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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740-759)


24 JUNE 2008

  Q740  Mark Pritchard: Do you think part of the £60 million deficit might be met by a similar scheme being introduced in Wales and, if so, where do you think those likely pools of donations and international companies are going to come from, given that by definition there are less international companies in the geographical area of Wales than there are in the geographical area of England?

  Professor Jones: I do believe that the investment gap, the difference in funding between England and Wales, is a difference in the core funding and needs to be addressed as such. The matched funding scheme in England is in a sense additional and is a fairly small sum of money in global terms, in terms of the funding of higher education in the UK. There are two separate problems, it seems to me: one is the funding issue; and the second is that the policy variation and the matched-funding scheme is an example of different policies being pursued in England from in Wales. Its impact is serious but marginal compared to the fundamental issue of the core funding.

  Q741  Mark Pritchard: May I just say I was in Amman recently and I met somebody who works for the Amman Government. He had studied at university in Wales and he was praising the university sector.

  Professor Jones: You must give me his name!

  Q742  Mr David Jones: I would like to ask you about the DIUS review on higher education in England. Is HEW or are Welsh universities individually participating in that review?

  Professor Jones: We certainly are through Universities UK, which is preparing a statement to present to the DIUS review. I do not think I am revealing any secrets: I have seen an early draft of that document. Right up front, I think it does emphasise that even though the DIUS review is a review of higher education in England, and a root and branch review by the way of higher education in England, the implications of any recommendations that arise from that review are going to be profound for the whole of the UK—for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. We will certainly be inputting into the discussion directly through Universities UK, but there also of course needs to be an engagement between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

  Q743  Mr David Jones: What do you see the implications for Welsh higher education to be?

  Professor Jones: Because we are part of a UK system of higher education, and that is the way in a sense we are perceived globally, if there are major changes—and I do not know what those changes might be and certainly when we also consider the issue of funding and the cap on student fees and so on that is also being reviewed across England—either in policy or in funding in England, then that will have a profound impact on our competitive position in Wales. If there is an increase of funding in England, then that will clearly affect our ability to compete. There may be policy divergences as well. We do not know what the recommendations are going to be. Anything that affects the English sector, which after all is the major part of the UK's university sector, and any policy that affects that affects us in Wales. If I may say so, that is why this committee and Members of Parliament have a very important role in ensuring that the process in England is aware of the situation in Wales and similarly that policy makers in Wales are aware of possible shifts in policy in the UK Government.

  Q744  Mr David Jones: If the review were to result in an expansion of the number of higher education centres in England would there be any particular consequences for Welsh higher education centres? I am thinking particularly perhaps of those close to the border.

  Professor Jones: There already are some plans of course in England to expand the number of outlets, as it were, for higher education. Yes, it certainly would have an impact. The truth of the matter is of course that perhaps not quite all but most institutions in Wales are not very far from the border and do already compete with institutions, On the other hand, they do not have to be just on the other side of the border; they can be some way away. The distribution of HE institutions in England could clearly affect our market because there is, as you know, a considerable flow of students across the border in both directions.

  Ms Wilkinson: There is certainly an issue in terms of England looking at this review only within England's borders and not taking into account the institutions that are spread certainly along the Welsh border, which could give a very different complexion to what one might describe as a cold spot for higher education, given that provision is there just over the border.

  Q745  Mr David Jones: To what extent do you understand that the Welsh Assembly Government is engaging with DIUS in this review?

  Ms Wilkinson: I would say we are not clear about the level of engagement between the Welsh Assembly Government and DIUS in terms of this review.

  Q746  Mr David Jones: Are you aware of any engagement at all?

  Ms Wilkinson: We are not aware of any specific engagement in terms of the DIUS review between the Welsh Assembly Government and DIUS in terms of how that is going to inform the review of the Assembly's own policy in relation to higher education Reaching Higher, which is due to take place this autumn.

  Q747  Mr David Jones: Do you think that is a shortcoming, given the clear importance of the DIUS review to Welsh higher education as much as to English higher education?

  Ms Wilkinson: I think, as we have already articulated, it is very important that there is proper engagement between all players in terms of this DIUS review because there are bound to be impacts on Welsh higher education as a result of this review. One could argue that it is an England-only policy, but that may well necessitate changes in Welsh policy if we are going to stay competitive. We need to be well-cited on what comes through that review at all levels, particularly in relation to those UK issues around research in science, which are very important and where we have already had some issues.

