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

Examination of Witness (Questions 780-799)


24 JUNE 2008

  Q780  Mr David Jones: But the grant is insufficient at the moment?

  Professor Gummett: The advice we have given is that over the last three years when we have been doing this analysis there has been a growing gap in funding between Wales and England, yes.

  Q781  Mr David Jones: DIUS's review contemplates more higher education institutions in England and the Secretary of State has asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to lead the debate on this. What are the implications for the higher education sector in Wales of new centres in England and is HEFCW engaging in the debate, too?

  Professor Gummett: We are not engaging in the debate about the new "University Challenge", which I take it to be the reference here, because that is an England-only exercise. We would be concerned if there were significant investments in higher education on the English side of the border, for all the reasons that have been given earlier about the competitive pressures that they would generate, but I am not all that concerned in some ways about this exercise. The amounts of money involved do not seem to me to be huge. There is a little bit of growth on an English scale in student numbers coming through this. I think it is going to be a very interesting process to see how this moves forward. I was doing some sums last night looking at the figures in the English document, just scaling them for Wales by roughly dividing by 20 and seeing what that looked like. I would say, in relation to the early phases of this process in England, that we are already spending—and bear in mind that a lot of this discussion in England is about prospective funding, it is not actually happening yet—on developing a higher education presence in the heads of the valleys at least equivalent, and arguably slightly more, than the funding which is going in in England and across England to this whole range of activities. So I am not entirely sure what to make of this English initiative. It may be one of those of which one might eventually say there is less to it than meets the eye.

  Q782  Mr David Jones: Are you not engaging in the debate because you are precluded from doing so or because you do not think it appropriate to do so?

  Professor Gummett: We do not have any right of access to the debate. I think what is going on is the HEFCE—and you really need to ask them—are trying to work out now how to take this forward; they are looking at partnerships. I would be surprised if they were looking at very many brand new higher education institutions. They are much more likely, I would imagine, to be looking at possibilities for liaison between HE and FE institutions, for outreach centres of various kinds, things of that sort, rather than massive new investments. I anticipate too that they are going to find themselves swamped by massive demand from more or less every town in England saying can we have one of these, please, we would like a university too. It is going to be very interesting to see how this process is managed.

  Q783  Chairman: Given the challenges that you have outlined very comprehensively, could you explain to us briefly how you interact with Higher Education Wales as a kind of, for want of a better word, advocacy role for higher education? What is the relationship and should you not be creating some kind of a united front to explain some of the problems that you have outlined to the public—not just to the Welsh Assembly Government—and then maybe with a higher awareness of the challenges that face you perhaps you would have a much better and stronger response from the Welsh Assembly Government.

  Professor Gummett: There are, I am sure, things that between us in HEFCW and our colleagues in Higher Education Wales we could and should be doing to explain rather better to the public at large, the Assembly and surrounding organisations as it were what the value of higher education is. I am quite sure we need to raise our game in that regard, but in terms of forging alliances and things of that sort there are very different roles here. We are an Assembly Government-sponsored body; our powers come through Acts, our funding comes through the Assembly Government, we work within our annual remit letter which gives guidance and comes from the Minister, so we are in that sense the instrument of the Assembly but we are also the adviser to the Assembly Government and so we try to operate in a way, in our relationship with the Assembly Government where we can be seen as being fully responsive to guidance coming from the Assembly Government, but also quite robust in the advice that we give about that guidance and any issues over implementation of it that we think the Minister or officials should hear, but ultimately they will decide the process and we cannot gainsay that. In our relationship with Higher Education Wales—and others would need to endorse or deny this—we try to operate on a basis of no surprises first of all, of trying to make sure that in so far as it is politically possible we keep each other alert to developments. There are times when it is not but in so far as it is my sense is that it is a mature relationship, it is the sort of relationship that one would want, where from the funding council point of view one can talk to the organisation which represents the institutions in a fairly frank, off the record way and think about things jointly. We may agree to act in the same way or we may agree that we are going to have to act in different ways, but we are not surprising each other particularly when we do that. We try above all to ensure that whatever the issue at stake is we agree about what the facts are, even if we place different interpretations on them.

  Q784  Alun Michael: We heard earlier about the worry that has been expressed in a variety of quarters elsewhere about the decline in the number of applicants from England to Welsh higher education institutions. Taking for granted the business that we need to see the outcome in October and all the rest of it and cutting to the chase, is the decline in applications from England worrying, what do you think can be done to increase the number of applications and how important do you think it is?

