Welsh chiefs in harmony with Andrews' merger call

Vice-chancellors agree on need to downsize from existing 10 institutions, writes David Matthews

September 1, 2011

Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews is backing plans to cut the number of universities in the country from 10 to six.

Despite his sometimes blunt manner, typified by the demand that Welsh universities "adapt or die", Mr Andrews may have won many of the Welsh academy's leaders around to proposals that would see the sector's most radical reorganisation in decades.

But exactly which institutions will merge has yet to be agreed.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Andrews said that a "smaller number of stronger universities" had long been a policy aim in a bid to achieve the critical mass that Welsh institutions lack in terms of research.

In July, a report outlining proposed mergers by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales criticised the sector for performing less well than the UK as a whole in the final research assessment exercise, and for its "comparatively poor" record of winning research grants.

Mr Andrews also argued that the marketisation of higher education in the UK could leave smaller Welsh institutions vulnerable to volatile student flows, bolstering the case for mergers to weather the storm.

"It seems to me that the UK government is ready to see universities go to the wall," he said. "I would rather we avoided that situation by having in place a planning mechanism for the future."

More research pooling and cross-departmental collaboration are needed, Mr Andrews said - and possibly an end to course duplication.

The universities agree with the minister's agenda, according to John Hughes, vice-chancellor of Bangor University and the new chair of Higher Education Wales.

"We had a large meeting in June and we decided there was a feeling that reconfiguration was necessary," Professor Hughes said.

"There is a recognition that there will be mergers. That's not easy for any institution to accept."

But the matter of how many institutions will be squeezed together, and which ones, is contentious.

"I wouldn't necessarily be hung up on six (final universities)," Professor Hughes said.

The Hefcw report recommends that Aberystwyth and Bangor universities develop a "plan for merger"; that the University of Glamorgan, the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff and the University of Wales, Newport merge; and that University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Swansea Metropolitan University follow the same path.

Professor Hughes said he would not rule out a merger between Aberystwyth and Bangor universities, but noted that "the distance between them is an issue - it's a two and a half hour drive."

Michael Scott, vice-chancellor of Glyndwr University, is also mulling over Hefcw's recommendations, which include merging his university with an English institution, the University of Chester.

Acknowledging "differences of opinion" between the sector and the government over mergers, he emphasised that "it's up to the institutions and their governing bodies to decide their future".

Queen's shilling comes at a cost

So, could the sector be heading for a showdown over mergers with the government and the funding council?

"The reality of life is that higher education institutions derive the bulk of their funding from public sources," Mr Andrews said.

Phil Gummett, chief executive of Hefcw, added that if Welsh universities accepted money from the Welsh Assembly government in Cardiff, it came with responsibilities attached.

"You can choose not to accept the Queen's shilling," he said.

However, Professor Hughes said he did not think it likely that any universities in Wales would opt to go private rather than merge.

Rancour has been in the air in recent months because of fierce ministerial criticism of the Welsh academy. In May 2010, following a report on the running of Wales' universities, Mr Andrews said governance of the sector had become "the last resting place of the crachach (elite)".

At the time, he questioned whether universities in Wales believed "that there is such a thing as a Welsh higher education sector" and since December he has been warning institutions that they must "adapt or die".

After his comments that there would be "fewer vice-chancellors" in Wales by 2013, there had been "jocular exchanges" with institutional heads, the minister said.

"My comments have probably been quite blunt," he acknowledged. But he added that there was "an impatience about the need for the higher education sector to punch its weight for Wales and if I'm blunt, I think I'm expressing a consensus".

Professor Hughes said relations had improved in recent months.

"Sometimes his language has been quite forthright. But in taking over Higher Education Wales, one of my priorities has been to improve relations. We are now very much talking along the same lines."

Direction of travel 'inevitable'

When it comes to student numbers under the new fees regime, there is much uncertainty. From 2012-13, undergraduates from the rest of the UK will pay an average of £8,800 a year to attend Welsh universities.

Mr Andrews said it was not known how this would affect flows of students travelling from England to Wales and vice versa.

"I suspect we won't know until we've had the first two or three years of the system in operation," he said.

The Welsh Assembly has committed to pay tuition fees in excess of £3,465 for Welsh students attending universities anywhere in the UK. Because of this, Professor Gummett said, there was uncertainty over how much cash will be left for the Welsh teaching grant, which is expected to be cut by about 40 per cent.

Asked if the teaching grant might be cut further, Mr Andrews said there was an acceptable degree of clarity on this matter, and on the direction of Welsh higher education.

"I think there's a recognition of inevitability about the direction of travel," he said. "I think the vice-chancellors are very clear."

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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