Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920-939)|
MP, MR MICHAEL
15 JULY 2008
Q920 Mr David Jones: The point I
am trying to get at is that it is not something you are currently
Bill Rammell: No.
Q921 Mark Williams: Mr Malster mentioned
the joint funding of the capital infrastructure fund. I am just
wondering if you could quantify that in terms of how Welsh institutions
are benefiting from that, or perhaps you could send us a note.
Mr Malster: Yes.
Q922 Mark Williams: The Welsh institutions
have benefited from that?
Mr Malster: Yes, absolutely, we
can do that. As the Minister explained, there is a contribution
from the UK central government, there is an England HE contribution
and then the three devolved administrations contribute. The bit
we advance is based on a formula which is worked out about how
much grant money you get from research, so it would be roughly
along the same lines as the grant money that the Welsh institutions
get from the research council budgets in the future.
Bill Rammell: Certainly over the
last decade that has proved very successful in both English universities
and Welsh universities, of putting right the historic deficit
in terms of capital funding that has taken place.
Q923 Mark Williams: There is a long
way to go?
Bill Rammell: Yes, but if you
talk to academics and vice chancellors within the higher education
sector they see and feel the difference compared to a decade ago.
Mr Malster: One example I remember
is the Cardiff University brain imaging and repair centre which
got £8 million out of the SRIF programme. That is a major
investment and one of the key benefits of that sort of investment
is that it can help attract world-class scientists to better quality
infrastructure so that helps in increasing the excellence level
of research as well.
Q924 Hywel Williams: How effective
is UK-wide coordination for the provision of postgraduate qualifications
for public sector jobs, such as health, teaching and those sorts
Bill Rammell: I think the coordination
is reasonably effective. There is a specific role, for example,
for the Sector Skills Councils in determining what specific qualifications
are required looking forward within their particular sectors.
There is also an interaction with the chartered professional groups,
particularly in terms of what continuous professional development
requirements are necessary to enable professionals across the
sectors to maintain their up-to-date professionalism. We have
certainly been encouraging greater liaison between the Sector
Skills Councils and the professional bodies and it will be one
of the issues that is looked at within the re-licensing of the
Sector Skills Councils that we have committed to. I think in terms
of mutual recognition, the relationship between the National Qualifications
Framework (NQF) and the credit qualification framework for Wales
does appear to work effectively. There is that mutual recognition
across borders. Looking at the picture generally, whilst I am
never completely satisfied, I think it is moving in the right
Q925 Hywel Williams: I should say
I used to teach on a postgraduate social work course, and used
to be on the Central Council for Education and Training. Since
then there has been quite a divergence which has arisen in health
and social services between Wales and England and also a great
deal of devolution or autonomy for Welsh bodies regulating certain
professions in Wales. Do you talk to them directly, regularly,
and do your officials?
Bill Rammell: To which, the professional
Q926 Hywel Williams: Yes.
Bill Rammell: Certainly we are
encouraging that dialogue between the professional bodies and
the Sector Skills Councils which is where the drive is coming
for the kind of qualifications that we are looking for. My experience
is that most professional bodies do work on a UK-wide basis and
not a Welsh basis and an English basis. In terms of particular
drivers within Wales as opposed to England, that is a feature
of devolution. This is about localised accountability, localised
decision-making, and inevitably that will create some differences.
Q927 Hywel Williams: I am thinking
specifically of health and social services, where the Welsh Assembly
has responsibility and has taken some different direction; and
also, from my own point of view, specifically in professions which
have a high level of contact with the public, there is also a
substantial language issue in Wales which impacts on professional
qualifications, or does not. How aware are you of those sorts
Bill Rammell: Certainly we are
aware of them. If you do devolve health responsibility, inevitably
that means that some different decisions will be taken in England
as opposed to Wales and vice-versa; inevitably the professional
bodies will have to respond to those changes. At official level
there is monitoring of these processes that taken place.
Mr Hipkins: Yes, I think there
Q928 Hywel Williams: In your review
of higher education in England will you be taking into account
issues of the implications cross-border flows of students and
the allocation of research funding? It is a specific cross-border
issue that we are concerned about here. You are reviewing higher
education system in England.
Bill Rammell: In terms of our
Q929 Hywel Williams: Yes.
Bill Rammell: The format timetable
and other details of that Commission are yet to be announced.
Undoubtedly part of the work of the Commission will be to look
at the effect of the first three years of variable tuition fees
within England; and as part of that the Commission will want to
look at the effect so far on the devolved administrations. Again,
we cannot avoid the fact that ultimately devolution has taken
placethat is a proposition that I support. That will mean
that decisions will be taken sometimes in Wales that are different
from those within England. What we need to ensure is that each
of us is aware of the decisions that the other is taking and the
impact of those.
