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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 946-959)


15 JULY 2008

  Q946 Chairman: Welcome to the Welsh Affairs Committee. For the record, could you introduce yourselves, beginning with Professor Rees?

  Professor Rees: My name is Teresa Rees. I am the Pro Vice Chancellor at Cardiff University.

  Professor Scott: I am Michael Scott. I am the Vice Chancellor of the new university in Wrexham which came into being formally on 3 July, but is not announced until Friday. It will be announced by the First Minister of Wales on Friday. I am still here as Principal of NEWI, although legally I am not.

  Mr Parry: I am Andrew Parry, Head of Corporate Communications, NEWI.

  Professor Jones: Wynne Jones, Principal of Harper Adams University College in Newport, Shropshire.

  Q947  Chairman: Thank you for that. I would begin with a simple question. First of all, could I thank you all for your memoranda; they have been extremely helpful to us in preparing for this session. Just a general question to each of you. Has democratic devolution been a good thing?

  Professor Rees: I think it has been a good thing, but I think we are still at the early stages of a long process and there is a lot of tidying-up to be done. There are gaps and there are issues of lack of communication which are having a deleterious effect, particularly on Wales, and they need to be sorted very rapidly.

  Professor Scott: I would agree. I think it has been a very good thing. I think it has given a new confidence to the people of Wales which is really to be applauded. It also brings Government closer to the people, which is something that I personally favour greatly. Obviously there are policy issues and there are operational issues which, in these early days, as Professor Rees has said, need to be addressed, and they are early days even though it is 10 years.

  Mr Parry: I think it has been very successful. I think we have got a framework now for further developments. I think one of the major challenges ahead of us now is to try and get people and organisations on both sides of the border to accept how devolution works and understand the new structures and how to get the best for everyone concerned out of the new structures.

  Professor Jones: I would add that it has been very positive viewing from where I am in terms of ownership, stake holding and real confidence and aspirations for providing for the best of Wales. Certainly as regionalisation in England and operating in England, for those of us trying to work within that, it does provide some challenges in making sure that we are proofing all the policies and implementation across the regions. There is a lot of consultation required to make sure that we are able to move across some of these boundaries smoothly.

  Q948  Chairman: As a follow-up to that, I notice in your evidence, Professor Rees, you look forward in the last sentence to the early decade of devolution and you have identified some critical issues. Would it be fair to say that all of you, both those of you in universities and those in Welsh Assembly Government responsible for policy, have been somewhat introspective in the way you have dealt with matters. You heard the Minister earlier speaking about relationships in a positive way but, nevertheless, I get a sense that people in Wales have taken their eye off the ball in terms of whether decisions have been taken here in Whitehall and Westminster?

  Professor Rees: If I could do this without offending everybody, I think there is a level of introspection on both sides of the border. I am particularly concerned hearing, for example, the Minister speaking about communication decisions made in England for England. We have seen examples where decisions made in England for England can have very severe unintended consequences in Wales. For example, when there were difficulties in England in recruiting teacher trainers, the idea was developed of giving people who wanted to train to become teachers a golden hello, and that was fine—an English solution to an English problem. In Wales the Assembly Government were then slightly caught on the back foot: do we have this problem in Wales? They got in touch with those who provided teacher training. No, there was no problem. Recruitment figures were fine. As a consequence it was decided not to try and match this offer. Then what happened was that people in Wales who had applied for and been accepted for the following year in these teacher/training institutions thought, "Hang on a minute, if I apply in England I will get a golden hello. I will immediately apply to England". Then suddenly we had a crisis in Wales. Then again on the back foot the Welsh Assembly has to decide to do something. This is not joined-up government. I think we need more than just better communication between the two countries; we need some more joint strategic thinking. That is why I am very, very keen on the joint ministerial committee and the senior civil servants responsible for further and higher education really doing some of this strategic planning together. This does not mean you cannot do different things in different countries but you have to do it within the context of what is happening elsewhere in the UK. We are not islands.

  Q949  Mrs James: This is a question for all of you about the extent of cross-border provision. Why has there been a decline in the number of English students who are applying for higher education institution places in Wales? All of you to some extent reported that in your memoranda. Have you any ideas on this?

