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Getting up to speed

Politicians expect Welsh universities to deliver social justice and economic growth. Is this an opportunity for the sector finally to fulfil its potential, or a blow to its research strength? Hannah Fearn reports

There has been a perception of higher education in Wales as being a bit sleepy and behind the pace, but with a minister like this there is no room for anyone to hide."

Richard B. Davies is talking about Leighton Andrews, who has been Welsh minister for children, education and lifelong learning since late last year. He has been described as a "no-nonsense" politician because of his determination to shake up the sector.

But Davies, the vice-chancellor of Swansea University, is pleased to see political change coming to Welsh higher education. "I think we're looking on this as energising - and I think he has energised the sector."

There is no doubt that some upheaval lies ahead. Like the rest of the UK, Wales is worried about the impact of the financial crisis and the tightening of the public purse.

In his first few months, Andrews made clear that he intends to make root-and-branch reforms. He has already commissioned two reviews of the management of the education sector and instigated a major overhaul of the way funding for universities is allocated.

In March, he launched a review of university governance that would, among other things, investigate whether governors should have greater independence from senior managers. He said he did not want the sector's watchdogs to simply act as "a bunch of cheerleaders for university management".

Andrews has also commissioned the consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers to assess efficiency across the sector, including the operation of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

His most controversial move to date has been to tell HEFCW that it must change the way it distributes university funding to ensure that money is spent supporting the two big strategic priorities of the Welsh Assembly government - social justice and the economy.

As 2009 ended, the Assembly published its 10-year strategy for higher education, under the watch of Andrews' predecessor, Jane Hutt. The document, For Our Future, states that universities should focus on widening participation and meeting local economic needs. Money would be spent on creating more part-time and module options for students, and on eradicating "wasteful" competition between neighbouring universities. Research funding would focus on areas considered crucial to the growth of the Welsh economy, including digital and low-carbon technologies, health and biosciences and advanced engineering and manufacturing.

The key plank in achieving those ambitions was set out in the Assembly's annual remit letter to HEFCW for 2010-11. This year it directed the funding council to introduce a new Strategic Implementation Fund, through which the majority of all funding would eventually be allocated.

"I expect the council to instigate a step change in its approach to funding," the education minister writes in the remit letter. "The council should also undertake an assessment of all planned expenditure in the HE sector in Wales to assess alignment with the goals of For Our Future and take the necessary action."

This marked the biggest overhaul in funding policy for over a decade. For the next academic year, 20 per cent of funding will be allocated through the Strategic Implementation Fund, but in coming years this will rise to 80 per cent and take in teaching and research.

The reaction from universities was mixed. Post-92 institutions celebrated the shift as an overdue recognition of the good work they do locally and regionally and of their efforts to encourage students from the most deprived communities into higher education. Research-intensive institutions, however, expressed concern about not seeing a clear and prominent place for them in the new vision of Welsh higher education.

Cardiff University has certainly noticed a "change in style" at the Assembly, according to Sue Hybart, director of planning at the institution. Cardiff has been disappointed, both by the financial allocation that Welsh higher education received this year and by the lack of emphasis on research excellence and international competitiveness in the For Our Future document. Although the remit letter stressed in its opening statements the importance of international competitiveness, the lack of clarity on where the research-intensive institutions sit in the government's plans worries Hybart.

"We want to keep reminding the Assembly that we contribute at a higher level," she says. "Our fear is that the higher education sector isn't consulted sufficiently. Cardiff is willing to engage with the funding council to see how we can best deliver the goals of For Our Future. We know what will work, and we know what we can achieve within the funding climate."

Amanda Wilkinson, director of Higher Education Wales, echoes these concerns. "Ensuring the sustainability of all our universities and avoiding unintended consequences that might arise from decisions made in haste is vital," she explains.

"There has to be a clear set of actions that will deliver the best return on public purse investment in the short and longer term for all our universities. Universities in Wales operate locally, nationally and internationally and need to be internationally competitive in order to deliver to best effect for Wales."

Much of the For Our Future strategy focuses on improving links between further and higher education so as to improve participation in tertiary education and support the local economy.