  Professor Gummett: In terms of your earlier reference to sage advice, we did start to worry early and we, jointly with Higher Education Wales, have commissioned some market research into this. We have had initial phases of that work and we sent the researchers back to do a bit more. As our evidence to you indicated, we are seeing some changes in patterns of application. It is very difficult, for the reasons we have already given, to say with any firmness at the moment whether or not these are blips or whether they are trends. Since the introduction of variable top-up fees in England and then a year later in Wales there has been such turbulence in the system, with all sorts of strange things happening—students rushing to enter and not taking gap years in order to get under the wire before the new fee regime and that sort of thing, then the relaxation afterwards—actually interpreting what is going on is extremely difficult. As has also been said, the students who come from England into Wales, although very large relative to the Welsh higher education population, are very small relative to the English one, so only a very slight variation on the English side can have a big impact one way or the other; it is very, very turbulent and difficult to understand. Nevertheless, it has seemed to us that whereas in England with the introduction of variable fees there was a drop in applications, followed by a rise which has now restored the position above where it had been before, in terms of English applicants to Wales that has not happened. There was a rising curve, it dropped, it has not yet risen back to the point where it was before that.

  Q785  Alun Michael: What can be done about it?

  Professor Gummett: There is still a question about whether it will rise back or not, and the second thing is to understand what is going on. It is not economically rational for an English domiciled student to be deterred from coming to Wales because of the different fee support regimes because it costs them the same whichever side of the border they study, but it may be that some are susceptible to the syndrome on the plane or the train where you discover that the passenger in the next seat has paid a different price, and it may be that that is a factor. It may be that there are issues to do with staying at home. It is a UK-wide trend that students generally are staying nearer to home and again if one is looking at migration across borders that could be a significant factor.

  Q786  Alun Michael: Is there an equivalent increase in Welsh students applying to Welsh universities?

  Professor Gummett: There has been.

  Q787  Alun Michael: And what about applications by students from one part of Wales to another, from South Wales to North Wales or vice versa?

  Professor Gummett: I do not have detail on the latter to hand but I could get it. Certainly there has been an increase in students from Wales applying within Wales, yes. One of the things that has come out of the marketing work is that there are some students from England who are attracted to Wales because it is distinctive and different; there seem to be some who are being deterred because it is distinctive and different as well. That sort of tension is not unusual in any sort of marketing environment. There is also—and this was the interesting discovery—a really quite significant number who do not seem to have thought about Wales at all, so in terms of what can be done, that is something that we are wanting to probe a little bit more, to see is there is in fact a potential market there that could be addressed. Then, though, we get into some quite difficult issues about branding, and again if you had Merfyn and Amanda here they might well wish to say to you something about the dilemmas over whether one brands Welsh higher education or whether one brands Wales as part of the UK higher education. It is quite a delicate issue.

  Q788  Alun Michael: You referred to the market research and you said you sent them away to do some more; when is that research going to be available because, clearly, it would be of interest?

  Professor Gummett: Quite soon; it is weeks rather than months away.

  Q789  Alun Michael: We might be able to see that before the summer then.

  Professor Gummett: Yes.

  Q790  Alun Michael: That would be helpful. Powys, for example, has no university of its own, nor do the neighbouring English counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire as such. How do you make sure that there is adequate part-time provision in that part of Wales?

  Professor Gummett: We did do a joint review with HEFCE three years ago when there was a lot of excitement being raised in Herefordshire and Shropshire about the need for new higher education provision, and our colleagues in HEFCE appreciated very quickly that anything they did would impact on Wales. We did a joint exercise on that and the long and the short of it was that the problem began to dissolve as the inquiry proceeded. The consultants we sent in to talk to the various people who had been saying there is a problem came back saying when you probe them on their reasons the arguments collapse. We also had the consultants go and do some survey work of young people in schools and people in FE colleges as well. The overall conclusion was that there is no sign of a clear problem in Powys, there is very high participation rate in Powys, but there may be latent demand for part-time or vocational courses, but the trouble with latent demand is that it is very hard to know how to bring it up to the kind of visibility. The issue further would be then about the fact that it would be such small numbers. What we found through this work was that you could go to an individual firm and they say, yes, I need two people trained and you think how do I deliver to two people? It is the economics of it. The answer, it seems to us, lies through work between HE/FE. You had the principal of Coleg Powys here last week, did you not, John Stephenson, and as I recall he said that Coleg Powys, which runs right through Powys in four locations, works closely with four higher education providers from memory—I may not have caught that quite right—and it seems to us that that is the way in which one might be able to maintain local provision on some scale within an area where the population density is quite low and where there is no real evidence from the detailed work done that there is unsatisfied demand.

  Q791  Alun Michael: Perhaps it would be interesting to see that work that you referred to. If I could just ask one other question, what has come out from a number of comments has been the importance of critical mass in terms of research, in terms of profile and so on. What approach are you taking to universities that do not have that critical mass? There has been talk for ages of a merger between the University of Glamorgan and UWIC and the University of Newport in order precisely to get that critical mass, yet everything seems stalled. Are you going to get that moving?

  Professor Gummett: There are two parts to your question if I understand it correctly, one about critical mass in research and the other about critical mass in relation to teaching and so on.

  Q792  Alun Michael: And profile.

