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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760-772)


24 JUNE 2008

  Q760  Alun Michael: Can I go to the question of the attraction of students from the rest of the UK? I am sure you would want to say that Welsh universities are very successful at this. What are you seeing as the trends? What have been the recent trends and what are you predicting for the future in terms of the numbers applying from England to Welsh higher education institutions?

  Professor Jones: The figures are difficult to interpret, partly because the rules have changed. What would concern us, and we really need to wait until the autumn when we see the acceptances to know quite what has happened, is if there were to be a reduction in the number of students from England, or indeed from the rest of the EU, coming to Wales. There are at least some signs—it is really too early to see it as a trend I think—that would allow us to worry. Certainly, something like 96%, I think I am right in saying, of students in England go to English institutions. We are talking about a very small segment of the English market.

  Q761  Alun Michael: Can I try to push you there? You say there are some signs that we need to worry about it. There is a good piece of advice that if there are things to worry about, worry early. Taking your point that we cannot be conclusive until we see the numbers actually coming and the figures in the autumn, what about the figures applying? Is that where there is a worrying trend?

  Ms Wilkinson: There has been this year some reduction in the numbers of those applying, but we have to weigh that against the fact that the number of choices applicants can make has moved from six institutions to five institutions, which is what makes it particularly difficult this year to make a judgment.

  Q762  Alun Michael: Given that we are talking about universities and the mathematical capacity within the universities to work out and predict what the impact of six to five would be, is the number of applications lower than you would have predicted?

  Professor Jones: The truth of the matter is that going from six to five has not been equalised across all universities. There has not been an average drop. Everybody has gone to different points on it, but I think I would allow myself to say in this context that I am worried about any trends that would indicate that, and I think other evidence to this Committee has also suggested this. Clearly as a sector we are very dependent on attracting students from other parts of the United Kingdom and from the rest of the world.

  Q763  Alun Michael: Are there decisions that have been taken in respect of the higher education sector in Wales that might have helped to encourage that trend and are there steps that you consider should be taken to enhance the capacity of Welsh universities to attract students in the next and subsequent years?

  Professor Jones: What research has been done in this area would suggest that there is not really a problem in the way in which Welsh universities are perceived by potential students from England. It is very difficult to get a handle on whether there is an issue or not. Certainly one of the things that would attract more students would be perhaps a higher level of capital expenditure so that when students do visit universities in Wales they do see the same level of accommodation and quality of buildings and so on that they would find on an English campus.

  Q764  Alun Michael: And you are suggesting that they do not?

  Professor Jones: I am suggesting that it is beginning to look like that.

  Q765  Alun Michael: What about things like maintenance and finance available to students directly?

  Professor Jones: That is the way of course that universities are coping with under-funding, by not investing as much because you cannot not invest in staff and salaries and pension costs and so on. What you can save on is investment on buildings.

  Ms Wilkinson: Certainly if one looks at national early student survey data, Welsh institutions still score extremely highly in terms of student satisfaction, but if you look at some of the key indicators, then clearly views about the learning and teaching infrastructure in Wales are somewhat lower than they are elsewhere. I think that is a major concern for us, particularly if we are looking to the future; it is not just what happens now but it is the demographic predictions which are also key to us, which will make attracting students from England and elsewhere much more important to us over the next five years or so.

  Q766  Alun Michael: It would probably be useful to have any supplementary detailed information that you can provide for us, both now and subsequently. I am sure we would be interested. My final question: obviously skills are enormously important to the Welsh economy and to the future of individual students. Should Wales be adopting the Leitch adult skills targets, bearing in mind the old device that "what don't get measured don't get done"?

  Professor Jones: It is my belief very strongly that Wales needs to be ambitious in terms of the skills base that we have. It seems to me that the Leitch position is very clear—and it is a Leitch assessment for the United Kingdom but up to each administration how they respond to it—that the needs assessment of the United Kingdom is a very high percentage of people at level 4, which is graduate level, in the workforce by 2020. Certainly, as much as a citizen as somebody involved in higher education, I would be very disappointed if the percentage of graduates in Wales was significantly lower than in England. It is at present marginally lower and significantly lower than Scotland, but clearly, if we are to survive in the innovation and knowledge economy of the future, we must have people with higher level skills.

  Q767  Alun Michael: So that is a "yes" really?

  Professor Jones: It is a "yes".

  Ms Wilkinson: That would be a "yes". Our policy is that we should be pursuing the Leitch target of 40%. We cannot run an economic policy that is about creating a knowledge-driven economy in Wales and not look at how we are supplying that economy with graduates. If we are going to be competitive, because we will need to be competitive in attracting those businesses, then we need good availability of properly qualified individuals.

  Chairman: I was very impressed with the evidence given by Corus to the Welsh Assembly Education Committee recently. I think they were exploring the relationships with major international companies like Corus.

  Q768  Mr David Jones: Just reverting to the issue of attracting students from the rest of the UK, would you say that overall the Welsh Assembly Government's policy on tuition fees has proven beneficial or otherwise?

  Ms Wilkinson: I think it hard to say. It is clearly going to be appropriate at some point that that policy is reviewed, particularly because obviously it is a universal policy and one would want to look at whether or not that has been worthwhile expenditure and whether one would want to look at more targeted expenditure, for example. One would also want to consider issues such as obviously the need to fund EU students coming to Wales from that particular fund. There has been some slight increase in the numbers of Welsh students choosing to study in Wales, but it is not a huge increase. I would not say there was a clear indication that Welsh institutions are more attractive to Welsh-domiciled students as a result of the arrangements that have been put in place.

  Q769  Mr David Jones: What are your views as to what might happen if that policy continues? Do you think that there is a danger that it will result in an under-funding of universities and the things that you have been talking about—capital expenditure and so on?

  Ms Wilkinson: We need to be clear. From our point of view, the Welsh Assembly Government can run a policy to support students, but what we need to ensure at the same time is that we are also providing the right and the same quality of higher education. Quite clearly, we have concerns that our own funding needs need to be met, irrespective of whatever decision is made in respect of support to students.

  Q770  Mr David Jones: Have you received any reassurance over that from the Welsh Assembly Government?

  Ms Wilkinson: Any reassurance about our funding?

  Q771  Mr David Jones: Yes, if the policy is maintained?

  Ms Wilkinson: As Professor Jones mentioned at the beginning of our evidence, he is shortly to chair a review of higher education in Wales, which will, I hope, also look at our funding situation. I think we have to wait and see what the outcome of that particular review is to see whether or not our funding needs can and will be addressed.

  Q772  Chairman: Could I thank you for the evidence you have given us today and also for the various memoranda you have provided earlier. It has all been extremely helpful to us in this inquiry. We look forward to receiving a memorandum from you. You offered to give us some information that Alun Michael requested.

  Ms Wilkinson: That is in relation to student flows and future student trends.

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