"The challenge in Wales is that the other universities who are much more teaching focused than we are, are encouraged to be doing much more with further education," says David Grant, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff. "That's fine, but it's a very different focus (from that of large research-led institutions). You can't expect that one policy is going to cover all universities.

"The message to politicians is really to make sure that they don't spread the money too thinly across Wales. I think there are concerns that there is an assumption being made by politicians that it is cheaper to deliver higher education through further education."

But many post-92 institutions take a rosier view. They are delighted by what they see as an unprecedented recognition of their strengths and their critical role in propping up the Welsh economy.

Michael Scott, the vice-chancellor of Glyndwr University, says this is an "exciting time" for his institution.

"When we set out to be a university, we set out to be a university that was going to be relevant for the economy of North East Wales. Our strategic plan has mirrored all the way along the strategic plans of the Welsh Assembly government. That's why we were founded; that's what we're about.

"With the economy in such a state, it is the universities like ourselves, which have focused on the economy, that come to the fore. It causes a bit of unease elsewhere, but frankly we're very pleased about it."

Although he says he understands that not everyone is pleased with the new priorities, Scott believes it is important to concentrate on university support for the local economy. In that sense, he adds, the shift in focus within higher education is no different from that implemented in England by Lord Mandelson.

"(Research-intensive universities) have a great reputation worldwide, and (they) promote Wales that way. But we say that our reason and purpose as post-92 universities, our whole culture, is (to further the) economic and social development of our region and country. You can't get to a situation where you discriminate against the post-92 universities that are actually fulfilling the strategic objectives of the Welsh Assembly government."

Balancing these priorities is an enormous challenge for the Welsh funding council, and it is no surprise that some feel left behind by the new policy agenda.

Nevertheless, some commentators, while welcoming the Assembly's focus on the importance of higher education in economic renewal, argue that there are other urgent challenges that politicians must address.

As Davies sees it from Swansea, another research-intensive institution, the quality of research must be improved if the sector is to be competitive internationally and provide the economy with the boost the Assembly desires.

Davies has analysed Welsh performance in the 2008 research assessment exercise, and the document, seen by Times Higher Education, offers a sobering perspective.

A research quality gap between England and Wales persists, although it narrowed somewhat between 2001 and 2008. "It is still significant, even at the highest levels of scholarship," the paper claims.

More worryingly, there is a gulf between Scotland and Wales: Wales has 35 per cent less research of international or world-leading quality, even after allowing for differences in population size. There is also a "massive discrepancy" in the scale of world-class research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, with the quality of Welsh performance in those fields less than half that of Scotland's.

This disparity is attributable in part, the report says, to the fact that Wales has done less STEM research in the past and in part to a relative underperformance in the existing research.

The 2008 RAE results were dominated by Cardiff, and 90 per cent of work of "international excellence" came from the four research-led institutions - Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea. Just 10 per cent was spread between the remaining institutions.

"The real issue is our research strength, particularly in STEM, because we haven't got enough," Davies says of the results. "We have to grow STEM. To develop new areas to world-class quality would take decades; we need investment to grow the areas of excellence we've already got.

"Comparisons with Scotland can be unfair because Scotland has been especially strong in science and technology for years. They were strong even when theology still dominated in England ... I don't understand these claims that recent policies have taken Scotland forward and haven't done the same for Wales. We're starting from a completely different base."

It appears that Davies is not alone in his concerns. The Assembly, too, has been fretting over the health of the subjects. A key part of the For Our Future strategy is to beef up STEM, building what Davies calls a "subject mix fit for the modern age", something he says the country has previously lacked.

The link the Assembly has made between STEM and a prosperous economy represents new ground in Welsh political policy. For institutions, Davies says, it amounts to "getting more involved with large companies and attracting large companies to Wales".

But not everyone believes Wales can or should race down the STEM route.

Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan and the first female head of a university in Wales, says expertise in STEM will have to be developed in "distinct areas". Given its small size, Wales must be careful to set itself realistic aims, she says.