  Professor Gummett: If one were designing a higher education system for Wales from scratch—

  Q793  Alun Michael: You would change the geography.

  Professor Gummett: That would be quite helpful, but it would lose many of the distinctive features which make it attractive, so it would be double-edged, but it probably would not end up looking like it does. Part of what we are trying to do therefore—and this has been going on since 2002—is to encourage our institutions to be more ambitious, not to say we are this size in this place and all we can manage therefore is to go for these kinds of prizes.

  Q794  Alun Michael: Is this a yes then?

  Professor Gummett: On south-east Wales do you mean or more broadly? We certainly think there are issues in south-east Wales. When the discussions took place several years ago, following the publication of the Assembly Government's Reaching Higher strategy, there was as you will be aware discussion about potential mergers. We saw a business case consultation document published which seemed to my council to make a compelling case—and we said so at the time—for that merger to go forward, and we were quite disappointed and made that very plain at the time when eventually it did not go forward. The logic of it did seem to us to be very well expressed in the document that was put out by the institutions themselves. Since then there have been various flurries of activity and you will no doubt be aware that the current minister and the First Minister have put in train further work on that, and we shall see what that comes to. On the more general picture the issue is about trying to recognise that we are where we are in terms of the distribution of institutions and their current size, but we can make a lot more of it by working together.

  Q795  Alun Michael: With respect—and I do not want to take too much time—if the argument is that compelling, is it not something that your council ought to be more compelling about?

  Professor Gummett: We operate within a legal framework which we have to respect, so that does provide us with a constraint. In other areas we are seeing something very positive. For example, not much talked about is what is going on in south-west Wales where very quietly and very modestly, but really quite innovatively, between Swansea University, Swansea Metropolitan University and Trinity College, Carmarthen there is now a triangular relationship which is integrating a whole series of their administrative functions from student records and libraries, and it offers all sorts of possibilities for developing higher education in that region. I am not aware of anything quite like it in the rest of the UK in terms of the range of activities that they are seeking to bring together.

  Alun Michael: It sounds a compelling message.

  Q796  Mr Martyn Jones: Is there adequate UK-wide co-ordination of higher education policy at a government level?

  Professor Gummett: May I ask which government?

  Q797  Mr Martyn Jones: You take your pick.

  Professor Gummett: There is an issue. You heard earlier about the issues in relation to DIUS and I made some comments fairly directly about the Treasury in relation to the RAE and the Medical Research Council earlier. We make the point in our submission to you that perfectly naturally and understandably it seems to us there is a concern from the devolved point of view about the way that DIUS will now work because it just seems absolutely natural if you have within one organisation the responsibility for research councils and the responsibility for English higher education to start to look for ways of building something greater out of those parts, but the problem is that the research councils are UK-wide and we might have the Medical Research Council story all over again. We are concerned about that and we are also concerned about the way that so many documents emerge from Whitehall that show, from our perspective, insufficient awareness of differences across the UK. I might cite the Sainsbury Report and I hope I am right in saying that there are only two references to Wales in that document and both of them are incorrect; there is a reference to a no longer existing WDA and a reference to the fact that we apparently fund the further education sector which we do not. It is disturbing when one finds a report which is ostensibly about the UK science and innovation system and to then read it and either see things like that or to say to oneself is this about England only or is this about the whole of the UK; it is not an uncommon experience to find it quite difficult to be sure which is meant, and if there are funding consequences what they are. I do think therefore that there is an issue here about understanding in Whitehall about devolution. It takes two to tango though so I am not trying to place all the responsibility at one end of the relationship.

  Q798  Mr Martyn Jones: How effective then is the UK-wide co-ordination of workforce planning—you probably heard the question before about healthcare professionals and teachers?

  Professor Gummett: That is quite difficult for me to answer because we do not intersect with it in the way that the question implies. The discussions that go on between universities and the health services on either side of the border about nursing, paramedics and so on are ones which they conduct, we do not directly engage in those. The discussions that take place similarly on teacher training across the border—we are not involved in those discussions but we are involved in trying to administer changes within Wales on teacher training but we are not involved in any sort of forum.

  Q799  Mr Martyn Jones: Should you be, given that you are supposed to be funding it?

  Professor Gummett: The medical world is a very separate world from us lesser mortals I often find and there seem to be ways of taking things forward in that field which seem to us sometimes to seal themselves off as it were from the rest of the world, but it would not hurt to have some scope for wider discussions on this. In saying that I am honestly not sure what the right mechanisms would be and it has to be reflected too and understood too that in the area which I do know something about, which is teacher training, the modelling work which is done within the Welsh Assembly Government to determine how many teachers it believes should be trained in Wales, is done with very careful attention to what is happening in England, so the modelling for Wales takes account of what is happening in England, it is not as if it is just ignoring it or anything like that. Whether it is done right or wrong history will tell, but I know that if there is not join-up in the people talking to each other, then certainly in the modelling that goes on there is very careful analysis.

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