smaller and its institutions more homogeous than those in England.

The result, as our report (pages 6-7) shows, is that a coherent model for post-compulsory education is emerging in Wales which is making a major contribution - perhaps the crucial contribution - to the reorientation and regeneration of Wales's economy and which is helping to keep more Welsh students near home.

This emerging model brings together many strands of development that have emerged in further and higher education in the past 15 years - close association with local industry for training, applied research and consultancy; networks of further education colleges working with universities; credit accumulation and transfer schemes; quality assurance based in the first instance on a system of internal departmental reviews.

The committee to be set up under Sir Ron Dearing's chairmanship to review higher education, would do well to look at what is being done in Wales, and not just because they may get a bloody nose if they inadvertently make recommendations which threaten to destroy what has been painstakingly achieved.

The committee will most likely be presenting its recommendations to a newly elected Government that has made a commitment to regional development and which may not have a very clear idea of how to go about achieving it. If elected, the Labour party can be expected, rightly, to start developing regional policy in terms of the structure of local government and accountability. But it would be foolish if it ignored the potential further and higher education offer for making regional arrangements work, for supporting the local economy, generating a sense of community and involving a large group of stakeholders.

In a society in which knowledge and high level intellectual and professional skills are crucial economic raw material, the universities and colleges of a region will be central to its economic success. When more and more people want to study, but not full time or living away from home, (see Christopher Ball below), it becomes ever more important for opportunities to study all but the most abstruse specialisms to be available locally.

In a university and college system where there is no possibility that research facilities can be made available in all institutions, it is vital that there be research capacity in the region readily accessible to academics from non-research orientated institutions so that the academic profession retains its attractiveness and quality higher education flourishes.

This research centre role is one which University of Wales, Cardiff, could be well placed to develop for the Principality. It would be a shame if, because Cardiff aspires to membership of an elite research league which is perceived to be separate, it was tempted to cut itself off from its regional life blood. That would weaken both Cardiff and the emerging Welsh system which will need links with the international research community to calibrate standards.

Reform of the formal structure of the University of Wales is likely to be a corollary of the new pattern of further and higher education now emerging. Like the University of London, old structures get in the way as other institutions develop around them. They need periodic reform.

If it is allowed to become successfully established, the pattern now emerging in Wales could provide a useful example for many round the world now tackling the challenges of regional identity and regeneration.

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