'Stalinist' plans draw Welsh ire

But union welcomes option to rein in universities' institutional autonomy. Hannah Fearn reports

March 31, 2011

As Malcolm Gillies outlined his proposals for a UK-wide overhaul of university governance, in Wales there was a mixed reaction to the publication of a separate report outlining radical plans to change the way higher education institutions are overseen in the country.

Critics of the proposals detailed in an independent review commissioned by Leighton Andrews, the Welsh education minister, branded them "Stalinist".

The review recommends that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales be scrapped and replaced by a body with full powers to govern Welsh universities.

It adds that regulation should be tightened, raising fears for institutional autonomy.

The proposals were welcomed by Mr Andrews, who said the review had "identified a failing in the higher education sector's continued collective lack of commitment to address Welsh strategic priorities".

He added: "Institutional self-interest often predominated over national need and interest. It is clear...that fundamental change is unquestionably required."

The review, Achievement and Accountability, recommends the creation of a new funding and regulatory body, Universities Wales, to take responsibility for maintaining excellence in learning, research, governance and leadership.

It would have 12 members, including six from the university sector, and would be directly accountable to the Welsh Assembly. A separate board would also be created, including civil servants, to oversee the delivery of Welsh higher education.

The proposals have divided opinion. Noel Lloyd, chair of Higher Education Wales, said he was concerned that they would affect universities' "legal basis".

Others in the sector are reported to consider the plan "Stalinist" and fear that it would undermine institutional autonomy. But Richard Davies, vice-chancellor of Swansea University, said the plans might better support universities' interests.

"In reality, HEFCW always has had some responsibility for the strategic development of higher education in Wales, so in that sense the new body is not dramatically different," he said.

Todd Bailey, president of the Cardiff University branch of the University and College Union, claimed that rank-and-file staff "aren't necessarily that keen on institutional autonomy", which was favoured by managers who want to "do whatever they like".

Others said that the independent review had failed to deliver the recommendations that Mr Andrews had hoped for - including the abolition of Hefcw, with university funding and regulation handed over to the Welsh Assembly - so it may be discounted.

"There is always a doubt in Wales if anything radical will ever happen," said one senior source, who asked not to be named. "There is an election coming up, so there is an excuse to forget about it."

The review also addressed the role and future of the University of Wales after concerns were raised about the quality of its international partner institutions.

Mr Andrews said that the review found that the University of Wales was "ambiguous, posed reputational risk and had to reform radically if it were to add any value to Wales".

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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