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

Examination of Witness (Questions 800-816)


24 JUNE 2008

  Q800  Mr Martyn Jones: Do you know if that modelling takes place in the healthcare area?

  Professor Gummett: I do not know how it is done in the healthcare sector so it would be wrong for me to try and answer it.

  Q801  Mr David Jones: I would like to ask you about funding for cross-border collaborative projects. We have had a submission from Cardiff University which says that "There is great potential for highly productive collaborations between Cardiff and English HEIs but there are challenges in securing funding for such initiatives from the respective funding councils. There are often common interests and objectives across the UK and, as such, it would be helpful if the various administrations could consult and consider a common way forward." Do you recognise these obstacles to collaborative projects?

  Professor Gummett: No. I have been in discussions with Cardiff University—since you mention the particular case—for several years now about cross-border collaborative possibilities. We have had discussions with the English Higher Education Funding Council about this and we established with them a very clear understanding that if a proposal came from a university on the Welsh side or the English side of the border about doing something jointly, we would each look at it according to our normal criteria for making decisions. People come with ideas all the time and sometimes we would say yes and sometimes not, so we would each look at the proposal according to our normal criteria and if we both felt there was advantage in it, we would find a way to fund it. It is true to say that there are some legal constraints here and since we have not yet crossed that bridge there might be some stumbling blocks that we have not identified, but we do not think that should actually be very difficult at all. If one thinks of a jigsaw puzzle I do not see why we in Wales should not fund the Welsh piece and the English funding council fund the English piece, slot the two together and make something that is bigger than the sum of the parts. Basically, that is the advice that both funding councils have given the universities involved in that discussion and said to them, "Come back to us with a coherent proposal and we will look at it." That is where we stand.

  Q802  Mr David Jones: Cardiff are not very happy with that though, are they?

  Professor Gummett: I would have to ask them.

  Q803  Mr David Jones: This is what they tell us.

  Professor Gummett: They have not come back to us with a proposal; I would like to see the proposal.

  Q804  Mr David Jones: If it resolves itself to a question of policy and the policy varies on either side of the border then the project is less likely to succeed.

  Professor Gummett: I am sorry, perhaps I have not expressed myself very well. We have not had a concrete proposal; we have had suggestions and ideas but I appear before audit committees and I am not going to advise my council to commit millions of pounds to something without proper due diligence and a proper proposal, and we have not had that. We have gone back to Cardiff and the other university with whom they are talking, and our English counterpart, and said bring us something we can get our teeth into and look at properly and we will see what we can do, but at the moment we have not had anything. I do not think it is the case that there are policy barriers and what we have both said, both the English funding council and ourselves, is that if there were then we would aim to break them down because we think if it makes sense to do something then we should find a way forward.

  Q805  Mr David Jones: What are the legal constraints that you mention?

  Professor Gummett: Unless I discover anything else, at the moment our understanding is simply that we could only fund the Welsh end and the English funding council the English end of a joint activity, but we do not see any reason why, that said, we should not do that, so long as the two pieces of the jigsaw fit together in some sensible fashion and we both think there is a benefit and advantage according to our normal criteria for investment, we do not see why we should not do it.

  Q806  Mr David Jones: Can you give us some examples of successful cross-border collaboration?

  Professor Gummett: Of that sort, university to university, of the kind that they are speaking of there, no, because we have not had any proposals come through to us, but in other contexts, yes. We work with the research councils on joint arrangements. For example, Bangor University has a centre for bilingualism research which is co-founded by the Economic and Social Research Council and ourselves; we have a Wales Educational Research Network, similarly co-funded by ESRC and ourselves; we have joined the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC )in a number of ventures where they have been trying to build scientific research capacity across the UK and the other funding councils have gone in the same way, and we have all said that if the winner of one of these competitions falls in one of our territories we will come in with funding as well. There is actually a case which involves Cardiff where I guess we would have to say it is a very complex funding package, because Cardiff is part of a consortium led from Lancaster University in the field of operations research where the funding is now coming from EPSRC, the English funding council and the Welsh funding council, so we do those things and we find ways through any little difficulties that might crop up. We are quite open and I do hope I have not given the impression that I see any serious barriers in policy terms to the sorts of things we are speaking of, but what we do need is a serious worked-up proposal that we could analyse, do due diligence and take a proper view.

  Q807  Mr David Jones: Would not such projects be easier if there was simply one funding council?

  Professor Gummett: Possibly, but equally one might lose the advantages of being able to play both ends against the middle. The key thing in all of this—and it goes back to our earlier discussion about winning research grants—is actually getting ideas and proposals; are they there, are they good?

  Q808  Chairman: If I could pursue this question of research funding, during the period of HEFCW's existence have you succeeded in improving the proportion of funding that came from the research councils? In your memorandum you note that it is lower than in England and you say it is about 3.5%. How has that varied?

