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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 907-919)

BILL RAMMELL MP, MR MICHAEL HIPKINS, MR ASHLEY MALSTER AND MR MATTHEW HAMNETT

15 JULY 2008

  Q907 Chairman: Good morning and welcome to the Welsh Affairs Committee. Minister, for the record could you introduce yourself and your colleagues.

Bill Rammell: Bill Rammell, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education; Ashley Malster, who is the Deputy Head, Economic Impact, Science and Research Group within the Department, Mike Hipkins, who is the Director, Student Finance Strategy, and Matt Hamnett who is the Deputy Director, Adult Skills Directorate.

  Q908  Chairman: As you know, this is an inquiry on cross-border issues, and one of the challenging or intriguing issues facing us is the role of your own Department. Could you explain to us whether there is a strict separation, demarcation, between the higher education responsibilities of your Department between UK-wide responsibilities and English-only responsibilities? Is that clearly understood, and is that understanding there with your officials?

  Bill Rammell: I think it is clearly established. It probably helps if I just try and set it out in some detail. Institutional funding and student finance are devolved. Nevertheless, there is formal liaison between my Department and with the devolved administrations. There is a series of quadrilateral meetings between my officials and the devolved administrations that takes place three times a year. My Department also coordinates the key performance indicators agreed by each administration in respect of the Student Loans Company that we jointly own. There are a relatively small number of issues where the UK is still treated, in terms of student finance, as one nation in respect of the European Court; therefore elements of student financing relating to EU students and UK residency are not devolved. All four UK countries have to agree the same provisions. We lead in trying to broker agreements when that issue arises. In respect of further education, funding comes to further education colleges in Wales through the Welsh Assembly Government and through the Learning and Skills Council in England. I think both at official level and at ministerial level there is a good ongoing dialogue. To take one specific example, in terms of communications on student finance which is critically important, there is regular ongoing informal liaison at official level to ensure for example that we are not running major national advertising campaigns at the same time, and that we manage any cross-border issues. I certainly at the moment and on a needs-must basis meet with my Welsh counterpart. Perhaps as a result of this inquiry I am minded to say that we probably need to up that and maybe meet formally two times a year.

  Q909  Chairman: Is that understanding there amongst your senior and not so senior officials? You would be aware that the Secretary of State for Wales, the Wales Office itself runs seminars, briefings and awareness-raising about the nature of democratic devolution? Are you confident and comfortable that that is actually happening and your officials are signed up to it?

  Bill Rammell: I think I am. If I put it like this: I have certainly not had representations from the Welsh Assembly Government, either at ministerial level, or at official level that there is a gap or an absence of knowledge on the part of officials. If I think of key specific announcements that I have been responsible for, the perspective and the ownership of the devolved administration is actually brought into the system at a very early stage; because we know that ultimately we cannot get to making announcements if it is a UK-wide issue without that buy-in.

  Q910  Chairman: When the Secretary of State for Wales was before us I posed to him the question: do you think that it would be helpful (and it was in the context of health, as it happens) that there should be greater transparency about meetings that are being held between the devolved administration ministers and UK ministers, an announcement of what is being discussed and when it is being discussed, that that would be helpful to wider civil society? Would you sign up to that?

  Bill Rammell: I do not instinctively have a problem with it, as long as it does not actually block ad hoc liaison where specific issues come up and you actually need to engage and have a dialogue within a relatively short period of time. I have no problem with regularising meetings, where everybody is aware that those meetings are taking place. As I say, the fact that I was coming before this select committee forced me to think about the working arrangements, and I am instinctively committed (and I will have to discuss this with Jane Hutt) to the idea that twice a year we get together and have that kind of formalised dialogue where people are aware that it is taking place. I would not want that to block out other avenues of communication in between those meetings.

  Q911  Chairman: One gets the impression, anecdotal evidence shows us it appears that the Scottish Executive and Scotland seems to be extremely well organised in its relationships with UK Whitehall departments. I am not making any observation on the situation in Wales by comparison. I am not sure where this question is going! It is a rhetorical question in the sense that we are still at early days in terms of democratic devolution. One of the interesting features is the variation between the four countries. Part of the British/Irish Council role of the Secretary of State for Wales now is to achieve some greater coherence. What would you say about that variation between the countries?

  Bill Rammell: As a graduate of Cardiff University I would not want to say anything that undermined the impact of Welsh further or higher education. What I would say seriously and genuinely is that, as the Minister of State, I do not observe a difference in scale or quantity of interaction at ministerial level comparing Scotland to Wales. Mike, I do not know at official level whether it feels different?

  Mr Hipkins: At official level it does not feel different either. I think we have as good and as close relationships with our colleagues in Wales as we do in Scotland.

  Q912  Chairman: Let me finish with one final specific question. Can you assure us that it is your view, your official view, that Wales has a fair share of the resources from your Department for matters that are UK-wide?

  Bill Rammell: Yes, I do believe that to be the case. There are a series of mechanisms whereby the interests of the devolved administrations are factored in at an early stage. Take one example, research, and the Research Base Funders' Forum on which both the Welsh Assembly Government and HEFCW Wales sit to ensure that that view is put forward. I am sure when we come on to talk about research, and I have actually seen some of the evidence that has been before your Committee on this issue previously, when you talk about a fair shares allocation, of course research funding is driven by excellence. There is a competitive bidding process and it is not driven by formula; therefore, the extent to which Welsh higher education institutions actually get their allocation of research funding is really down to their own efforts.

