Qualified praise for hammer of the Welsh

Institutions have mostly favourable recollections of Welsh minister’s term. David Matthews writes

July 4, 2013

Leighton Andrews, the Welsh education minister who resigned last week over his schools policy, made a host of both enemies and admirers in his three-and-a-half-year drive to merge Welsh universities.

But the majority of those still working in higher education in Wales offered qualified praise for the minister – who in 2010 famously told Welsh universities to “adapt or die” – perhaps because they think he will, in time, return to politics.

Mr Andrews quit unexpectedly on 25 June after he defended a school in his constituency that faced closure under his own surplus places policy.

Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, said that in higher education, Mr Andrews has “achieved more than any education minister since devolution”.

Merging Wales’ universities, considered by some to be too small to be successful, has been on the agenda for decades but Mr Andrews was the minister who made it happen.

Five universities have been merged into two: the University of Wales Trinity Saint David joined Swansea Metropolitan University and the University of Wales, while the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport have been combined.

Mr Andrews threatened to dissolve Cardiff Metropolitan University unless it joined the latter grouping. But concerted opposition from the university and the threat of a judicial review forced him to back down.

Cardiff Met declined to offer a comment on his departure.

In 2011, on Mr Andrews’ watch, the sustainability of Glyndwr University was judged to be “challenging in the long term” by a Higher Education Funding Council for Wales report. Nevertheless, in a statement last week, the institution praised the occasionally “challenging” departing minister.

The only figure willing to offer serious criticism of Mr Andrews was the former vice-chancellor of Newport, now working as a consultant. Peter Noyes, who stepped down for family reasons in 2012, opposed the merger of his university because he believed there was no evidence linking institution size with success or quality.

Dr Noyes claimed that the merger drive was about “political ego” and that Mr Andrews was more concerned with the structure of higher education than with the outcomes.

The mergers were a “smokescreen” for the fact that the Welsh government “underfunded higher education by a dramatic amount”, he argued.

There is also no sense that this is the end for Mr Andrews in Welsh politics, Dr Noyes said. “He’s highly ambitious, so it might be a Peter Mandelson-type resignation,” he said, referring to the Labour UK Cabinet minister who returned to top-level Westminster politics despite two resignations.

In the face of tuition fee rises in England, Mr Andrews decided that Welsh students would be subsidised so that they pay no more than £3,500 a year wherever they study in the UK, a move whose affordability has been questioned by Professor Riordan and Plaid Cymru.

Mr Andrews has been succeeded by Huw Lewis, Welsh Assembly member for Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, who was previously the minister for communities and tackling poverty.

Professor Riordan described the new minister as “very committed to social justice and social mobility, so I imagine widening access…will be high up his agenda”.


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