  Professor Scott: I think we can look at funding issues, but I would start at another issue, and that is to do with where students traditionally have come from into traditional universities in Wales, particularly the traditional universities in the west of Wales. They have tended to come from northwest England and from the Midlands. Those traditional universities have been in competition with traditional universities in the big civic cities: Liverpool University, Manchester University and Birmingham University. What has happened since 1992 has been the rise of the post-1992 universities in those cities. You have very large post-1992 universities actually in some instances much larger than the city university. Liverpool John Moores University is larger than the Russell Group university, Liverpool University in Liverpool. You have a string of these going from the University of Central Lancashire, through Liverpool, into Manchester, through Staffordshire, to Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Those universities, I believe, have actually stemmed some of the flow of English students to the traditional universities in Wales. I do not think that is the case, although I am not sure, for Cardiff University; but I am sure it is the case for some of the west universities. There is an issue I think related to funding, but I think there is also an issue of market and the fact that those universities, Manchester Metropolitan, Liverpool John Moores, Birmingham City University, are actually growing in reputation; and they are growing in reputation in the context of particularly their applied research and in the context of their employability. For my own institution on the border we take less students proportionately on the border than those universities to the west of us. We take about 23% and they take in the order of 40-43%—I can give you the exact figures. We have traditionally taken a more local cohort. Why, because actually we are in a very populous area in northeast Wales. When you go to the northwest of Wales you have not got the compensation of local students to be able to go to the universities, so there starts to be a crisis in terms of those initiatives. That is a fundamental issue which I think gets lost when we almost start to talk immediately about funding issues. I think there are funding issues and discrepancies of funding and so on and so forth, but I think we lose that kind of perspective about the rise of these very, very successful post-1992 universities.

  Professor Jones: I think it is a characteristic wherever you are that students tend to go to a university within one or two hours travel of home regardless—except for a few that have a particular provision. I suppose uniquely our institution has a very national spread across regions, but it is a very specialist one. Looking at some of the big name universities in our region in the west Midlands, they draw up to 50% from that region, and I think it is to do with general human geography issues as much as funding.

  Professor Rees: Higher Education Wales and HEFCW are very interested in the cross-border flow issue, which is clearly a very sensitive one. My own institution has not been so much affected by the decline in the number of students applying to institutions in Wales. I think what this evidence shows is that potential students are enormously confused by what the deal is in different countries. Even if they would be just as well off in one country as another, the confusion about it means that you are more likely to stick to your home country. I think the market among higher education institutions that we were encouraged to develop is problematic for potential students. The evidence that we had when we conducted the Rees Review on our education funding and student support was that students are very happy to search eBay for the best deal for trainers, a holiday, a bike or something, but when it is higher education they take it much more seriously and they want the right course at the right institution, and the marketing of it is actually not helpful to them. Certainly in England I think there is a view that because the Welsh Assembly Government subsidises Welsh domiciled students to go to Welsh institutions that somehow they are losing out, even if in fact in the interstices of the financial systems they may not be. That complexity, which is an unintended consequence of devolution, is problematic for student choices, and I think it has meant more students go local.

  Q950  Mrs James: My next question is about being proactive. We have touched upon it quite a lot with the earlier evidence, about being proactive in Whitehall. Do you think the Welsh higher education sector, particularly HEFCW, is sufficiently proactive when lobbying in Whitehall?

  Professor Rees: I think there has been a focus, as your Chairman suggested at the beginning, on lobbying ministers within the Welsh Assembly Government. As far as all the parties are concerned, I think it took a while to identify what was really a Welsh Assembly Government policy issue and what was still a UK. I think we were all slow to this. It seems to me there are lots and lots of higher education issues that are still UK issues and we may not have been as active as we should have been in identifying those and lobbying appropriately.

  Professor Scott: As I was coming into Westminster this morning I was met by my local MP who said that I seem to come here more than he does! I am sure that is not true but certainly from my perspective, in trying to develop a new university, I have lobbied very hard in Westminster. I am happy to put on record, without the support of my local MP and indeed my local MPs, and without the support of other Welsh MPs, I do not think we would be in this situation now. They have been incredibly encouraging and very, very helpful. As have the two Secretaries of State for Wales. I have been able, over the past years, to see both of those Secretaries of State on the issue of the university of title. Certainly we saw it as being extremely important and spanning all parties, the four parties represented, so we have done that. Whether others do that to the same extent—this was a particular issue, a particular project, and we felt it was absolutely necessary for the economy of North East Wales that there should be a university in North East Wales, we see it as absolutely essential that we should have connections with North West England, in particular other institutions in England and elsewhere. Therefore we have taken that through, but we have done it as an institution.

  Q951  Mark Pritchard: Do you think, given the lack of communication which was touched on earlier, the possibility of not enough joined-up government, there is an opportunity for universities and higher education establishments themselves to take the initiative and to try and have joined-up thinking amongst themselves and better communication amongst themselves, and is one way of delivering this a possibility of new strategic partnerships across Wales and England? I was just wondering whether one, you think that is a good idea; two, is it happening; three, what examples do you have if it is happening? Professor Jones perhaps first.

