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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 960-979)


15 JULY 2008

  Q960  Alun Michael: I am not surprised that you have a long list on research and I dare say you ought to have the opportunity to give it to us, but I did want to focus on the students, yes.

  Mr Parry: One of the interesting things about the effect of fees on student recruitment is really it does not seem to have had too much effect particularly on the young students, the ones under 21, but it does seem—and this reinforces something that Professor Rees said earlier—that students who are young are more interested in the whole student experience, employability and whether the courses are particularly relevant to what they want. It is the mature students who are more interested in the finance and more affected by the finance because in many cases they have other expenses already—they have family commitments and other expenses—and so it does have an effect on them. As an institution where we have got 75% of our students who are mature we are in a rather precarious position because we are greatly influenced by that cost effect on student recruitment.

  Professor Rees: Can I just follow up with two small points. It is counterintuitive this; people have been traditionally against fees because they think that it discriminates against low income, but it is a mistake in my view to call them fees, it is really a contribution, it does not cover what you might call fees. Looking at this on the basis of research internationally, the higher the fees charged the more bursaries and that is the critical thing. If it is end-loaded and if you really want low income people to be able to go to university you need to charge higher fees, and because it is counterintuitive people often end up voting for the opposite of what they intended. I would also like, if I may, just to go back to Mrs James' point about Welsh domiciled students going to Welsh institutions and why I think it is a bad idea to constrain choice in that way. I remember in Ireland when they were trying to develop the IT industry they developed a lot of IT courses in universities but the industry was not really there to absorb all these graduates, so they had to go off to Japan and US and whatever to pursue their careers. But then the diaspora effect kicked in and they came back with fabulous international experience, set up companies and then, 10 years after the Irish Government intended, the IT industry really kicked off. I think that can work for us but if we do not allow in effect, by financial constraints, Welsh people to go and be educated elsewhere or to leave after they have graduated for postgraduate or employment opportunities, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot.

  Chairman: I am very conscious of the time and there are two major areas we have not covered. I would ask everyone now—not the witnesses obviously—to be a little more disciplined in the number of supplementaries that they are asking. Could I try to move forward, I will call Mr Pritchard in later but could we now move forward to Mr Martyn Jones.

  Q961  Mr Martyn Jones: Two questions to Professor Scott on the new university in Wrexham. Is the name ...

  Professor Scott: The name will be announced by the First Minister on Friday.

  Q962  Mr Martyn Jones: In your written evidence you imply that some Welsh students who have studied in England might subsequently be prevented from practising professionally in Wales because of curricula and policy differences. Is this a difficulty you have met in practice?

  Professor Scott: This is a reference in particular to a decision made on the recommendation of HEFCW that initial teacher training should close in North East Wales, with the argument being made that initial teacher training will then, for North Wales, be centred on Bangor and Aberystwyth. The argument is mainly concerned with Welsh medium teaching, which we support; however, we have a significant problem on this because all our teacher trainers go through a Welsh second language, we have set up a Welsh second language centre which is doing extremely well under a lecturer called Julie Brake who wrote Teach Yourself Welsh and has done a lot on the Web with Welsh, but we are going to find that if teacher education ceases as is planned and as is recommended by HEFCW in 2010 in North East Wales then we believe that our students will travel to Chester. If they travel to Chester they will not take Curriculum Cymraeg, they will take the English curriculum and therefore will be lost to Wales. We have lost the argument so far with HEFCW on that matter but I think it is a matter of strategy and it is a matter of strategic vision.

  Q963  Mr Martyn Jones: Thank you for that. Also, Professor, your institution is very close to the English border—I do not know how many miles as the crow flies.

  Professor Scott: Six miles.

  Q964  Mr Martyn Jones: I was going to say five or six. Are there other cross-border issues—good or bad—which you would like to draw the attention of the Committee to?

