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 finean 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 regardlessexcept
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 extentthis
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
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 moneysome 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 anddare I use the wordbureaucracies 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 beenand
I am sure it is true for other universities as wellthat
our natural partner on some areas may be in fact an institution
in Englandfor us Bristol, very closeand 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 earlierand I just want to clarify the
languageon 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
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 calledrather a mouthfulan 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
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 millionand of course it will rise
every yeargoing 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 suchI
was trying to do it with Chester Universitythat 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 engineeringwe are the last
resort in the UK, it is not anywhere elseand 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 clotheswhat 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
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?