  Professor Jones: I think there is a political will for it to happen at that level and the funding council is certainly very helpful with initiative funding, in that they do not put any restriction on where we deliver. I am thinking particularly now of issues to do with employer engagement with this particular initiative and reaching those who have already passed the stage of university. It is an area we are very active with and, certainly, the minister who was here previously has been very supportive of that, development funding for us but no restriction on where we deliver. The difficulty then becomes maybe with some of the agencies below that at the delivery level and certainly if you are trying to lever money—some money we have had from the funding council from our region or other regions or nations, there is some reluctance for some of that money maybe to pass borders or for HQ to be in one region and the delivery in the other region. It is at the lower level; there is enough push and pull maybe at our level and probably politically, but there is a little bit in the middle that we need to look at.

  Q952  Mark Pritchard: I do not want to put words in your mouth but are you saying that the current structures and—dare I use the word—bureaucracies are perhaps getting in the way of some future strategic partnerships and also, perhaps more importantly, joint research projects? If it makes sense for geographical economies of scale and even academic economies of scale, given some of the synergies between some of the institutions we have discussed today, it seems unfortunate that bureaucracy is getting in the way of where joint working can best be put into practice.

  Professor Rees: Speaking from a research intensive university I do not think that is so much an issue. There is through HEFCW the research and collaboration fund and that has enabled quite a lot of joint research projects across the institutions in Wales, bringing strengths together. That has been excellent. One of our difficulties though has been—and I am sure it is true for other universities as well—that our natural partner on some areas may be in fact an institution in England—for us Bristol, very close—and I am very pleased that the two funding councils have now enabled us to apply jointly, together, for something that cuts across the border. That is relatively new and that will benefit all Welsh institutions. This is for projects, it is really for research projects, and one of the issues I am hoping we will get to discuss is the funding gap because that is a core issue for the Welsh institutions.

  Q953  Alun Michael: Professor Rees, you made a comment earlier—and I just want to clarify the language—on the question of proactively lobbying in Whitehall and UK institutions as well as within the Assembly and you referred to "parties". At that time I think you meant everybody who was concerned in higher education as distinct from political parties.

  Professor Rees: Oh yes.

  Q954  Alun Michael: I thought it was just as well to be clear because there was then a reference to political parties by one of your colleagues immediately afterwards. I would like to ask you specifically about the recommendation in your review in 2005 because that recommended a variable fee system similar to that which pertains in England, and of course that is not what was introduced in Wales. Frankly, has that not been to the detriment of the higher education sector in Wales?

  Professor Rees: I think we did have the variable fee system introduced in Wales, the only difference is that the Assembly Government decided that it would offer to underwrite the cost of the increase in fees that was charged for Welsh domiciled students going to Welsh institutions. When we think of the Higher Education Act, the variable fees here was passed by five votes so it was always going to be a contentious issue and there were lots of political difficulties around the time of the launch of the report. It was absolutely vital that we had what we called—rather a mouthful—an end-loaded income contingent variable fee; the critical thing was that it should be paid when somebody reaches a graduate income rather than upfront. That for me is a fantastic shift and has really done the most towards expanding opportunities for people from low income backgrounds to go to university. In a sense the variable fees is not a different issue, it is just that there is the underwriting of Welsh domiciles going to Welsh institutions. That is something that the Welsh Assembly Government decided that they would pay for.

  Q955  Alun Michael: Indeed, but that then presumably is paid out of money that would otherwise go into the higher education pot, so is there not a net loss as far as higher education in Wales is concerned?

  Professor Rees: Absolutely; you have put your finger on it. I think my view about this is that we did have in the Rees Review "wriggle room" as it was described at the time whereby many of the politicians in the Assembly were very much against any kind of fees at all. What they could do is offer some sort of offering to subsidise Welsh domiciles going to Welsh institutions, but we had in mind something like £500 that would be means-tested. What the politicians decided was actually to underwrite the whole amount, the £1,700 odd, and not to means test it. It is still the case that it is largely middle-class students who go to university so as far as I am concerned that is a waste of public money and it would make quite a contribution towards the estimated funding gap. We think it is about £41 million—and of course it will rise every year—going to Welsh domiciled students who go to Welsh institutions, and the funding gap at the moment is about £61 million; that is for us the critical issue. If I can just add I heard the debate with Mr Rammell earlier, I do not think any institution in Wales is against research funding through research councils following excellence, what we are really concerned about is the lack of core funding that we have in Wales for higher education vis-a-vis England, that is the real problem.