  Professor Scott: There is an issue for us which is to do with the economy of North Wales. The economy of North Wales is linked to Manchester and Liverpool, to the two big cities. Of course, our national identity and our political relationship is south to Cardiff, but the growth of the economy in Cardiff—which is the growth of a city, in fact the growth of three cities: Cardiff, Swansea and Newport—is not being replicated in North Wales, nor is it affected in North Wales by what is happening down south. Therefore there is a tension, I believe, in North East Wales in particular. That is exacerbated in North East Wales because of Objective One funding which does not apply in North East Wales but applies, rightly, in North West Wales where money can be pumped in and get matched funding, but it has nothing to latch onto. Then you say what is happening in North East Wales? In North East Wales you have generally a high pay, low skill economy and it is probably the last example of that certainly in England and Wales. You have got to change that economy round. We are not changing it round because we have not got the investment that is going in around the creation of a city; meanwhile in North West England that is being changed round, it has been changed round with Manchester and Liverpool, so the wealth of North West England is building and I believe a crisis is building in North East Wales which is an economic crisis which has not actually yet been seen. If you did have a situation where there was a problem with Airbus—and we already know despite the good news not so long ago about the order from the United States that that has now been held up by Congress—in particular in North East Wales there would be a significant problem in the economy of North East Wales which we saw in South Wales when we saw the closure of the mines and steel and so on. That is what is happening, that is what a university needs to be telling you and also that is why we need to be co-operating with North West England in order to try and bring that economy across, but the funding actually is not there.

  Q965  Mr Martyn Jones: That is a very important point that I agree with. Are there any other issues in that area? Thinking particularly about part-time provision across the border, are you liaising with Chester and so on?

  Professor Scott: Again, we are going to get problems in relation to further education colleges. Just on the edge of the border there is West Cheshire Technical College which has the power to do foundation degrees. If you are widening participation in institutions it is absolutely essential that you are taking foundation degree students. Fortunately, at the moment, foundation degree powers are not being given to FE colleges in North Wales because at the present time that would cause too much of a strain on the development of the new university in terms of taking students away, because they are already going to be taken away within North West England. It is not just the universities, therefore, that are hugely competitive with us—and they are competitive in the sense that they get a lot of capital funding as well. There has been a huge amount of capital funding going into the University of Chester, there is a huge amount of capital funding going into the University of Cumbria since it was created, over £50 million I believe going into the University of Worcester since its creation. There is not the money in Wales to go into the creation of a new university. We were given—and I am very grateful for it—£5.3 million which we worked very hard for, with a lot of lobbying here and in the Welsh Assembly, but it is nothing compared with the investment going into new universities over the border, absolutely nothing.

  Q966  Mark Pritchard: I wanted to give Professor Jones an opportunity, this is a cross-border inquiry and clearly there are students coming over to Harper Adams in Shropshire, England; if you had a magic wand what would you wish to see improved in the cross-border flow of funds and students?

  Professor Jones: There are probably two areas, very quickly. There is a big distance between Harper Adams and Aberystwyth, which is a journey I make regularly having a house in Aberystwyth. There was a review in 2004, HE in Herefordshire, Powys and Shropshire that looked at the demand side, but it looked at the demand side of any business with more than 10 employees. Our focus is on rural micro-businesses and a lot of the discussion here today has been on a certain type of student, maybe a traditional age group. We have the challenge in the rural sector of bringing higher skills—not necessarily higher qualifications—into rural micro-businesses and assisting rural entrepreneurs, so we have to work and have a smoothing of some of the procedures there. Equally, a recent review of land-based studies in England highlighted that 40% of HE was delivered in the further education sector, for good reasons of geography, and in fact only 30% was delivered in the university sector at all. Two of those universities, the two main ones I am sure—if the RHE does not go well in December—could well be out of agriculture, so there are very good strategic reasons for us to look at research provision. I do not buy into the research concentration of basic research as much as others, maybe because our focus is strategic and applied, but we need to get strategies where we need to work together across borders to bring the strategic research into application. We have to work together in that and bring the industry, the micro-businesses, with us, so there are a lot of issues there.

  Chairman: Can we just move on now? There are two major areas that we still have not covered; Mr Mark Williams wishes to ask some questions on diverging investment policies, particularly with regard to the funding gap.

  Q967  Mark Williams: This may well be an opportunity for Professor Rees and her long list. What are the practical implications and consequences of low levels of funding across the border, not least the gap that has been highlighted of £61 million in 2005-06. Do you agree with Higher Education Wales' statement in evidence when they said "such persistent under-investment from the Assembly Government will significantly frustrate the ability of universities to create a knowledge economy at a time when Wales's economic performance is lagging behind the rest of the UK"? You touched earlier on possible solutions, but how do we address that funding gap?