The country faces a complex challenge, Lydon adds. "We don't have anywhere near the range and extent of research (that we should) for our size. We've got to move it up a gear, and we've got to raise aspirations. We'll do that in niche areas, and we'll do that by partnership, not on our own.

"We haven't the scope and scale; Wales isn't a large enough sector to be able to do that across the board, but it's an agenda that is slightly wider than the narrow view of STEM."

A focus on STEM would neglect some areas in which Wales is strong, Lydon says. Thanks to investment from major employers such the BBC, disciplines such as media are growth areas and critical to the economy, but they are not strictly defined as STEM subjects.

She also believes there are too many universities for the strategy to work. Lydon, who is researching a PhD in institutional mergers, fears that constant competition between the universities will prevent Wales from reaching its potential on the world stage.

"For us to be competitive as a national higher education system, we need to reduce. This is about our external competitive positioning; we need to find a way of getting Wales to punch its weight more. I think we will only do that by working together because there isn't an institution in Wales large enough to take on that international theme."

Internationally speaking, it is not just research strength that Wales wants to develop. Energy is being expended to thrust Wales into the international market for students. Higher Education Wales has even set up an office in Brussels, manned by two staff tasked with drawing students to the principality.

However much the looming shake-up of the sector may excite policymakers and managers, talk of sweeping change inevitably causes anxiety among rank-and-file academics, who fear that shifting political priorities, institutional restructures and the poor economic climate will result in job losses.

"I hear conflicting things," says Todd Bailey, a lecturer in psychology at Cardiff and president of its branch of the University and College Union. "When I was down at the Assembly last fall, the members were saying that Cardiff will be all right because we're cutting the teaching budget, but research money is tight now and there's no guarantee that it's going to maintained into the future.

"Following the elections for Parliament (this month) when people have to face the reality of what the UK budget is like, that may have a knock-on effect and they may decide that they can't afford to keep all the promises they've made so far, so it's too soon to be complacent about Cardiff being OK."

Although Cardiff is not expecting "huge rounds of layoffs", Bailey says, change is certain. "We will need to think about which activities we can afford to carry on."

Such an environment also leads people to fear not just for their own careers but also for the health of the Welsh academy. With scholars feeling the weight of bureaucracy and job insecurity, the academy is losing its appeal to young Welsh researchers. "If they start making academics redundant like everyone else, then why go into academia?" Bailey asks.

The promise of an emergency budget from the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government means all is still to play for in the regions. But the Welsh sector still has plenty to occupy its thoughts as Wales looks forward to its own Assembly government elections in 2011 and the results of the minister's efficiency and governance reviews, which are expected to be published later this year.

While politicians, managers and academics wait for the dust to settle, many see an opportunity to make a lasting change to the reach and ambition of Welsh universities.

"We haven't delivered the return to the taxpayer that we should have, and now is the time to put that right. For goodness' sake, let's stop whingeing," says Marc Clement, vice-chancellor of the University of Wales. "We should turn what is our disadvantage to our strength. It's just recognising what our opportunities and advantages are, and I don't think we do that yet.

"The truth is that we're a very small nation of 3 million people. We should be fleet of foot. Our agenda shouldn't be to be as good as the sector in England; we should be a decade ahead because we have all the advantages."

THE WELSH HIGHER EDUCATION SECTOR AT A GLANCE

A snapshot of Welsh higher education

- There are 12 institutions in Wales (before the completion of the merger of the University of Wales, Lampeter and Trinity University College) employing 8,840 academic staff in total

- The Welsh higher education sector has a turnover of £1 billion

- Wales boasts 78,215 full-time and 47,325 part-time undergraduate and postgraduate students

- The largest subject areas by enrolment (undergraduate and postgraduate) are languages and business and administration studies

- According to the 2008 research assessment exercise, just 14 per cent of Welsh research is of world-leading quality

- For every £1 million invested in higher education by the National Assembly in 2005-06, universities contributed £5.3 million to the Welsh economy

- Universities earned £63 million from international students

- 35,185 qualifications were awarded

Source: Higher Education Wales (figures for academic year 2007-08 unless otherwise stated).

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