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


Examination of Witness (Questions 773-779)

PROFESSOR PHILIP GUMMETT

24 JUNE 2008

  Q773 Chairman: Good morning, Professor Gummett. Could you briefly explain the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and how it interacts with Higher Education Wales?

  Professor Gummett: We are an Assembly Government sponsored body set up under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act at the point when higher education responsibilities across the UK were separated between the different territories within the UK. So we sit alongside the English Funding Council, the Scottish Funding Council and a rather different arrangement in Northern Ireland. Our responsibility is to disburse funds made available by the Assembly Government for higher education purposes in Wales, and also to be a principal source of advice on higher education matters to the Assembly Government. In addition, we have a function in Wales different from that in England in that we are responsible for the provision in initial teacher training. There is no equivalent to the Training and Development Agency, nor is there an equivalent in Wales to the Office of Fair Access in England. We do that also. We are a very cost-effective organisation.

  Q774  Chairman: Given your wide remit and given that you need to work with other funding councils and various other bodies and have various joint meetings, are you confident that you have, for a small organisation, sufficient capacity to deal with the increasing number of cross-border issues that appear now to be emerging?

  Professor Gummett: I suppose it would be an unusual organisation that said it would not welcome more if it had it. I do not think we are unreasonably pressed. I think as long as we manage our staffing nimbly and carefully, we have sufficient to be able to maintain reasonable liaison across the UK with the parties with whom we interact particularly strongly.

  Q775  Mr David Jones: Given, as we have heard from Professor Jones, that higher education transcends national borders and is truly international, would you say that devolution for Wales has been beneficial for higher education in Wales?

  Professor Gummett: I am going to answer in similar terms, I fear. I have drawn up a little balance sheet. It is too long to present fully in oral evidence.

  Q776  Mr David Jones: What are the bottom lines?

  Professor Gummett: The bottom line is quite difficult to read—my writing is not very good! I would emphasise three areas where it is possible to see advantages, but there are disadvantages that correspond to this. One is in tailoring policy to more local needs. There are a number of things I could cite there. It is a growing list as policy diverges between the different parts of the UK, but it comes down to things like tailoring widening access policies in particular ways. It comes down to funding research differently; different levels of funding compared with England. It comes down to not pursuing the Equivalent or Lower Qualification policy in England or to having what we regard as a world-leading programme for student placements in Wales, Graduate Opportunities Wales, which we do not think is replicated anywhere else in the UK and which is possible to do on our scale, and scale is quite important in all of this. It comes down to funding for third mission activity by formula and therefore being quite interested to see the Sainsbury Report regard it as a great step forward to begin to do this in England. Already in Scotland and Wales this is familiar practice. We fund higher education generally by credit, which is not the case in England but is the case in Scotland as well, and which we argue gives more flexibility about funding. It is possible to tailor, first of all; secondly, it is possible to join up, and one reason we can fund by credit is because we have a credit qualifications framework for Wales running at all levels. So we have that degree of continuity through all levels of the education system, as is the case in Scotland but not in England. All of our higher education institutors are all engaged with the Sector Skills Councils, which is replicated, we understand, by only one RDA region in England. We have a number of things going on between departments in the Assembly Government, particularly in the third mission area where again we can operate in complementary ways. So tailoring is one thing; joining up is the second; and the third, and these are linked, is accessibility. It is possible with our small number of institutions to have all the Vice Chancellors and all the chairs of governing bodies and the members of the funding council round the same table, just about, and to have a dialogue at that level. It is very difficult to do that once you move beyond our scale. It means that you can have quite personal, detailed knowledge of what is going on and that there is lots of access to Ministers and Assembly Members. If I were to run the negative side, I would start with those same things and say that those same three things about accessibility are also negatives. It can be very personal; it can be very accessible, so accessible that you know you are going to catch up with who said what to whom, and so there are difficulties there, too. In terms of tailoring, we had some discussions earlier about funding priorities; if different choices are made about funding levels, that can be positive or negative. At the moment, the evidence we have presented to the Assembly Government is that it is negative, that there is a gap in funding between Wales and the rest of the UK. There are complexities about student flows. Perhaps the last thing I might say is this. On joining up, just to resume a theme raised earlier, it is in the relations with Whitehall where devolution has led to issues about joining up. We have heard discussion about DIUS earlier. You will have seen in our submission to you a concern expressed about what seems an inevitable direction of travel, given the structure of that Department. I will happily come back to that. We have had references to the Medical Research Council transition into the new OSCHR arrangement, which I am very clear was begun without realisation in the Treasury that the MRC had a UK-wide remit. It was trying to take the Department of Health's research budget and seek to do something with it but to put it with MRC without appreciating initially that MRC had a UK-wide budget. I would say the same thing about the great debate about the future of the research assessment exercise in March/April 2006 where again it is very clear that in moving towards a radically different method of assessing research funding for England, the Treasury did not take account of the fact that the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise )was a UK-wide process and was seen as an activity of great importance in other parts of the UK. The bottom line is moving, I guess I would say.

