Loss of ally adds to Welsh unrest

Civil servant's departure leaves department with 'dearth of experience', Hannah Fearn writes

August 5, 2010

Unrest in the Welsh higher education sector looks set to continue after the departure of a senior civil servant who worked closely with universities.

David Hawker, director general of the Department for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning and an elected professor at the College of Teachers, forged a close relationship with the sector despite increasing antagonism between some universities and Leighton Andrews, the notably blunt Labour education minister in the Welsh Assembly.

Professor Hawker is taking up a two-year secondment in Whitehall to be closer to his family.

A senior manager at a research-intensive university, who asked not to be named, said Professor Hawker's departure left a gap in expertise in the Welsh education department. "There's a clear dearth of higher education experience; it's very further-education dominant," she said.

Mr Andrews has informed universities that he is setting up a board to oversee better use of resources on the front line, including shared services between institutions. Institutions have been asked to submit plans for rationalisation.

"I would like to see clear plans, including an initial assessment of timescales and savings," Mr Andrews wrote in a letter circulated to the sector last month.

The letter followed the publication of research carried out for the minister by PricewaterhouseCoopers that found that 52 per cent of university funding in Wales was spent on support and back-office services and that less than half of staff were involved in teaching or research.

Mr Andrews' critics have accused him of rushing out policy, pointing to the number of announcements since he was appointed in December.

"You get the impression that a lot of this hasn't been thought through," said the senior manager.

But Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan, said she agreed with the minister that "the pooling of our services should and will increasingly be the norm for Welsh higher education".

The umbrella group Higher Education Wales said universities were committed to making savings through collaboration and were acting "with some urgency".

Last month, Mr Andrews announced that Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, and Dame Janet Trotter, former vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire, would join a group leading a review into Welsh institutions' governance.

Meanwhile, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales confirmed that student numbers in Wales will be capped for 2011, although the cap will not apply to part-time students. Part-time students from low-income backgrounds will also benefit from a fee waiver.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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