Cross-border provision of public services for Wales: further and higher education - Welsh Affairs Committee Contents

Q 2  Conclusions and recommendations

Further Education

1.  Given that there was strong objection at the time to further education being taken away from local authorities in Wales, the role of local authorities should be reconsidered in Wales in the context of the Webb Report and policy developments which flow from it. (Paragraph 5)

2.  In the further education sector, there is now a significant policy divergence between Wales and England. The different policy and funding priorities result in different opportunities and challenges for learners in the two nations. (Paragraph 10)

3.  We regard both sets of funding guidance as unhelpful and inappropriate and urge all authorities to see ease of access across borders, including access across regional borders within England, as something to be encouraged. (Paragraph 12)

4.  We are not entirely convinced that cross-border arrangements are satisfactory as they stand as they seem more focussed on the convenience of providers than the objective of inspiring would-be students. (Paragraph 15)

5.  Again, 'need' seems an unduly restrictive concept and the wishes of students and their ability to gain access to the right course for their personal aims and those of their employers should be paramount. (Paragraph 16)

6.  There is a not only a need for some further education learners to cross the border between Wales and England to attend college, but it should be welcomed and encouraged. Geographical convenience for those living close to the border, or a wish to attend a specialist course which is not available locally and conveniently in the learner's home country are not the only reasons for crossing the border. There are advantages to colleges and learners on both sides of the border if this type of cross-border provision is made available when required and driven by learner and employer choice rather than by regulation. The evidence suggests to us that some processes to enable this to operate are in place, but that the border does act as a barrier, or at least as a perceived barrier, to colleges in their recruitment and to students in their search for the right course. We recommend that the Learning and Skills Council and the Welsh Assembly Government take steps to improve the level of cooperation, and that they give due consideration to cross-border issues when reviewing coverage and student demand in respect of further education provision on both sides of the border, particularly when local authorities in England take over responsibilities which currently rest with the Learning and Skills Council. In addition, we recommend that they encourage further education institutions to provide information to all potential or prospective learners, bearing in mind that the nearest convenient college or nearest provider of specialist courses could be across the border. (Paragraph 17)

7.  Sector Skills Councils play a key role with regard to consistency and transferability of skills throughout the UK. We believe that they should play a bigger role in coordinating cross-border issues for employers arising from policy divergences. We are not convinced that the Sector Skills Councils are adequately resourced to fulfil their role, particularly when taking into account the need for each Sector Skills Council to have the capacity to give due regard to territorial differences in skills policies. (Paragraph 24)

8.  The evidence suggests that at least some aspects of the Train to Gain scheme are working better than the Workforce Development Fund. One advantage of devolution is that the different administrations can learn from each other's successes and failures and we suggest that the Welsh Assembly Government might consider the lessons to be learned from the implementation of Train to Gain. In particular, the Workforce Development Fund should be more actively advertised and better funded. (Paragraph 31)

9.  Employers need clearer information about the government training schemes available on each side of the border. This is especially important for smaller employers in border areas and employers with sites in both Wales and England. We recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Welsh Assembly Government work together to ensure that employers understand the support available to them, how they can gain access to that support and to treat the border as an opportunity for comparison and cross-fertilisation of best practice rather than as a barrier. (Paragraph 32)

10.  Given the relatively small size of many further education colleges in Wales, we believe that it is essential to aim at the highest quality and that further education colleges must be encouraged to work with higher education institutions and for such cooperation to be required rather than encouraging separate development. This is particularly important in view of the recent change of course signalled by a Ministerial announcement that further education colleges in Wales may be given powers to award foundation degrees. (Paragraph 37)

11.  There is bound to be some divergence in qualification systems and apprenticeship programmes between Wales and England and the proposed Apprenticeships Bill seems likely to widen these. This creates further problems for employers whose businesses are close to, or straddle the border. A lack of clarity with regard to the geographical extent of the Draft Apprenticeships Bill suggests to us that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills paid inadequate regard to the implications of devolution when developing its apprenticeships policies. This is unacceptable. We recommend that the Department works more closely with the Welsh Assembly Government when it comes to drafting the final version of the Bill. Similarly, it is important for the Welsh Assembly Government to engage with and seek to influence the Department at an early stage of policy development. In the final analysis, the overriding objective should be to equip learners with a qualification that is recognised on both sides of the border. (Paragraph 42)

