It is a fascinating time in HE, whichever part of the UK one is based. Having moved into the Welsh sector from the English one almost 18 months ago, I have found myself trying to understand my new context through comparing it to what I knew previously.
There are many differences, and a few similarities, which I set out below.
Welsh students benefit from more generous access to maintenance grants and loans at both UG and PGT levels. Born out of the 2016 Diamond Review, the student finance model in Wales was credited in previous years with boosting part-time and post-graduate enrolments in a nation that traditionally has lower proportions of HE participation.
For institutions themselves, though, the picture is more mixed. Welsh Government has been hugely supportive during the pandemic. Institutions have received a number of additional one-off pots of money across a range of activities – unconditional support that was noticeable by its absence in England.
However, as in England, the unit of resource for our largest cohort, Home undergrads, is static.
Tuition fees have been frozen at 9k for almost a decade in Wales, and we do not anticipate any movement on this in light of recent news from England. We are waiting to hear proposals on a new methodology for the allocation of top-up teaching funding. This is expected only to adjust weightings across streams however rather than bring any additional money into play.
As we head into a period of inflation, Welsh institutions will be facing all the same challenges of meeting the growing cost of teaching but, in some areas at least, from a slightly lower baseline.
With only nine HE providers in the system, the relationship between each university and the regulator HEFCW (HE Funding Council for Wales) is more direct. The interactions are more frequent and the level of information shared more granular than anything I witnessed in England, either under OfS or HEFCE.
A Bill currently before the Senedd will create a new regulator – the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) – but it is not expected that the relational character of regulation will change. Any talk of the new Commission being ‘the Welsh OfS’ is quickly dismissed here.
Clearly one difference is the bringing together of HE and FE under a single regulator. I interpret this as evidence of the continued focus here on access and increasing participation – an agenda now being questioned by policy proposals in England.
I would also hazard one similarity, however. In response to the Bill, universities have urged greater recognition within the mission of the new Commission of the role and criticality of research to HE. We now wait to see how that is responded to. We do know that Welsh Government has an ambitious agenda on innovation and will retain many powers around research funding. So, whilst the Commission won’t be the ‘Welsh OfS’, my sense is that it is shaping-up to be student-, or education-centric.
Whilst Westminster has been at an impasse (finally over, it seems) on the future of HE funding, the political context here is very different. The culture wars are not part of the political landscape here in Wales. There is no sense that the value of higher education, or of certain subjects and courses, is under question in the same way as in England. We are fortunate that successive Welsh governments have instinctively been more inclined towards higher education and the role it plays in social mobility and economic health.
Of course, the economic pressures of the coming years will challenge the Welsh Government as much as any other. The latest announcements from Westminster on ‘Levelling Up’ specified no new money for Wales, with a significant gap left where once there were EU funds.
Universities will need to appreciate these challenges. But at least here we have a context in which universities can be recognised as part of the solution, rather than being seen as part of the problem (at worst) or a conundrum too difficult to fix (at best).
A difference too far?
One factor that I was perhaps naïve about before my move to Wales is the degree to which a devolved area of policy will continue to be affected by decisions in Westminster. The response to Augar has been as much anticipated here as in England – will decisions there require a reciprocal move here or risk upsetting the existing flow of students across the border?
Now we know that the Student Loan Book may be used to control numbers, through restricting access to loans, we find that the proposals will impact us directly, whatever the policy of the devolved government
Elsewhere, the OfS consultations on TEF and Student Outcomes Data has left many in Wales – and I daresay Scotland and Northern Ireland too – scratching their heads.
Participation in the forthcoming TEF will not be mandatory for Welsh institutions, so we will weigh up the final model and make a strategic decision either way. That will feel like a luxurious difference.
However, the move by the English regulator to create its own datasets and definitions has set a few alarm bells ringing. Some have even questioned whether we are about to witness the break-up of the rich and well-developed UK-wide sector data landscape. That might be a tad dramatic, but it isn’t at all clear what the repercussions for all UK nations might be of the direction being pursued on a number of fronts in England.
Melanie Rimmer is Director of Strategic Planning at Cardiff University. She was previously Director of Planning and Projects at Goldsmiths, University of London. She writes here in a personal capacity.