  Professor Gummett: It has not moved much over the five years now that we have been trying to work on this. It is a difficult problem, for the reasons I outlined earlier, and of course it is dynamic. It is dynamic because everyone is raising their game, so all the English, all the Scottish and all the Northern Irish competitors for research council funding are also raising their game and in that sense actually staying still is itself not an inconsiderable achievement. Our problem is that in order to get up to what we think would be a more appropriate figure like 4.5%—given that Wales is about 5%—as in the racing metaphor I used earlier, we are running from behind and we have therefore got to run faster. The issue then is about being able to invest in order to run faster. That said, we are doing—as we indicated in our evidence—a number of things, and the research councils have been very helpful in this regard, they have laid on various kinds of events in Wales to come and talk about what they do, tell people about their priorities, give help on how proposals get written and those kinds of things. A series of things is being done about this, therefore, but it is a tough one and we are simply holding the line.

  Q809  Chairman: But a decade ago all this was happening, it was clearly identified a decade ago. You used the words earlier in your evidence ambition and a lack of ambition, would it be the case that you are also part of the problem as well in HEFCW in that you also lack ambition?

  Professor Gummett: I would accept the charge that we are part of the problem in so far as we are not able to invest more heavily in this area than we have done because we are stretching the funding in other dimensions as well and we have to have balance across the whole array. We have already pushed funding latterly in the direction of research, but there is a limit to how far it is essentially safe to do that without starting then to do damage to the teaching, which is of course the major part of the activity of the universities. We have made submissions on various occasions in the public spending rounds to say how we would use additional funds if they were to become available. Short essentially of robbing teaching to pay research there is a limit to what we can do in that direction, and that is why we are going down the line instead of trying to encourage more ambitious proposals and to encourage restructuring to underpin. The game in winning the really big research prizes is about having teams with scale and scope, so that they would be large enough but also covering enough inter-related research areas to be credible competitors against similar teams elsewhere. Given, as was explained earlier, the scale of most of the departments in our universities, that is a tough one and the way we are trying to go forward is through collaboration. That we are seeking to do quite actively I submit.

  Q810  Chairman: You have already touched earlier in your evidence upon the problem of making the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills aware of the Welsh dimension; how can you tap into the UK-wide elements of that department more effectively? Do I get a sense that there is a dialogue that is only going on with the Welsh Assembly Government and you are not really reaching out to Whitehall and Westminster at all? Have you met the Secretary of State for Wales, for example?

  Professor Gummett: Personally, no.

  Q811  Chairman: Why is that?

  Professor Gummett: Simply that there has not been an occasion where it has arisen; there has not been a natural occasion for doing so.

  Q812  Chairman: Some of these problems are easily addressed—I am not saying solved—if you actually knock on his door because he is the voice of Wales in Whitehall and Westminster.

  Professor Gummett: With respect what I would say is that we convey the message into these departments frequently enough, the problem is a problem of culture and personnel. It is one thing to put a message in at the top—and I accept that perhaps there is more that we should do there—but the problem then is that it is the instinct that arises out of working in an environment where the focus is predominantly English. Then when you combine that with the turnover of staff, what you find is that you have developed relationships with one set of officials and they have changed, there is another lot now, and so you have to start again. There is a tension, therefore, in the dual functions of DIUS and it was there to a degree in the DTI before as well. We have to be a bit realistic about it; we are a very small part of the UK, we are 5%, and although we will trumpet loudly and proudly about what we do, it is also easy to understand how, if you are dealing with the 80% odd that is England, it is quite easy simply to forget—not to be malicious in doing so but simply to forget. That is part of what I mean about the cultural dimension.

  Q813  Alun Michael: Could I just come in on that because given that Wales is a small proportion of the whole of the UK does that not mean that we need to do more for people to understand the distinctions, understand the needs of the higher education sector in Wales, and that therefore the Welsh Assembly Government should be encouraging you to take on a sort of ambassadorial role for higher education in Wales. Is that encouraged or discouraged?

  Professor Gummett: It is encouraged. I shall be going back to Cardiff this afternoon and back to London tomorrow evening to go to Central Hall for the launch of the concordat on researchers, which I submit is part of this public relations role, being there simply to be seen to be there along with the other parties.

  Q814  Alun Michael: My point is really that you said a few moments ago that the same problems existed when we had the Welsh Office and DTI, as indeed they did. There is always a changeover of staff within Westminster departments, it is the bane of everybody's lives, but it is also the way that people get experience and develop so it means that you have got to accept that as a fact of life. I am not clear in your response to the Chairman whether you are actually doing the foreign service part of HEFCW's job with the enthusiasm that perhaps is necessary.

  Professor Gummett: Others would have to judge that, it would not be for me to do so.

  Q815  Alun Michael: I was asking you to judge it.

  Professor Gummett: I would say I spend a great deal of my time—for example, there is an organisation called Funders' Forum which brings together all the funding bodies and research bodies. That is a high priority activity for me. It is meeting in a couple of weeks time in London and I am cancelling other things to be at that. I come to things in London frequently in order to make sure that Welsh higher education—

  Q816  Alun Michael: Do people go away from those meetings saying "Gosh, the really impressive bit was that guy who came and represented those exciting universities in Wales"?

  Professor Gummett: You would have to ask them that.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for your evidence today.

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