  Chairman: We will come back to that in a moment. Mrs Siân James.

  Q913  Mrs James: Minister, I would like to turn to policy coordination now. For the UK part of your Department's higher education responsibilities, how do you ensure that the policies and priorities of the Welsh Assembly Government are articulated and fed into the policymaking process?

  Bill Rammell: Let me take some specific instances. I have already referred to the quadrilateral meetings that take place in respect of student finance. Those meetings occur three times throughout the year. If we look in the research area, the creation of a strategic coordination of a Health Research Committee, which was a recommendation of the Cooksey Review, the Welsh perspective is inputted with regard to that. If we look at the move from the research assessment exercise to the research excellence framework, the Welsh perspective, the devolved administration is part of that process of forming the new structure. Indeed, Bangor University is part of the pilot study. I think in a number of ways the Welsh perspective is inputted into those areas where there is a UK-wide remit. If there is a perception that that is not happening adequately enough then I think that is down to dialogue at official level and at ministerial level. That is where I say maybe if we were to meet formally twice a year that would help the process.

  Q914  Mrs James: Higher Education Wales when giving their evidence have suggested that your Department should work very closely with the Welsh Assembly Government to explore the potential for a joint science investment fund and/or possibly a strategic science site in Wales. What are your views on this proposal?

  Bill Rammell: Can you outline that again to me.

  Q915  Mrs James: Higher Education Wales have suggested that your Department should work much more closely with the Welsh Assembly Government on establishing a science investment fund (we have already touch upon what Bangor is doing etc) and/or a strategic science site in Wales. Have you any views?

  Bill Rammell: I am aware of the science policy for Wales that has been developed. It appears to me there is a lot of synergy between that approach and the approach that we are driving. I think we need to be clear as well in respect of research funding; there has been a concentration of research funding both within Wales and within England, and it is driven on a competitive basis. The applications to the research councils do not take account, and in my view should not take account, of location. There is clearly a debate about the way in which Wales ensures that through, for example, the Research Base Funders' Forum it influences the kind of projects that the research councils will seek funding proposals in relation to, to ensure that that fits with the priority areas for Welsh universities. I do not think, and I would not be comfortable of getting into a process of national planning about what science capacity went to which institutions in which part of the UK. I think that would run very counter to what has been a very successful policy of driving up the quality of research over the last 10 or 15 years.

  Mr Malster: We do work closely with all the devolved administrations and, in particular, the funding bodies in relation to capital funding. Up until now there has been the Science Research Investment Fund, SRIF, which has been jointly funded by the HE budgets of the four countries and the UK Government to try and clear the backlog of under-investment in the science facilities. There is going to be a new one, the Research Capital Investment Fund, which is basically the same sort of idea but looking forward. We have more or less dealt with the backlog and now we are into more of a care and maintenance basis. The idea is that we coordinate funding there to make sure that the HE system across the UK has sufficient investment in capital facilities, where there has been a tradition in the past focussed on getting the grant money in and spending it on paying the academics but leaving the infrastructure to decline slightly. We have been working together on that particular thing, so there is funding available for capital in that way.

  Bill Rammell: Although again the formula for that is driven by performance in terms of how successful you are in getting research contracts.

  Q916  Mrs James: Perhaps the earlier questions, the questions from the Chairman and my first question, were about how do we get that dialogue between the Welsh Assembly Government and your Department to ensure that everybody is working on a level playing field, and that everybody is getting a fair bite at the cherry?

  Bill Rammell: I think through fora like the Research Base Funders' Forum there is a clear channel of communication; but I would actually resist a move to allocate on a fair shares basis because I think that would run counter to a policy that has been very successful in driving up the UK's research performance nationally.

  Q917  Mr David Jones: Minister, what proposals does your Department have for a UK-wide strategic science site? Science policy is not devolved, is it?

  Mr Malster: I think the general approach is that the science policy operates at a UK level as a whole and we look to fund excellent science wherever that may be, rather than trying to specify that particular regions should have particular funding. Obviously on certain occasions there are certain sites which have built up significance historically—the Daresbury and the Rutherford Appleton Lab area. In particular, because of the significance of it, we look at those issues specifically; but in general we do not try and plan and say, "We need to have a major investment here and a major investment there". We look at proposals in terms of the excellence. "Is this the best place to invest in the science?"

  Q918  Mr David Jones: Because Higher Education in Wales seems to think a strategic science site would be quite a good idea?

  Bill Rammell: Again, I am in danger of repeating myself, I think that would run counter to the policy of actually rewarding research excellence regardless of its location. I am not a fan of actually saying we should single out a specific institution or a specific site and focus a disproportionate amount of funding to that site regardless of performance.

  Q919  Mr David Jones: You see no merit in establishing a new strategic site?

  Mr Malster: If there was a proposal for a project which was sufficiently attractive to the Research Council, they felt it met their priorities, that could be something they looked at; but they would not be looking at it on the basis that there needs to be a strategic site in Wales—there is not one at the moment so they must make up that gap.


 
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