  Q748  Mr David Jones: It would be fair to say that you would be looking for more co-ordination at government level in terms of higher education policy in England and Wales? Ms Wilkinson: Yes, I think that is right. I think we do have to look at the mechanisms for co-ordinating higher education policy at a UK level, not to prejudice the role of the Welsh Assembly Government and the devolved powers that it has in relation to higher education, but there are clearly UK competencies and there needs to be co-ordination in order those are properly addressed and that the needs of Wales are properly reflected.

  Q749  Chairman: When we had the Secretary of State for Wales before us discussing health matters on this inquiry, when we asked him about the nature of the bilateral ministerial meetings, he agreed with us that it would be healthy for democracy and for policy development that these meetings should be made clearer, announced, the nature of the meetings should be explained. Would you agree that that would be equally helpful in terms of when the education or higher education ministers met in this context?

  Professor Jones: Yes, I am sure that it would. You will see in our written evidence that we do suggest some mechanisms, and indeed we discussed those with the Secretary of State—that would allow an all-UK view to be developed so that at least the various administrations understand what each other is doing because whatever happens will impact on other parts of the UK. We do need that kind of structure. Again, if I may repeat what I said earlier, it seems to me that that is where, if I may say so, there is a role for Members of Parliament and indeed for this Committee to be aware of what is happening, both at a UK, England and Wales level.

  Ms Wilkinson: There is also a need for proper co-ordination between civil servants, otherwise we miss out on what appear to be quite straightforward issues; for example, DIUS is co-ordinating a meeting with Indian officials to look at the UK initiative for higher education. Again, we are not clear about the level of Welsh involvement in that meeting and it is as important a market for our institutions as it is for institutions in England. It is also in those smaller market-sensitive issues where co-ordination is going to be helpful to us.

  Q750  Mr Martyn Jones: What are your views on the Welsh Assembly Government's science policy document "A Science Policy for Wales"?

  Professor Jones: Science policy is an area where clearly there is some funding through HEFCW into scientific research but science as such is not a devolved area because much of the funding for science through the science research councils and so on is UK-based. We very much welcomed the development of "A Science Policy for Wales" and look forward to it being underpinned by funding that would allow the science base to be developed in Wales. Of course, when one is thinking about science in Wales, it is not entirely limited to universities but it is very dependent on universities in the sense that we do not have the other corporate capacity in science research that you find elsewhere. Science and the development of science—and I use the word "science" broadly—it seems to me is absolutely fundamental to the future success of our economy. We do need a coherent plan for ensuring that we do have a strong, healthy science base in Wales. We do face particular challenges in that regard. Some of the statistics do demonstrate that we have a long way to go in order really to establish ourselves as a major force.

  Q751  Mr Martyn Jones: Is it in the best interests of the Welsh people to have a separate Welsh policy on science when science is a UK responsibility, as you noted in your memorandum?

  Professor Jones: I do believe there are certain emphases in Wales; there are strengths and weaknesses in Wales which are not reflected elsewhere. It does seem to me to be probably sensible to have a science policy which drives and which is, as it were, built on our strengths and addresses our weaknesses. To some extent, the science policy we have does exactly that.

  Q752  Mr Martyn Jones: Does Welsh higher education get a fair hearing and allocation from the UK-wide elements of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills programmes?

  Professor Jones: It is up to us really to respond to those initiatives but there are some initiatives which are England only. I am not referring to DIUS here but for example the merger of the Medical Research Council with the NHS research capacity in England as it were brought a UK-wide body and an England-only body together into one funding mechanism. It is early days to say if that is having any impact on funding. Clearly, if you look at the percentage of research council funding coming into Wales, we ought to be getting more of that but I would be the first to admit that that is as much to do with the strength in the sector as with research council policy.

  Ms Wilkinson: The real issue is how we develop our activity and how we can be supported to do that, given the supporting role that scientific development can play to the economy in Wales. That is fairly fundamental from our point of view in terms of the way we have approached science policy. One has seen interventions in funding at a UK level which necessarily have quite specific regional impacts. I think we would like to see Wales considered for that sort of funding.

  Q753  Mr Martyn Jones: Can I move on to health policy? How effective is the UK-wide co-ordination of workforce planning for health professionals?

