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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820-839)


8 JULY 2008

  Q820  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Jones: Yes. For the vast majority I believe that all Sector Skills Councils now have a Sector Skills Agreement at Level 5. They are a true reflection of the needs of the employers of the sectors because they have had to have been agreed with the employers in the sectors; and also partners, such as for our sector we have agreements with the Welsh Assembly Government, Jobcentre Plus, the Higher Education Funding Council and Careers Wales.

  Q821  Chairman: Where do the trade unions fit into that?

  Mr Jones: I am sorry, that is the final one I missed out, with Wales TUC.

  Q822  Chairman: With that particular point that I raised, the very fact that national boundaries do not in any way necessarily match labour markets, I would imagine that employers would have a very strong view about these matters. How, in a practical sense, does this work?

  Ms Creed: The Sector Skills Councils have UK councils or boards as part of their governance structure; so the Sector Skills Agreements that have been negotiated at country level will be drawn back together as part of the Sector Skills Councils' business planning process; and the business plan for the Sector Skills Council will look for those areas where there is commonality across the UK and seek to deal with those on a UK level; but, equally, obviously need to identify where there are things that are different in different countries and deal with those on a country level.

  Q823  Chairman: This inquiry is about cross-border issues, how do the Sector Skills Councils then deal with those precise issues of cross-border, particularly at the border? It seems to be quite acute in some areas like Northeast Wales.

  Ms Creed: May I respond by giving a specific example from my Sector Skills Council. Obviously we commend the written evidence from the individual Sector Skills Councils to you on all of these points, but an example from the Lifelong Learning sector would be that we have highlighted in each of the four nations of the UK a need for enhancing the information learning technology skills—so the ability of a teacher to deliver learning through technology. The way in which we are seeking to progress that issue is again by drawing representation from each of the four nations together to look at what the solution to that issue will be; to look at how collectively and collaboratively that can be funded to be moved forward; and then to look at what the delivery implications for that would be.

  Ms Hunter: If I could just add, the whole basis on which Sector Skills Councils operate is the development of national occupational standards which define the competence and describe competent performance in any given activity and task; and because those are developed for countrywide application they have input from all the four nations and the practitioners of the four nations. That means any learning development or qualifications can be built on those national occupational standards, which enables the transferability across borders, because you design the qualifications based on the actual job roles and functions carried out by the individuals; I hope that helps to explain it.

  Q824  Mark Pritchard: When developing the policy for your respective SSCs, how much does the four nations approach work within that policy formation?

  Mr Jones: From our particular area, social justice, some of it is led centrally because of central policies—for example, dealing with the Ministry of Justice, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Court Service and then dealing with the police, especially when we have got issues that are non-devolved. Obviously justice is not devolved in Wales, however certain parts of the work of the police is a devolved issue. Therefore, the policing issue is generally a Wales issue, whereas some of the other issues are delivered centrally.

  Mr Woods: I would also add, the governance arrangements within each individual organisation are set up so that each of the four countries have a voice within the governance arrangements of the individual organisations themselves. It is something within the relicensing of all Sector Skills Councils which Leitch recommends that is going to be a high priority for the United Kingdom Commission on Employment and Skills to take cognisance of, so that the voices of all four nations have equal weight within the process.

  Q825  Mark Pritchard: Do you think England takes precedence in that?

  Mr Woods: I do not think it takes precedence. There are differences which the Committee is investigating between various issues to do with funding provision where there may be different sets of monies available. I think one of the things for employers, certainly within the private sector, is that the boundaries between nations and regions are not really that meaningful. They work, I think, on the basis of their own economic units and markets. What we have to do as Sector Skills Councils is make sure there is a consistent support delivered where they need it and ensure the qualifications offered in each of the countries are transferable across the UK. Certainly some of the responses for which the Committee has had evidence show that there is a need for a consistency of approach across the UK, because some of the organisations are trans-global organisations in their own right. It is our role in trying to translate what is happening in each of those nations for employers, and we are part of the glue of the system. I would not say that one has any preference over the other. It is our role I think to make sure that the interpretation of all four nations is one which employers understand.

  Q826  Mark Pritchard: Given the difference in size between England and Wales, are there any issues of capacity in relation to you delivering what you need to deliver?

  Ms Creed: I think the question of capacity is raised frequently, and I think capacity has a direct relation to resources. Sector Skills Councils receive £1.3 million in core resources to deliver their business across all of the constituencies they represent and the UK nations. I think Leitch has adequately highlighted that the level of core funding made available is different from the extent of the core remit. Capacity I think needs to be viewed in the context of the resources that are made available to us. I would not say there is an issue in terms of capacity between England and Wales per se. There is as much a capacity issue between coverage for the Southwest of England, the Southeast of England or the Midlands. We have got a regional dimension to take account of as well as a country dimension. Managing that £1.3 million over a very diverse remit is challenging, I think it would be fair to say.