12.  Our inquiry has persuaded us that there is a need for greater joint working to consider the impact of proposed new policies relating to further education on both sides of the border, before decisions are made. The evidence shows that there is also a need for better and more timely communication of policies to employers, so that they can consider how any changes will affect their businesses and to enable them to influence the design of courses and qualifications. In particular, officials in Wales and both in Whitehall and at regional level in England need to be outward looking and sensitive to the realities of our long and porous border. It should be a cause for celebration and cooperation rather than an obstacle to efficiency and effectiveness. (Paragraph 46)

13.  Finally, there is a need for greater transparency in the way that the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government and their respective agencies collaborate with emphasis on recognising the advantages of co-operation as well as distinctiveness and divergence. (Paragraph 47)

Higher Education

14.  Most aspects of higher education policy development are now devolved, and each of the four nations has distinctive approaches and priorities for its higher education sector. Nevertheless, the benefits to all of maintaining consistently high standards in higher education institutions throughout the UK and the existence of other common interests such as shared markets for staff and student recruitment mean that in practice there continues to be a high level of interdependency between the nations. The higher education sector in England is much larger than that in Wales, and whilst Wales has the powers to develop its own policies, it remains in a number of significant respects subject to the consequences of policy changes across the border in England. (Paragraph 53)

15.  Student flows from England to Wales are very significant for Welsh higher education institutions and for the Welsh economy. Although it appears that increasing numbers of Welsh-domiciled students are choosing to study in Wales, within the UK Wales has the highest proportion of full-time higher education students coming from outside the country. Policy decisions made in England which alter the pattern of student flows, whether as an intended or unintended consequence, could have a major impact on Wales. Similarly, decisions of the Welsh Assembly Government need to take account of the reality of choices made by would-be students and the health of Welsh higher education institutions. (Paragraph 60)

16.  Differences in spending priorities between the governments in Wales and in England have led to a funding gap, estimated on 2005/06 figures to be £61 million, between the amount which the higher education sector in Wales receives compared to what it would receive if it were funded on the same basis as the higher education sector in England. Witnesses told us that if this funding disparity were to continue, the higher education sector in Wales would become unable to compete effectively with institutions in the UK and other European Union nations and that this would limit its ability to contribute to a growing economy in Wales. (Paragraph 65)

17.  The introduction of a matched fundraising scheme for universities in England, and the absence of any equivalent scheme in Wales, will inevitably increase the funding disparity between England and Wales and the advantages of such a strategy should be explored by the Welsh Assembly Government. (Paragraph 73)

18.  Witnesses expressed concerns about the decision to merge the responsibilities of the Medical Research Council, which has a UK-wide remit, with the National Institute for Health Research, whose remit covers England only. We recommend that the newly formed UK Office for the Strategic Coordination of Health Research implements procedures to ensure that the views and priorities of health researchers in Wales are fully taken into account when considering its strategic approach to clinical research across the UK. (Paragraph 75)

19.  We have been assured that the necessary arrangements are in place to enable the funding councils of Wales and England to support cross-border collaborative projects. We are supportive of such projects and believe that they could help foster better cross-border cooperation and as a consequence, potentially improved research funding in Wales. We recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Welsh Assembly Government monitor this issue so as to ensure that joint funding is provided to appropriate projects. (Paragraph 79)

20.  It is clear that the higher education sector in Wales receives a smaller share of UK research funding than would be expected from its relative size. Witnesses have suggested various explanations for this, including the possibility that the lower level of higher education infrastructure investment in Wales is compromising the quality of research bids; the fact that there is a greater proportion of smaller institutions in Wales; the possibility that Welsh interests are inadequately represented when selecting successful research bids; and the possibility that current systems for awarding funding favour established institutions with a proven track record rather than ones with future potential. (Paragraph 86)

21.  Research investment brings significant economic benefits to the surrounding localities. Higher education institutions in Wales will be disadvantaged if the funding gap continues to grow, which will make it increasingly difficult for them to compete on an equal basis with English institutions for research funding, with the prospect of a downward spiral developing. This would have a significant and negative impact on the economy of Wales. We believe that the UK-wide distribution of research funding by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills should take account of the relative needs of different parts of the UK for such economic investment. However, it must be acknowledged that it will be harder to attract research funding if the funding gap referred to in paragraph 65 continues. We recommend that the Department prepares and publishes a report on the varying levels of research investment across the different nations and regions of the UK, together with an explanation of the variation and steps which could be taken to achieve a more equitable distribution, giving consideration to each of the factors listed in paragraph 86 above. (Paragraph 87)

22.  We believe that research councils should not just follow excellence, but must also foster it. Higher education funding should not be based on a winner takes all model. We support the suggestion of Universities UK that, given the economic impact of research spending, funds should be made available at a UK level to support the development of research capacity in economically deprived areas of the four nations. We recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills makes available a specific allocation of research funds to develop the research capacity of higher education institutions outside the established elite to enable them to gain a track record of success and so be able to compete more effectively for research funds from other sources. (Paragraph 88)

