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Higher education at the 2021 Welsh elections: What are the big parties promising?

  • 3 May 2021
  • By Professor Richard Wyn Jones

Welsh universities are currently preparing for the outcome of the sixth election to the Senedd (formerly the National Assembly for Wales). Given the semi-proportional nature of the voting system and the structure of political attitudes, as revealed in recent opinion polls, it seems highly unlikely that any one party will be able to secure a stable working majority. 

There is every possibility that post-election negotiations will be required before the exact complexion of the next Welsh Government becomes apparent, let alone which policies or combination of policies it will be seeking to implement. What is clear from the various party manifestos, however, is that the country’s three main parties — Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives — have very different visions for the future of the country’s higher education sector.

Given that the party has dominated electoral politics in Wales for almost a century, has been in power since democratic devolution was introduced in 1999, and is currently ahead in the polls, the natural starting point for any consideration of these different visions is the Welsh Labour manifesto.

Despite the fact that Welsh Labour leader, Mark Drakeford – a former professor of social policy at Cardiff University – is regarded as being on the left of his own party, Labour’s plans for higher education are by some distance the least radical of the three. Rather, in keeping with the overall tenor the manifesto, it’s a case of ‘steady as she goes’. Indeed, it is remarkable how many of Labour’s promises are simply restatements of existing government policy, to such an extent that it is actually difficult to find any new spending commitments!

For higher education, the flagship pledge is to establish a North Wales Medical School at Bangor University. This was first proposed by Plaid Cymru and its co-option by Labour has been interpreted by some as a potential coalition olive branch; but the Tories are promising the same development, perhaps reflecting the keen battle for votes in northern constituencies. Another medical school is far from a straightforward proposal. Without an additional uplift in funding for training, there is an obvious danger that the proposed school in Bangor will simply displace activity already happening in Cardiff and Swansea universities, leading to zero-sum competition between institutions and no overall increase in the numbers trained. Concerningly, Labour promises only an increase in medical training funding by 2021 and 12,000 doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and psychologists trained by 2026 — these are not real increases but promises carried over from the existing system of two medical schools.

Beyond that, Welsh Labour’s pledges are a recommitment to policies already in train. Passing the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill would see the culmination of a policy, which has been in development for five years, to reform Welsh universities’ regulator. 

Bluntly, as far as higher education is concerned, this is a manifesto that lacks both ideas and ambition, confirming again that – warm words aside – Wales’s universities, and in particular their research and innovation focused activities, are not an important priority for the country’s historically-dominant party.

The most eye-catching pledges in the Welsh Conservative manifesto are the promise to refund tuition fees for doctors, nurses and teachers who work for five years in Wales after graduation, and the commitment to cut fees in half to £4,500 for Welsh students studying STEM subjects and modern foreign languages at Welsh universities. Readers in England may wish to speculate at the extent to which the fee reduction and debt policies presage the recommendations of the Augar review. If the practice in previous devolved elections is any guide, it is hard to believe that Welsh Conservative policy was arrived at without approval from London.

Once the policy is fully implemented, cutting tuition fees in half for STEM and modern foreign language students would remove over £50m in fee income per year from Welsh universities. The manifesto does not specify whether / how that money would be returned. The planned introduction of two-year degrees raises further questions about HE finance.

Those charged with overseeing university budgets will also no doubt blanche at party’s calls for partial fee refunds as a result of this year’s COVID-induced disruption to students., establish a quality standard for university accommodation and ensure all institutions have sufficient mental health and wellbeing services for learners – especially given the lack of detail on costings and funding for such pledges.

On research and innovation — an area in which one might assume that a party promising to focus on economic growth would have bold plans — the Welsh Conservatives’ pledges are nebulous. The one concrete pledge is the creation of a new centre of excellence and research into energy storage and transportation. Other than that, the promise is to boost Welsh universities’ world-class research capabilities (how?) and to work with the UK Government to increase R&D investment into Welsh universities. 

As far as HE is concerned, the Plaid Cymru manifesto reveals two central aims: to expand numbers studying at Welsh universities and to increase R&D investment. To boost student numbers, it would reduce the maximum tuition fee chargeable to Welsh-domiciled students at Welsh universities to £7,500 (a 16.7% reduction from £9,000) and maintain current numbers from elsewhere in the UK and beyond. This would remove some £50m from the sector each year.

To offset that loss, there would be an uplift to the teaching grant for higher cost subjects (where Wales trails currently England in most subjects) and a very substantial increase in research spending. The carrot dangling in front of the sector is that Plaid would double Wales’s current 1% of GDP spend on R&D (c. £750m) to 2% by 2030 and increase government funding for innovation and R&D by £100m by 2026. In addition, it would deliver a Welsh innovation strategy via a new national innovation body and establish an AI Institute for the Future Economy, including a new Lab for Workplace Innovation.

Plaid envisages that this (undoubtedly transformational) change would be partly achieved by devolving Wales’s share of UKRI expenditure. Given how relatively poorly the country fares under current arrangements, devolving UKRI spending could be worth some £200m extra for Wales. But while this outcome would certainly be consistent with the ‘levelling up’ rhetoric of the current UK Government, it is equally clearly inconsistent with its centralising, ‘muscular unionist’ tendencies in relation to Wales and Scotland. In short, it’s hard to imagine it happening no matter how well Plaid performs on the 6 May.

Also noteworthy is that the party is demanding a hefty quid pro quo from the sector in exchange for extra research funding. For starters, universities would need to agree to a reform programme to cut administration and management costs. There would be student-to-admin and admin-to-faculty ratios, action on vice-chancellor pay and changes to ensure university governance is fit for purpose and reflective of learner diversity.

But even more strikingly, Plaid’s proposed reforms imply an unprecedented degree of government control, with each university being instructed to prioritise particular areas for the development of centres of excellence: nursing for Glyndŵr University, academic and business collaboration for Swansea University, dental education for Bangor University, whilst Cardiff would develop “a specialist base around collaborative innovation, especially in the arts, and scientific research, especially in life sciences”. Given that prioritising some subjects in particular institutions will inevitably require deprioritising the same subjects in others, one can only imagine the intensity of the opposition that would be sparked by any serious attempt to implement this particular aspect of the manifesto: not least from the party’s own supporters. 

It is hard not to conclude that Welsh universities are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Welsh Labour are promising what might charitably be called stability; in reality the continuation of the current drift and lack of ambition, especially with regards research and innovation. On the other hand, both Plaid and the Welsh Conservatives are — in their different ways — promising much more. But even a cursory examination of their specific proposals serves to raise real concerns about their viability and, in some cases, desirability. It remains to be seen which policies or combination thereof will form part of the programme of government that will do so much to determine the direction of travel for Welsh universities over the next five years.

1 comment

  1. Dewi Jones says:

    Interesting views that made me think more critically about Labour’s approach to HE in Wales.

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