  Q827  Mark Pritchard: Although the potential for possible disparities in different parts of different regions in England does not necessary, if you like, mitigate the impact of the disparity between Wales and England?

  Mr Jones: If I could just give an example of that, again, from my sector where we have four conjoined and distinct police forces in Wales. This has given us an opportunity to work together on the skills agenda to bring the four forces together and have the commitment of the four chief constables to work together on any new initiatives with an all-Wales initiative.

  Q828  Mark Pritchard: Finally, what policies could you identify in higher education that differ from England to Wales?

  Ms Creed: The Committee has already received a response from Higher Education Wales which, as the representative network for our part of our sector, we would obviously commend to you. One of the challenges that Higher Education Wales are focusing on is the difference of what they term the "funding gap" between England and Wales; in that because of the nature of higher education, which obviously sees itself as a global entity but obviously a UK-wide entity as well, aspects of higher education spending are fixed at a UK level; and then the resources that are made available to higher education in Wales put pressure on the institutions in Wales in terms of, say, what Higher Education Wales would refer to as a "funding gap", which certainly the sector would say is in the longer term going to have an impact on the maintenance and quality in Wales versus the levels of quality in England.

  Q829  Mark Pritchard: I did say "finally" but given you have taken the time to read previous evidence for which the Committee, through the Chairman, is no doubt grateful, you will have identified that there is a funding gap both in the provision of higher education. Within the same evidence, perhaps supplementary evidence, there is a shortfall as far as research funding is concerned, which no doubt you have identified, and I think you are sort of agreeing today there are certain disparities, if not a shortfall, on that funding for skills and training provision in Wales. The cumulative impact of that, in my view, is not particularly helpful to the people of Wales. What is your view?

  Ms Hunter: If I could just pick up on that before Richard answers. There are a couple of specific areas where for the learners there are issues about the differences between England and Wales in higher education: one is the funding of Foundation Degrees; and the other is the actual student fees which vary quite considerably between England and Wales. Those are issues for the learners which, given the fact that the infrastructure funding is not deemed sufficient in Wales, the impact of that means many more students and learners may move to England to higher education, and therefore the fees difference will impact on them as well.

  Q830  Alun Michael: I just wanted to pursue one issue really. It is difficult sometimes for those outside the system to get under the skin of what you do, which is probably a challenge for you as well as a problem for us. I would just like to know how in the future, just as you do with interdisciplinary issues—to give one example, the whole question of how people analyse crime and disorder in their area; the development of crime and disorder audits and things like that require methodology and techniques—how do you deal with that sort of issue, given that a lot of the people who need to be engaged with that will be outside the direct ambit of the Criminal Justice System?

  Ms Hunter: I think again this is where national occupational standards come in; because the standards define all the functions and activities that have to be carried out across the justice sector. In any partnership arrangements we encourage the sector to use the national occupational standards, even with the partners who are coming in from the outside. There are a lot of generic national occupational standards which are used by all the Sector Skills Councils, but if there are ones that are specifically about certain activities—for instance, analysing intelligence data and so on—those are there, and we would encourage the partner organisations who are working with our sector to use the relevant standards as well.

  Q831  Alun Michael: Could I try another example, and that is youth offending teams where, again, there is a spread of different professions and educational backgrounds that come together, and again where there are cross-border as well as cross-disciplinary issues in places like Northeast Wales and parts of South Wales?

  Ms Hunter: Again, I would refer you to the same answer. The national occupational standards encompass the whole of the activities in the justice sector. For instance, when a police officer moves into a youth offending team, which happens quite frequently, the police officer will already have demonstrated their competence against the national occupational standards for their police role; but when they move into the youth offending team there will be a number of additional national occupational standards that reflect the additional work and the change in role as they move into the youth offending team.

  Q832  Alun Michael: Would seeking those additional skills be triggered automatically by such a move?

  Ms Hunter: In most cases, yes.

  Q833  Alun Michael: The third example I give is police community support officers, where obviously you have got a new set of challenges, some of which relate to policing and some of which relate much more to my old profession of community work?

  Ms Hunter: Exactly the same. A whole suite of national occupational standards that identify the activities that a community support officer carries out. It includes some standards that have come in from other Sector Skills Councils to show the activities that have been taken over.

  Q834  Alun Michael: Chairman, I have found the answers reassuring but I think, because it is helpful if you work down to practical examples, it perhaps would be useful to have some supplementary evidence against those three examples of how that works in practice.