  Professor Rees: I absolutely do agree with that statement and although there is a huge diversity of type of higher education institutions in Wales, we all feel it in different ways. We are all operating in different competitive markets as it were, not particularly with each other interestingly enough, because of where we are spatially and the different sorts of institutions we are. One of the issues that concerns me considerably is about research, if I can just focus on that for a moment. I do not want to talk about research councils because actually I think we are all fairly happy with the way that the research councils operate, but it is the other side, the QR (quality related research), but particularly the way in which government departments and charities are big funders of research. The Westminster Government made the decision, when research councils went to a full economic costing—it is a bit of a misnomer because it is actually 80%—for research, that this would apply to government departments and they would make good the gap for charities so that charities would not have to spend more of their money on overheads in effect. That was fine, but that only applied to England. At the bottom of all of this is the Barnett formula, which means that the Welsh Assembly Government is having to decide whether to put money into hospitals or education. It is all incredibly tight and in the sector we understand that, but the effect of this means that essentially if you are a government department and you want to fund research, there are good reasons for doing it in England rather than in Wales and for a Welsh institution it means it is actually financially difficult for us to apply for charity money or government money that comes from the Assembly because it does not always have that full economic funding. We also have enormous difficulties in the research allocation which is in the NHS which in England has been sorted out recently, that that budget should be spent on research. In Northern Ireland it is actually earmarked, there is £12 million for research in the NHS budget and that is for that. In Wales it is incredibly difficult to extract that budget from the NHS in Wales, frankly because the NHS in Wales is under-funded and it is needed to subsidise clinical practice, so we lose out in that way again. I sat on the HEFCW strategic research committee and time after time there were new initiatives announced to protect vulnerable subjects and so on and so forth; in each case I would ask the question is this being matched by HEFCW and the answer was almost always no because they did not have the resource. Most recently we have seen DIUS announce quite a lot of very interesting reviews of higher education in England and has announced some quite helpful schemes—for example, if you donate to a university in England that donation will be matched. This does not happen in Wales. My own institution has just received a donation of £5 million, which is fantastic, but that will not be matched because we are in Wales not in England, so at all of these levels we seem to be missing out on opportunities to build up the infrastructure and the capability—capacity building, as my colleague Professor Scott was referring to—to do research and to be competitive to do research with colleagues in the rest of the UK. I do not think that was what devolution was intended to do and that is why my argument through all of this is we need a strategic framework to ensure that we have a UK perspective, particularly on research funding, negotiating with the European Union—that is not something that should happen by the devolved administrations. We need to do far more of that work to ensure that we do not end up with a very higgledy-piggledy higher education sector whose strength lies in unintended consequences of the devolution process.

  Q968  Mark Williams: What are the practical implications of that? You have talked about students and the fees regime and how that has conspired in some of our views against Wales. What about in terms of numbers of applicants, has there been a feed-through there?

  Professor Rees: The cross-border flows are terribly sensitive and if you have a policy on one side of the border—and it would be England because it is so much bigger—that can have an incredible effect in Wales, and it is the only cross-border that really has that impact, it is not the same with the other devolved administrations. If you think that roughly half the students in Wales are going across the border and roughly half the students in Wales come from across the border, given the relative size of the two countries any tinkering with policies can either bankrupt three Welsh institutions or make it very difficult for access students in Wales to compete with very highly qualified students coming across the border from England. I think, therefore, that it is responsibility of the ministers for education in the four countries to think about these issues from a UK perspective. It does not mean that higher education should not be devolved, but you cannot have one country making a decision, particularly England, and saying "You can do what you like in the other countries" because that decision affects the other countries and in particular Wales.

  Q969  Mark Williams: As the last question from me, you mentioned the issue of core funding for research. We are not deviating from the excellence debate, it is there and Welsh higher education institutions seem to be performing very well. How receptive has the Government been to your views on the need for some core component to the research base which, again a constituency interest, is particularly important to some of our universities in Wales?

  Professor Rees: It is not simply the research base, it is really the infrastructure. There are issues to do with the infrastructure of the buildings in Wales and I think there is some sympathy in the Welsh Assembly Government and among ministers and politicians for higher education. We were in a situation some years ago where the nature and potential growth of the funding gap was not properly appreciated, but I think that the tide has turned and that politicians are now aware and I am hearing from them a lot more sympathy across the board with the situation that higher education institutions are in. The difficulty is where would that money come from?

