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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920-939)

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

15 JULY 2008

  Q920  Mr David Jones: The point I am trying to get at is that it is not something you are currently considering?

  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.[1]

  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 of fields?

  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 direction.

  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 bodies?

  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 of features?

  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 is.

  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 2009 Commission?

  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 place—that 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 support—the 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 out?

  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 mechanism—academics from outside the UK—as 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 level either.

  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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