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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 729-739)


24 JUNE 2008

  Q729 Chairman: Welcome back to the Welsh Affairs Committee. We are delighted to see you both again. Professor Jones, could you introduce yourself and your colleague for the record?

Professor Jones: I am Merfyn Jones, Vice Chancellor of Bangor University and Chair of Higher Education Wales. Amanda Wilkinson is Director of Higher Education Wales.

  Q730  Chairman: Could I begin by asking you the simple question: could you explain the role of Higher Education Wales and how it relates to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales?

  Professor Jones: Higher Education Wales is a National Council of Universities UK; that is, all the universities in the United Kingdom are represented in Universities UK. Higher Education Wales represents all the higher education institutions in Wales. The funding council of course is an Assembly-sponsored body that provides advice to Government and also through which a significant amount of funding flows. HEW and HEFCW work very closely together to promote the interests of higher education, but we have very different and clear roles.

  Q731  Chairman: Given that higher education generally is becoming more global, has devolution been a good thing or a bad thing?

  Professor Jones: I do not think it has necessarily been either good or bad. I think there are clear advantages in devolution and being able to operate globally with other agencies of the Welsh Assembly Government, but clearly we would wish to emphasise that higher education is a global business, that we are dependent on student flows across boundaries and that knowledge of course itself recognises no boundaries. There is also the fact that recent changes in the structure of government responsibilities at the UK level with the creation of DIUS (Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) means that there are differing political structures on both sides of the border, and there has been some policy divergence as well. That does create some difficulties for higher education because we do operate as part of British higher education globally as well as well as in Welsh higher education. I think it does create some challenges for us, but it also creates very real opportunities as well. Only last week I had a meeting with officials from the Welsh Assembly Government to explore how higher education can make better use of the Welsh Assembly Government's global initiatives and international initiatives in terms of creating a Wales brand globally.

  Q732  Mark Pritchard: There has been a lot of debate, as you know, in England about the equivalent qualifications and associated funding. What impact do you think that will have on Wales?

  Ms Wilkinson: On the ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Qualifications) issues in particular, our understanding is that ELQ is supposed to be cost-neutral, so in terms of the consequences to Wales, there should not be an impact. Clearly, Wales has taken a different stance in terms of the ELQ issue. That has certainly been supported by the sector in Wales, given the need to focus on life-long learning and the fact of whether individuals should be deprived of a second bite 20 years hence when we are all very well aware of the structural changes that are likely to occur in the economy.

  Q733  Mark Pritchard: For the record, can you briefly outline, as you see it, as professionals, what England is doing and what Wales is doing and the differences.

  Ms Wilkinson: In terms of my understanding of ELQs in England, in broad terms, the proposal is to withdraw funding for second first degrees or second equivalent qualifications. If an individual has already completed one undergraduate degree, there would not be funding for a second undergraduate degree. That is not being proposed in Wales.

  Q734  Mark Pritchard: If it was equivalent or less and if it was higher?

  Ms Wilkinson: Yes, and in Wales there are no plans at present to follow such a policy.

  Q735  Mark Pritchard: Do you think there might be some migration then of people who want to study certain subjects in England and because of these changes might come to Wales and knock on your universities' door?

  Ms Wilkinson: That would require some quite detailed analysis, which we have not carried out. It depends on the nature of the individual and the type of study that they are wishing to undertake. Quite clearly, for those people who are working and who have families and who are rooted in England, there will clearly be some impediment to them coming to Wales.

  Q736  Mark Pritchard: Obviously as a university but as a business, Professor Jones, do you see some opportunities that England's misery might bring Wales?

  Professor Jones: I do not want to intrude on private grief! There might be some possibilities but we are talking about very specialist areas which affect in a significant way actually quite a small number of institutions in England that are very dependent, as it were, on this type of student. It does seem to me, if I am allowed to say this, that in the context of life-long learning it seems to be a somewhat self-defeating measure because clearly professionals are going to need to update and up-skill and so on. The whole emphasis of our higher education policy in the UK is very much on ensuring that people have the relevant qualifications for whatever new roles they adopt, new jobs they take. There may be opportunities for us in Wales but I would see them as being extremely limited realistically, partly because, as Amanda was saying, many of these people will be in employment of course and would not be the kind of people who would move.

  Q737  Mark Pritchard: Will you be marketing into that niche?

  Professor Jones: From my own university's point of view, we have not intended specifically to market for that at this stage.

  Q738  Mark Pritchard: I have a further point on funding. Obviously when you compare the funding of higher education in Wales to that of England and even Scotland, there is a disparity. I just wonder whether you could outline the implications of that not only for your university but for Wales as a whole.

  Professor Jones: This is a major concern for higher education in Wales, as you can imagine. Perhaps I should say at the outset that the Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills has asked me to chair a group to advise on how this might be addressed. Up to a point, I am constrained in how I can respond to that question but clearly it is on the record in the report published by HEFCW that there is a funding gap of some £60 million. I suppose the bottom line is that our cost base is, as it were, UK based. We pay the same salaries and sign up to the same national agreements as universities in England. All our funding does not come from the Welsh Assembly Government but a very significant part of it does, and if that part is significantly less than what the English equivalents would be receiving, in the end clearly that can create and will create an unsustainable situation. Indeed, I think in evidence to you recently the First Minister referred to that as a problem.

  Q739  Mark Pritchard: Finally, on matched-funding donations, which has been announced in the framework, how do you think that will impact on higher education in Wales?

  Professor Jones: This is one of those policy variations that I was referring to in response to the first question. This is a scheme that was introduced in England of £200 million to match-fund fund-raising campaigns. It is designed of course to try to get universities in England successfully to create new funding streams; that is, from donations and so on. That money is not being made available in Wales and therefore we are not in a position not say to the potential donor, "If you give us £1, it will be match-funded and become £2".

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