  Professor Scott: I would agree with what has just been said, although with some caveats. Within my own institution, of course, we do specialise in people coming from the lower socio-economic classes and we have probably got a higher proportion of them than any university in Wales; that is one point. The second point is I also agree about research money following excellence, but we have got to find some kind of way in order to fund new universities in the context of getting a research base because without research there is no such thing as a university, it is a distinguishing feature of the university, so that has got to occur. The third thing I would say is clearly, as a new university, I have got to work with established universities in order to be able to establish our own university. That is a traditional way of creating a university. We do work closely with Cardiff University, particularly in the development of clinical skills in North Wales, which we are very proud of, and in other areas, and we work with other universities in Wales. However, we need to be able to work closely also with universities just across the border. We have another Russell university in very, very close proximity to us, Liverpool University, and a test case will be going to HEFCW within the next few months about us developing a course with Liverpool University to be taught within North Wales. When I have tried that before the bureaucracy has been such—I was trying to do it with Chester University—that the Vice-Chancellor of Chester and I just said this is going to be too difficult to do and we backed off. I do not want to back off with Liverpool University, it is very important for my development that I am working with a university of that quality, as it is that I am working with Cardiff.

  Q956  Alun Michael: That was very helpful. Can I just go back to your first sentence though because you referred to the follow-on to my question to Professor Rees. If you are taking more students from poorer backgrounds then presumably, were there to be a means test, you would get the additional income and your poorer students would still have the advantage. Was that the point you were making?

  Professor Scott: It was the point I was making, yes, and I would be delighted, but I would not actually have said that with Professor Rees next to me. To get some money from Cardiff would be indeed a triumph.

  Q957  Nia Griffith: We have obviously been talking about the fee structure and one of the points made when it was introduced was that it would encourage Welsh domiciled students to go to Welsh universities and that that would be a good thing. What is your view on that?

  Professor Rees: I am very much against any restrictions on choice driven by finance; all students should choose the course and the place that is appropriate for them. If we have students from the Valleys who want to study at Oxford, why should we be trying to steer them somewhere else? I just feel it is inappropriate; there should be complete student choice in where they study.

  Professor Jones: Can I come in on that? Particularly with some of the courses in my own institution which are an exemption degree for rural practice chartered surveyors, a BEng degree in agricultural engineering—we are the last resort in the UK, it is not anywhere else—and one or two degrees in veterinary nursing, accredited with the Royal College of Veterinary Nursing, they are not available in Wales and therefore it would be an unwise decision. Not every nation or region can provide for those because the market is not big enough, so I think one has to be aware of certain strands of specialism within this debate as well rather than take a broader look, and I think some sort of mapping or proofing to understand some of the outlying provision is quite important in that context.

  Q958  Nia Griffith: Do you actually think that students have been put off taking the courses that you offer, they have said "I will go for a different subject because of the funding differences"?

  Professor Jones: There was a wobble when the fees were introduced where people were not quite sure what it meant and the numbers dropped, but now we are in a steady state again. Probably people are getting to it and understand what the implications are and work through it.

  Professor Scott: We give bursaries to ensure that the English students will still come to us and that is very important. Where this starts to get more complicated is within the funding regime and it then is gearing it in the way that Professor Rees was outlining and not actually tackling some other issues. If you are an institution that is specialising in widening participation, then the demands being made on you as an institution are really costly. You cannot teach a higher education level in the traditional way for widening participation among students who are coming from communities which have never ever sent students to university before. There has got to be a greater gearing than there is at the moment to those institutions which do specialise in widening participation; however you do not then want to set up a two-tier system so that middle-class students will go to Cardiff University and the poorer students will come up to the new university in Wrexham or whatever, so that leads you into another kind of series of fundamental questions. If you get a situation whereby you will have female students who suffer domestic abuse because they are going to the university and their partner beats them up and they have nowhere to go except to come to the university, and they arrive at the university with children at nine o'clock at night, we have to have the resource to be able to link in with the social services of course and to be able to handle that. If you have a situation where the students are under great pressure, psychological and economic pressure, within their communities because they are going to university, you have got to be able to handle that and you have also got to be able to handle the cultural change. With everybody around here there is no problem about universities, there is no problem about going into a university, but with some of the students that we have there is a huge problem about going over the threshold and meeting professors, PhDs, funny clothes—what is all this about? They do not know and therefore they are deterred. You therefore have a big communication issue which has to be funded, but that is not funded in the same way as a priority in my view that research is funded. What you then find is that a university such as mine gets a double whammy; we do not get the research pump-priming and we do not actually get adequate funding, in my view, for providing participation.

  Q959  Alun Michael: Really what we are exploring here to some extent is unintended consequences and adjustment to change and I would just like to ask whether there are other effects that have arisen from the disparity between the grant assistance available to Welsh students who study in Wales compared to England? Is there anything we have not covered?

  Professor Rees: Yes. Do you want to focus on the students rather than the research because I have quite a list of the research funding difficulties?

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