Higher Education in devolved nations

With a career working for universities in Northern Ireland, England and, since 2021, Wales, Niamh Lamond, Registrar and Chief Operating Officer, Swansea University, discusses the differences in the devolved nations' approach to HE.

I have had the privilege of working for universities in Northern Ireland, England and, since 2021, Wales, and so have experience of the higher education sector in three of the United Kingdom’s nations. In this blog I am going to focus on Wales but will also touch on some recent experience in Northern Ireland (NI) in relation to regulation and collaboration.

Wales and NI (and indeed Scotland) have devolved powers for Higher Education and therefore are outside of the direct regulatory influence of OfS, being regulated by HEFCW and the NI Department of Economy (HE division) respectively.

The political make up in each of these devolved nations consequently has a prevailing influence on how the HE sectors in Wales and NI work. In Wales, the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) is led by a majority Welsh Labour government in close cooperation with Plaid Cymru.

The NI Executive, under the Good Friday Agreement, requires representation from both majority unionist and nationalist parties, currently the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein respectively. However, due to opposition to the Brexit Protocol the DUP refuses to sit in the Executive and, as a result, any necessary decisions around HE in NI must be taken by senior civil servants until the Executive is restored.

What is very noticeable in both jurisdictions is that the relationships between universities and government ministers is far closer than in England and interventions can be more agile and immediate. There is a lot of knowledge and understanding at government level about specific institutions and the impact they have at a local and regional level. More below on HEFCW specifically in this regard.

While there are a number of common attitudes and challenges across the nations, I have to say that I have found the higher education landscape in Wales to be highly supportive and collegiate. That is not to say there isn’t competition for resources or students, but it is true to say that Welsh universities collaborate with each other across the key pillars of learning, teaching, research and innovation and are well connected through bodies such as Universities Wales and the Wales Innovation Network. In NI collaboration between the two large universities, Queens and Ulster, is also very strong with extensive joint partnership on everything from high performance computing to City Deals programmes and they speak with one voice on most aspects of NI HE policy.

In Wales, the collaboration is strong also because the HE sector is comparatively small and close-knit with nine HEIs ranging in size and mission. It is also because Welsh national pride and its unique identity, so wonderfully captured in the Welsh language, rich literary and musical culture and of course around the sports pitches, binds the sector together. As a reflection of this, the annual varsity event between Cardiff and Swansea is one of the UK’s largest student sporting events in terms of scale and spectator numbers.

Like our colleagues in the sector, we find that Welsh Government and HEFCW promote a supportive environment and appreciate the critical role the university sector plays, economically, socially and culturally. Both engage positively with us and are genuinely responsive to feedback and suggestions.

Another big difference in Wales compared with England is that HEFCW doesn’t make participation in TEF a condition of funding. The universities in Wales came together in summer 2022 and collectively agreed not to enter TEF, thereby avoiding the considerable resource commitment that the exercise entails.

As Melanie Rimmer noted in her blog a year ago, the Welsh Government is in the process of establishing its Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER), which will replace HEFCW and will have responsibility for the entire post-16 education landscape, from apprenticeships and training to further and higher education, and including adult education and adult community learning. As the single national steward for Wales’ tertiary education and research sector, CTER will promote collaboration and coherence across FE and HE to create more learner pathways at every level, and with a new condition of registration regarding institutions’ support for staff and student welfare.

CTER is expected to be operational by 2024, with former University of South Wales Vice Chancellor Professor Dame Julie Lydon and former Executive Chair of Research England, Professor David Sweeney, now confirmed as CTER’s Chair and Deputy Chair respectively.

Linked to this is the Welsh Government’s belief in the value of international mobility and the benefits to all students that international perspectives can bring. When much of the rhetoric nationally has been concerned with limiting international student numbers it has been heartening to see Wales’ commitment to being open, welcoming, and outward looking. However, as part of the UK, Wales remains equally exposed to any limitations the Westminster Government may impose on international students, as migration is a non-devolved policy area.

With regard to student mobility, in response to the UK leaving the Erasmus programme, Welsh Government established Taith (Welsh for journey), a £65 million International Learning Exchange programme that will fund 15,000 participants in Wales (from HE, FE, vocational education, adult education, youth work and schools) to take advantage of outward mobility opportunities between 2022 and 2026. The programme will also support a further 10,000 inward exchanges. Taith is planned to enable more people in education to experience study or work abroad but it also sends a clear message about Wales’ global ambitions.

Readers will be aware that there are a number of challenges that are unique to the Welsh context, which are worth repeating here.

Firstly, Wales receives less per capita funding for education than across the border in England because of its lower fee levels. Welsh Government has set tuition fees in Wales at £9,000, compared with £9,250 in England meaning that Welsh universities are significantly financially disadvantaged with each annual intake. This is compounded by the fact that Wales receives less subsidy for higher cost subjects, which has also only been awarded since 2019/20, thereby creating additional financial pressures on the sector.

It is also worth highlighting the generous level of financial assistance for Welsh domiciled students. The availability of Welsh Government grants of between £1,000 and £8,100 per annum (£10,124 if studying in London) – regardless of where students choose to study – effectively means that Welsh Government funding is supporting higher fees in England through Welsh student finance, but does not support the £9,250 in Wales. In the last few weeks the Welsh Government announced a real living wage increase of 9.4% in student support grants which reflects its concern about access to HE and student poverty.

Welsh Government’s Draft Budget 2023-24 also shows a real terms reduction in the HE allocation, which is in contrast to the uplift to QR funding in England this year, and which does not reflect the true cost of teaching, research and innovation, the cost of living crisis, and other financial challenges facing the sector, including reliance on international fees and the loss of European funding. Wales received c.£400 million a year in Structural Funds from 2014 to 2020 and, as it stands, UK Government Levelling Up and Shared Prosperity Funding in Wales represents a shortfall of more than £1 billion on previous funding levels by March 2025. A further challenge here is the way in which these “replacement” funds are being managed: Welsh Government, who previously took a strategic, pan-Wales approach to funding decisions, is being bypassed by UK Government in favour of highly devolved decision-making, with funding being distributed via Wales’ 22 local authorities.

We must also recognise that Welsh universities share home undergraduate applications primarily with English institutions. So, while Welsh HEIs are collaborative and well-supported, they are part of the UK higher education sector and as such compete in a national and international marketplace that does not always recognise the subtle differences between the UK’s different HE sectors. Given that the challenges of underfunding and investment create something of an uneven playing field, it is reassuring to see how well Welsh universities are currently able to compete.

Finally, and perhaps this is an area that the new Commission may seek to address quickly, the apprenticeships landscape in Wales is less expansive than in England. For instance, degree apprenticeships in Wales are currently only available in a handful of subject areas, such as ICT, Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing, with no prospect of new programmes until 2024 at the earliest.

These challenges notwithstanding, there is a real sense here that Wales’ universities are valued and that they are recognised for the impacts they have, not just in terms of supporting education, skills and economic development, but from the perspective of the social and cultural capital they contribute to the fabric of the nation and to Wales’ reputation on the world stage.