  Ms Hunter: Yes, we can do that.[1]

  Q835 Mr David Jones: I would like to return, if I may, to funding gaps in further and higher education which I know is an issue that concerns you, and it is also an issue on which we have already had evidence. For example, HEFCW have indicated the funding gap in Wales in higher education was running at something in the region of £61 million. What would you say are the consequences for employers of these disparities in the funding regimes from outside of the English/Welsh border?

  Ms Creed: The funding gap will cover such issues as the development of the premises of a learning environment, which obviously is a critical part of the student's learning experience. It will impact upon the resources that the learning institution is able to buy—the new technologies, the electronic SMART Boards, sufficient access to e-learning to wider access access etc., and inevitably it will have an impact on the amount of funding that can be invested into the staff development of the individuals working in those institutions. As you are hearing from both Fforum, on an FE basis, and from Higher Education Wales, for HE, England is increasing their investment in these areas, whilst Wales funding has either remained capped or has declined in real terms. It is difficult at this particular juncture to say what the impact would be; but I guess if you were to logically follow through, the questions one needs to look at will be: how will the staff delivering learning, particularly as we move to more vocationally-based programmes, who have a dual professionalism of both teaching skills but also their underpinning technical skills, how will they keep both sets of skills sufficiently up-to-date to be able to effectively deliver the new vocational agenda that we are seeking to push hard right across the UK? In terms of learning environment, not only will perhaps employers and learners look at where they are going to learn to understand whether it is somewhere they want to go to learn, staff undoubtedly (particularly near the borders) will be making a judgement about: do I want to go and work in a state-of-the-art college that is 20 miles down the road that way, where they have had a substantial investment programme in the premises, or do I want to go and work 20 miles in this direction where perhaps they have not? One would image that if the banding gap were to continue to sustain that we would see the issues on a series of different levels.

  Q836  Mr David Jones: Could I concentrate, please, on employers per se. Given nowadays (and we have had evidence already in the course of this inquiry) that students are increasingly opting to study closer to home, so therefore your pool of students in due course is probably going to be from the area in which they want to be employed, what effect will this have upon employers? I am thinking in particular of Northeast Wales where the border is almost invisible for practical purposes, but there are a lot of major employers. What can you see the impact upon employers in particularly that part of Wales as being?

  Ms Creed: I think in the scenario you are highlighting, employers are customers of the colleges. What employers anywhere are keen to do is buy high quality learning that is fit for purpose, and that will mean the university or the college needs to be able to invest sufficient monies in ensuring that its course content remains valid and up-to-date; but it also needs to ensure that its staff are up-to-date. If there is reduced investment over a long period of time I think those two issues will become more of a challenge for the institution and that will therefore then have an impact on the quality of the product that the employer has access to.

  Q837  Mr David Jones: Where will the employer look to in order to obtain that product?

  Ms Hunter: I think the issue as Michelle said is about quality and fit for purpose, and employers will go where the quality and fit for purpose training is being delivered. The other issue that has been highlighted by EU skills, Energy and Utility Skills and the Automotive Sector Skills Council, is the issue that where the funding for the learners going onto the programmes is different then the employers either will opt for the country where the funding is higher, or they will back-off from taking up things like apprenticeship frameworks because the combination of two different sets of bureaucracy, two different lots of funding and two different lots of audit will make it too bureaucratic for them and they will back-off altogether. That could have a long-term impact on skills development.

  Q838  Mr David Jones: Are you noticing at this stage any change in attitude of employers as to where they are seeking their employees from, or is too early days yet?

  Ms Hunter: I do not think we are as a Sector Skills Council, but I think some of our colleagues probably are.

  Mr Woods: Perhaps Mr Jones answered some of your questions. There is evidence supplied by colleagues in Lantra, which is the environment, where they talk about specialist HE provision for example in veterinary services where there is no provision.

  Q839  Mr David Jones: We may come back to that later on in the course of this session. Would you say that employers need more parity in qualifications and training on either side of the border?

  Ms Hunter: Absolutely. I think one of the things that has come out from several of the Sector Skills Councils is there are some specific examples in materials sent through to you but the differences between the Welsh Baccalaureate and the 14-19 diplomas in England and EU skills is a particular example. I think it was EU skills about start-dates. Although there were similarities between those qualifications, one will start in 2009 and one will start in 2010. So there is a difficulty there for employers, and the differences between the Young Apprenticeship Scheme and the Workplace Learning Pathways in the two countries. Where they are national employers, where they cover the four countries, there is a confusion and they do not understand why it is a different qualification or a different funding route in the two countries. I think that is a particular issue for them.

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