  Professor Jones: May I respond to that in a very narrow, edgy way rather than the big question involved here? This affects higher education and this is true across the United Kingdom, as much in England as in Wales. It can affect us very directly. The first point to note, I suppose, is that the market for health professionals is a UK market or indeed a global market. Work force planning within national boundaries can perhaps in itself be not very helpful. What happens in HE, to give you an example, is if one day we think we need thousands more nurses, we put on the courses; we hire the staff and create thousands more nurses. Then the workforce panel might say, "Actually, we do not need any more nurses", so we will turn off the tap and then you are left with very expensive staff and equipment and so on. That has been a big problem in England and it is something of a problem in Wales as well. The same goes in other areas. Once you do attempt to fund on the basis of workforce planning, it is very important that those who are doing the funding and planning recognise that when HE puts on these courses to train vocationally that infrastructure is still in place when the tap is turned off and that it is a real expenditure. Therefore, there is a real risk in being involved in that business because we cannot be guaranteed on the throughput of students.

  Q754  Mr Martyn Jones: Is there anything that you can do to help the over- or under-supply of professionals in the HE sector? Can you liaise with DIUS to get them to try to get that balance, if you like?

  Professor Jones: Yes, we do and there is engagement between the professional bodies and we train in these vocational areas. The same is true, by the way, of teacher training as well. There is a considerable interchange of views and planning, but it is not always clear that there are significant costs involved in reducing provision in these areas.

  Q755  Mark Pritchard: I have two brief supplementaries on research funding. Do you think Wales gets a fair slice of the cake from central government and do you think research funding is dominated by the Russell Group and the usual blue sky allocations?

  Professor Jones: I think there are all sorts of issues there when you look at the distribution of research funding. Of course research funding does not just happen in universities. As I said earlier, because of the distribution of corporate R&D, relatively little of that happens in Wales. In Wales we are particularly peculiarly dependent on universities to sustain research. If you look at the figures, we should probably be getting a bit more of that research council money and money from other sources. That is in part because all of this money is not distributed by formula; it is distributed in competition. So it is all to do with the strength of the competition. Yes, there is a huge degree of concentration of research in a relatively small number of units. It is quite extraordinary the degree of concentration of research. It is not just institutions in Wales that have found it rather more difficult; many others do as well.

  Q756  Mark Pritchard: To help the Committee, Professor, is there a particular example of a university in Wales, not necessarily Bangor to help yourself, where if the increase in research funding was given, Wales's global competitiveness or industrial base would be enhanced?

  Professor Jones: I think so very definitely. There are a number of universities in Wales where that would make a huge difference. I was quoting last week a figure—and this comes from MIT—that in order really to have a major impact on a regional economy you need a research income of about £40 million a year. Certainly the research universities, obviously Bangor and Swansea, are not yet in that category; we are more at about the £20-£25 million per year. Cardiff of course is over that point. If that step change were to happen, I think we would see a very major impact on the Welsh economy. I have no doubt about that.

  Q757  Alun Michael: Before going on to the main question, can I stick with this question of research funding? What measures, if any, should be taken to try to increase research council funding? Martyn asked you about the relationship with the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills but what about the specific role of the research council?

  Professor Jones: All of that money is won competitively. In a sense, it is our responsibility; we should be putting in stronger bids and perhaps lobbying harder for the bids. I think we do very well but we need to do better. I honestly do not believe that it is driven by any kind of policies at the research council level. On the other hand, we do need to be aware that there are other substantial funds going into research in other parts of the United Kingdom, either directly from corporate investment or from regional development agencies, which have made a big impact of direct investment in research in other parts of England, particularly the north-west of England for example.

  Q758  Alun Michael: In that event, if it is really in the hands of the universities in Wales to do better competitively, is your organisation seeking to enhance their capacity to do that?

  Professor Jones: We are but not so much through Higher Education Wales. We are certainly collaborating in order to try to do that. That is the key to it because many of our science departments are a bit on the small side, even within each institution, but if you put them together with other institutions they become very significant.

  Q759  Alun Michael: I think some of us have welcomed the engagement of Higher Education Wales with Members of Parliament in the last year or so, and perhaps the upping of the game and that relationship might help.

  Professor Jones: Absolutely.

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