  Professor Scott: Chairman, if I may, there is a sense of déja" vu for me in this, and what I am about to say is no criticism of the Welsh Assembly Government, it is just a description of the situation. My higher education experience over 30 years has been polytechnic into university, first at Sunderland and then at Leicester. What happened whilst we were in the polytechnics and were funded by local councils was that the pressures on the local councils were so great that they could not actually invest in the infrastructure of the polytechnics. The infrastructure investment came after the polytechnics became free and independent of local council finances. Ironically what I am seeing here under devolution is a similar kind of problem; it is not a criticism of the local councils, it is not a criticism of the devolved government—I am not saying that our Government is acting like a local council but is the same kind of problem. The issues that are there for the devolved government are to make strategic choices in relation to policy for the country as a whole, of which higher education is a part. That was the same kind of thing for Leicester and the same kind of thing for Sunderland, and what occurred was really that we got to a position where the buildings were in such bad repair that the people had to move out. That will happen.

  Q970  Hywel Williams: The analogy of the funding from the Welsh Assembly Government that you make there with funding for polytechnics from local authorities is an interesting one. The Welsh Assembly Government of course is dependent on the block funding that we get.

  Professor Scott: Yes.

  Q971  Hywel Williams: A couple more questions therefore just on the broad issue. Do you think that Welsh higher education gets its fair share? I am not sure how I would define "fair" by the way because you could unpack that in several ways, but on the broad issue do you think we get our fair share from the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills?

  Professor Rees: No.

  Q972  Hywel Williams: You are saying no?

  Professor Rees: Definitely.

  Q973  Hywel Williams: That is fine. Professor Rees, you did say earlier on that one of the questions was about core funding but you seemed fairly sanguine about the way that the research councils were allocating funds.

  Professor Rees: Yes, I have served on research councils myself and I am very confident that they are fair and they follow excellence, but the difference with the funding gap, the investment gap as it is sometimes called, of £61 million is that academics in Welsh institutions are going to have less time to develop research skills, put bids together, go to conferences and all of that, that is the issue.

  Q974  Hywel Williams: To develop the analogy that I used earlier on, that particular horse is not even getting to the starting line, let alone running the race.

  Professor Rees: Absolutely.

  Q975  Hywel Williams: Can I just refer to the £200 million that has been allocated for matched fundraising. Do you know if that has Barnett consequentials or not, is there money from that coming to the Welsh Assembly Government which is then not being passed on or is it new money or not?

  Professor Rees: I do not know and of course it is only starting in August so it is a bit difficult to unpack that. But we are certainly clear that there are some elements of these decisions which do have a Barnett formula element and it is not at all clear—this is another difficulty—whether that comes down, and if it does come down is it necessarily spent on higher education? That is again one of the benefits of devolution, they can decide how to spend it, but it means that we are competing with institutions across the border which have that resource.

  Q976  Hywel Williams: Could you, for the benefit of the Committee therefore, perhaps in a written submission identify those issues which you think are Barnett consequentials so that we can pursue the money trail as it were to see whether, if there are Barnett consequentials, they are coming to the Welsh Assembly Government and are they coming out to you?[2]

  Professor Rees: Certainly.

  Q977  Hywel Williams: Can I invite you to do that?

  Professor Rees: Thank you.

  Q978  Mr David Jones: Could I turn to the Denham review, please? If the review were to lead to an expansion of higher education in England what would you say would be the consequences for higher education in Wales?

  Professor Rees: I think it is a strange place to start to look at the expansion of higher education in just one of the countries. Why?

  Q979  Mr David Jones: But Mr Rammell would undoubtedly say that that is devolution.

  Professor Rees: Yes, but there are responsibilities at UK level for higher education and if you are making a decision about expanding the sector then it is very strange to do that in just one country. I do not understand the point of that—why not discuss the issue with the other ministers for higher education and say should we do this at a UK level? I do not know that that has been asked. The issue of devolution has meant people are coy about talking about UK strategic level policy-making for fear perhaps of appearing to be taking over, whereas what that means is that there is then a gap.

  Professor Scott: If I could add to that, this is an economic issue. If we are going to expand higher education then expanding higher education because the economy requires graduate level jobs goes back to something that I was talking about earlier. If it is an economic issue it is an economic issue which actually is involved with Westminster as well as Cardiff equally—it must be. If we do not see that what we are going to find is that there is going to be an economic division. What this is is just a symptom. The under-funding or the funding gap in the universities in Wales will just be seen as a symptom about economic decline between the two countries, because if you are not educating your workforce to the same levels in the two countries, either we are going to have to bring in people from England to do all the jobs that we have got—there is a big problem with that, people are living in Wales because they are not qualified to do the jobs—or you are not going to grow the economy in the same way. It is not something, with the greatest respect, that is just there for the department of education, it is there within the context of the economy of the country as a whole, of the United Kingdom.

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