Q930 Hywel Williams: Given that answer
therefore, how do you expect to liaise with the Welsh Assembly
Government's review of higher education?
Bill Rammell: What the Welsh Assembly
Government does with its system is a matter for it. I am more
than happy however, either at ministerial level or at official
level, to talk about our system and the way that, frankly, since
the introduction for example of variable fees the system is working
well; acceptances for this year are up by over 7%; applications
for next year are up by over 7%; and the proportion of students
from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is increasing. I think the
presumption that was about when variable fees was established
in many quarters that actually this would lead to an adverse impact
on access, that has simply not happened. In the major part that
has not happened because we have got a very progressive system
of student financial supportthe reintroduction of grants
and targeting support where it is most needed.
Q931 Mark Williams: Returning now
to research councils, I know you touched on this in your earlier
answer. We have had figures from Research Councils UK which suggest
that 3% of funding has been directed to Wales, whereby the proportion
of UK academic staff employed by higher education institutions
was around 5%. The variation of funding to the different research
councils has been between 2-8%. How do you explain that the Welsh
higher education sector gets a lower proportion of Research Council
funding than its size would merit? I know you are going to talk
about the excellence, but I think some of institutions would argue
they are punching above their weight but Wales is still losing
Bill Rammell: I think if you took
a particular group of institutions within England, not naming
names, and then looked at their proportion of the total they would
not be getting a pro rata allocation in terms of research funding;
and I think exactly the same equation applies within Wales. Certainly
the evidence that was given, for example, from Professor Merfyn
Jones, I looked at his evidence very carefully and he was making
the point that Wales gets a lower percentage of Research Council
funding than people might expect and I think it is very difficult
to dispute that; and in his view that is because Welsh institutions
are failing to win through the competitive bidding process. You
cannot get away from that. We do have an excellence-driven competitive
bidding process. There is no means of lobbying on behalf of individual
proposals. However, maybe there is a case for Welsh institutions
engaging effectively within the dialogue through the Research
Base Funders' Forum to influence the kind of broad subject areas
the particular research councils will seek funding for, which
matches the areas that Welsh institutions specialise in.
Q932 Mark Williams: It certainly
should be placed on record that many Welsh institutions have been
able to do that and there is a lot of excellence out there in
the country. That leads on to the next question. You said it then
and you said it earlier about the need for institutions to influence
the kind of projects. That is very difficult when some of the
funding councils have not got Welsh based representatives or sufficiently
Welsh based representatives. That was a point made to us by the
North East Wales Institute for Higher Education. For some funding
councils it is very, very difficult to get that message across.
Bill Rammell: I think, and I know,
that the Research Councils would strongly refute that the academics
who sit on their research and funding councils are representing
their sectional interests. They are actually there to bring their
research perspective, their academic perspective and to ensure
that, regardless of where it is coming from, the right institutions,
the right departments are actually getting access to the right
amount of research funding. This is a sensitive subject within
higher education. Every university that I talk to, depending on
its performance, will have a view about how "fair" or
"unfair" the system is. What I do know is, if you look
across the advanced world, there has been an increasing concentration
of research funding; and in major part that does lead to an improvement
in research performance. That will rub against the desire for
research funding to be allocated on a formula-driven basis.
Mr Malster: I totally agree with
the point that the people on the boards are not there to represent
sectional interests. Also I do not think it is the case that the
people on the boards are going to be the only ones having an input
into the key decisions. I think the research councils, when they
are looking at the research priorities, have a bottom-up kind
of approach; in the sense that they look to the research community,
they ask them and the doors are open for them to contribute ideas
as to where the priorities should be. It is a question that if
the Welsh HEIs want to make sure their voice is heard they have
to make sure they get in there and they are contributing and they
are taking part.
Q933 Mark Williams: To reiterate,
I think some of them are looking to the partnership between Aberystwyth
University in my constituency and Bangor in the northwest. There
is acknowledgement of that. I think you were right to highlight
the sensitivity of that, some of us representing university constituents
in Wales. There certainly is a concern there, particularly about
that voice and that dialogue between university and funding council.
Bill Rammell: For example, I have
got a meeting with the Coalition of Modern Universities, the Million
Plus Group, this afternoon and they would very much share that
perspective, that there is not a fair allocation of research funding.
In a sense, I put my hands up and plead guilty to that, that we
do want research funding to go to the most appropriate location
driven by performance.
Q934 Hywel Williams: Can I just ask
you the broad question, Minister: historically have Welsh institutions
always done worse in terms of attracting research funding than
institutions in England? To use a racing analogy, if a horse always
comes second it is either a three-legged horse or the ground suits
the winner! Which one is it?