23.  Whilst there are undoubtedly a number of communications mechanisms in place between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Welsh Assembly Government, it is clear that these have not been sufficiently effective. We fear that the liaison between the two departments is of a formal nature only and steps need to be taken to create a relationship which develops into a true partnership. We heard evidence of instances where UK policy had been developed with little attention given to Welsh issues, and of policy developed for England without consideration of the impact it would have on Wales and vice versa. We look to the Wales Office to improve communications and ensure that they are fit for purpose. There should also be better liaison between the Wales Office, the Welsh Assembly Government and HEFCW. (Paragraph 93)

24.  The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is responsible for science policy throughout the UK and must ensure that all of the four nations benefit from its science investments. The Welsh Assembly Government has defined its own science priorities for Wales but has provided no specific additional funding to pursue these aims. There is a clear risk that neither body will give sufficient priority to science investment in Wales, despite the obvious benefits to the economy there. We recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills explores with the Welsh Assembly Government the potential for a joint science investment fund or a joint strategic science site in Wales. (Paragraph 96)

25.  In order to encourage better joint working, we suggest a greater use of secondments between the two government departments as well as between funding bodies on both sides of the border. (Paragraph 104)

26.  Some of the responsibilities of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills are UK-wide and others relate only to England. Our evidence suggests that this situation has given rise to confusion, both within and outside the Department. Welsh interests are not being adequately taken into account when formulating UK policy, and UK policies are overly based on English interests. We recommend that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills establishes processes to ensure that the territorial extent of any policy is clearly identified and communicated by officials before any developments to it are proposed and that this should be done in consultation with the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government. (Paragraph 105)

27.  With regard to the development of higher education policy, we were told that there are a number of opportunities for officials of all administrations to meet and share information, but there appears to be no framework to ensure that future strategy is developed with due regard to the interdependencies of the higher education sectors of the four nations. We saw no evidence of any clear process for considering the implications for the devolved administrations before decisions about policies for England were made. Because of its relative size, changes to the higher education sector in England will inevitably have an impact throughout the rest of the UK. Policy decisions must be taken in the knowledge of the likely consequences on both sides of the border. We recommend that the Department ensures that the devolved administrations are fully consulted before any further decisions are made with regard to future higher education policy in England, and that any future reviews routinely include this type of consultation as a matter of course. We look to the Wales Office to ensure that this happens. (Paragraph 106)

28.  Occasional and ad hoc meetings serve a useful purpose in exchanging information about current issues, but there is also a need to establish better protocols and relationships to ensure that the Government's policymaking process routinely considers devolved interests at an early stage. We recommend that until any alternative structure is put in place, the coordination of higher education policy should be a top priority for the Joint Ministerial Committee, and that information about its discussions is made publicly available. (Paragraph 107)

29.  Throughout all the strands of our cross-border inquiry, our evidence has suggested that the decision-making process on each side of the border needs to be more coordinated, more coherent and more transparent. Democratic devolution means that decisions should be taken in England and Wales in the best interests of the local population. This does not mean, however, that governments on either side of the border should close their eyes to the consequences of their decisions on the population of the UK as a whole, particularly those living in close proximity to the border itself. We have found clear evidence that a better interface between government departments and the Welsh Assembly Government would be to the benefit of students and education staff both in Wales and in England. (Paragraph 108)

30.  The Welsh Assembly Government has chosen to invest less in higher education than the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has in England and the consequences of this are increasingly evident in competition for students, the strength of the institutions and capacity for research. We note the Minister's willingness to address these issues, many of them identified by Professor Merfyn Jones' review. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills appears to be pressing ahead with strategic changes to higher education policy, with little regard for the consequences for the devolved nations, and little consultation. The role of the Wales Office is to be the voice of Wales in Westminster, but with regard to the development of higher education policy it has failed to make the UK Government factor Wales into its planning. Equally, neither the Welsh Assembly Government nor HEFCW appear to recognise the importance of the Wales Office in raising Welsh higher education policy and funding issues at the UK level. (Paragraph 109)

31.  In addition, the approach of the research councils is blind to the social and regeneration consequences of their decisions. Unless there is a more active acknowledgement of Wales by the UK Government, better coordination with the Welsh Assembly Government and an increased awareness within the funding bodies of the UK dimensions of their decisions, all of these factors add up to a gloomy prospect for Welsh higher education. (Paragraph 110)

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Prepared 16 January 2009