  Q777  Mr David Jones: That was very helpful. You have just mentioned the funding gap, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern to you. What are the medium to long-term implications if that gap is not addressed and how would you say it should be addressed?

  Professor Gummett: I think the first thing is that the institutions in Wales have done a very good job, as has been indicated already, in managing within this particular financial environment. As has been said, the results of the national student survey, for example reflect very well on higher education in Wales, and there are other similar indicators. Where I think the problem falls is in terms of investment in capital, first of all, and we have very clear evidence that institutions in Wales are less able to invest in capital, and we have less capital funding available essentially to give to them than is so elsewhere in the UK. You have already heard evidence about what that means. It means that if you go round a campus in Wales, you are not going to see quite the same as you do if you go round some campuses in England now in terms of the quality of the relatively recently built buildings. The second thing is in terms of capacity to invest in teaching, which is not to say that existing staff are not working extremely hard and effectively, but in terms of modernising, there are issues there. The third is in terms of research. There was discussion earlier about the fact that Welsh higher education wins less than one might wish from the research councils. There are a number of reasons for that, and some of those were gone through earlier, and some of that is to do with scale and scope of departments. That is why we are driving so hard to try to get collaboration between departments and putting together Bangor University with Cardiff and Swansea, for example, in cognitive neuroscience, which is a world-leading research operation now, or an institute of mathematical and computational sciences with about 70 or 80 people. We realised that there are lots of mathematicians in Wales but they were hidden in civil engineering and other departments. Essentially we forced them to come out, declare themselves, and unite within an Institute of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, which is now a very considerable force. We have activity between Bangor and Aberystwyth across a number of research streams where they are integrating these research activities and essentially doubling the size of their departments. What we hope is that that will enable more ambitious proposals to go into research councils, which would be more successful in winning larger prizes, but time will tell. The merger that we took through between Cardiff University and the College of Medicine has already demonstrated the value of that degree of scale in research co-cooperation because they have gone up in research funding tremendously since that merger. Some of the research issues, as Merfyn Jones was saying, are to a degree within the scope of the institutions themselves to address by putting in place the organisational arrangements that enable them to be more ambitious, but part of it also is about having enough bodies on the ground relative to competitors as well. One is trying to deal with that by bringing people together, but it would be better, given that we are running from behind and therefore as always when trying to catch up having to run faster, if we could inject a bit more pace into that process by investing in more staff in key research areas.

  Q778  Mr David Jones: But that requires closing the funding gap?

  Professor Gummett: That requires additional funding.

  Q779  Mr David Jones: How should that be achieved?

  Professor Gummett: I fear I am the wrong person to answer that. We work within the grant that we receive from the Assembly Government and we advise on the consequences of that grant as we do in papers such as our funding gap paper.


 
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