Bill Rammell: I have not looked
at the figures going back prior to the last five years or so.
Mr Malster: I have only seen them
recently where they seem to be broadly setting the same trend.
Bill Rammell: I am happy to provide
you with a note on what the trend is over time. I do not think
there is an inbuilt disadvantage to Welsh institutions. If you
took a subsection of English universities they would make exactly
the same argument that you are making on behalf of Welsh institutions.
Q935 Chairman: What you are actually
saying is that you sign up to a self-perpetuating golden triangle
and that you are not prepared to break out of that golden triangle.
Really you will hear the northwest of England universities making
that same valid point as we are making now. In order to reassure
everyone, whether they are from the northwest or Wales, it may
be that you need to challenge that very senior group of people
who are actually signing up to that. Perhaps you need to have
some form of peer review that has an external mechanismacademics
from outside the UKas part of the process. Would you be
afraid of that, or would they be afraid of that?
Bill Rammell: I think through
the evaluation process there is a constant search to ensure that
we genuinely recognise excellence. Of course, we have shortly,
this December, got the results of the latest research assessment
exercise, and it remains to be seen whether there is a further
move towards concentration or maybe some movement back from that.
Certainly the move towards the research excellence framework will
maintain a degree of peer review, whilst removing some of the
administrative burdens. We are in a pilot phase at the moment.
We have added an additional 12 months to look at the way the system
works. In terms of external evaluation that is one of the issues
that is reflected upon.
Mr Malster: I think also if you
look at the way there has been shown to be a reasonable degree
of correlation between the scores and the income that universities
are getting and their bibliometric data which shows their performance,
it actually shows that in terms of bibliometric data, which is
based on international recognition of research, it is not just
an old boys' club which gets together and certain people vote
for each other: the evidence shows that externally people recognise
the excellence of that research and how it correlates.
Bill Rammell: Whilst I have been
very clear that there has been a concentration of research, I
think you can overstate it. There are, from memory, over 70 departments
in 70 different institutions that get a five-star rating. Whilst,
yes, there is a concentration, it is not quite as concentrated
as people sometimes maintain.
Q936 Mr Martyn Jones: To what extent
are Welsh universities involved in the Research Councils' broader
initiatives for innovation and knowledge transfer, such as those
conducted in collaboration with the Technology Strategy Board?
Bill Rammell: Certainly, although
it is not geographic representation, there is Welsh presence on
the Technology Strategy Board. The Funding Council certainly supports
that approach in terms of some of the technology clusters. Welsh
institutions are part of that.
Mr Malster: In terms of the Research
Councils one of the things we are trying to do is get them to
drive up the economic impact of their research generally, things
like follow-on funds, and the approach that they use. They will
be making sure they can try and maximise the impact of all the
funding they put through HEIs no matter where they happen to be
based. I am sure they do good work with the Welsh universities
as well as the ones in England.
Q937 Mr Martyn Jones: Higher Education
Wales were worried that those kind of things like the Technology
Strategy Board were becoming over-influenced by English policy.
I do not know if you are aware of that concern and if you are
doing anything about it?
Bill Rammell: The inevitable nature
of a select committee inquiry is that people get off their chest
all sorts of things that have been worrying them. I have to say,
and officials will correct me if I am wrong, there has not been
any formal representation at ministerial level about these concerns.
I do not believe there has been any representation at official
Q938 Mr Martyn Jones: Good. Tell
them to tell you if there are any problems!
Bill Rammell: Indeed.
Q939 Nia Griffith: Minister, if I
could turn now to further education and remind you that you told
us in your submission that it is not expected that colleges in
England will recruit entire groups of learners from outside their
local area. This contrasts somewhat with evidence we have had
to this Committee from northeast Wales in Cheshire where we do
find that particular subject areas perhaps are promoted and have
done well in one of the colleges, and therefore there is a tendency
for students to go cross-border rather than a duplication of provision
in both colleges both sides of the border. I wondered how that
sits with your statement, and do you envisage that it is more
appropriate in areas where there is not the provision, say, on
the Welsh side for things like e-learning to be used, rather than
for them to go somewhere which is more local and easy to access,
which is the other side of the border?
Bill Rammell: I think the point
I was trying to make in the submission is that we do not envisage
almost as part of the planning process for large numbers of students
to move across the border. Nevertheless, one works with the reality
and there will be groups of students who do cross the border and
you need reciprocal arrangements in place to ensure that that
is financed, and that does indeed happen. I think if the numbers
are large, and this is actually set out in the terms of reference
of the Learning and Skills Council, they would need to explore
other options, like distance learning, like e-learning, to see
if that is an easier and more appropriate form of study; bearing
in mind travelling large distances will be difficult in a lot
of circumstances, quite apart from the funding impact.
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