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'Brave New Wales' speech by Kirsty Williams, Minister for Education.

First published:
5 March 2020
Last updated:

Bore da – good morning everyone, and it’s great to be with you today.

You might expect a speech celebrating the Open University’s half-century to take inspiration from:

The Isles of Scilly, where Harold Wilson is thought to have outlined the idea for the University of the Air whilst on holiday;

Or Scarborough where his famous “white heat of technology” speech was delivered;

Or even Milton Keynes, as the international home of the OU.

But I’m going to start a bit further afield.

4,700 miles away to be exact.


Last September, I was delighted to lead an education delegation to the southern United States.

We oversaw new university partnerships, re-kindled the special relationship between Wales and 16th St Baptist Church in Alabama, and agreed new civic mission relationships.

But it’s Texas, and the University of Houston to be precise, where we’ll begin.

There, on the marble wall, at the main entrance, there is an excerpt from the education committee report to the Congress of the Independent Republic of Texas in 1839.

Its Chair was Representative Ezekiel Cullen – who went on to introduce the legislation that established land endowments for public education, from schools through to universities, in Texas.

A big step forward from church and religious institutions, and pre-dating the ‘land grants’ for universities elsewhere in the United States.

The pre-amble to the report sets out clear, coherent and confident ambitions – and necessities – for the purpose of education:

“Nothing is so essential in a free government as the general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence of every kind.

Education confers private happiness; it gives political strength and important; it exalts the mind, refines the passion, polishes the manners; and promotes virtue.

It is the foundation of liberty and constitutes national strength and glory.”

As I think about the title of today’s event – and the idea of a ‘Brave New Wales’ and the contribution of education and lifelong learning – perhaps we could all take some inspiration from the Lone Star State, and think about education as the civic, cultural, economic, social and national good.


In my first keynote speech as Minister – back in 2016, I referenced how the modern US universities that grew from those land grant institutions were defining themselves now as ‘stewards of place’.

That work influenced my civic mission challenge to the sector in Wales, following the EU referendum.

Universities needed, and still need, to reflect on the distance between campus and community that had emerged.

It is a challenge that should continue to engage hearts and minds across the nation.

Our universities must been seen as institutions of and for communities across Wales - owned, rooted and responsible to their regions and their nation.

They must continue to help address issues of social cohesion, active citizenship and informed debate – especially during this period of EU negotiation, the lead up to the Senedd election and the forces of technological and economic change.


So, as I look ahead to the next year – I’m also conscious that I am bringing forward two major pieces of education legislation.

One for the new curriculum and one for tertiary education and research.

They will be the foundations of a brave new world for education in Wales – equitable and excellent, civic and cultural, ambitious and aspirational.

I’ve spoken previously that our reforms to the school curriculum also represent a wider view of the education system.

It is one that draws much from the historical mission and tradition of lifelong learning and adult education.

We are constructing a system powered by purposes and the type of citizens we’d like to see.

We are investing in a shared mission to inspire:

  • Ambitious learners, ready to learn throughout their lives;
  • Enterprising contributors, playing a full part in life and work.
  • Ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world; and
  • Healthy, confident individuals leading lives as valued members of society.

And although we might express them slightly differently, I believe that these purposes – deceptively simple but also radical – are the essentials for the whole education system.

Whether in the classroom, in the community hall, on campus, in the workplace, or online.

Exploring and testing ideas and evidence.

Engaged in common endeavour that encourages questioning and challenge.

To challenge the established ways of thinking and of organising.

To bring knowledge, skills and experiences together – with real equity of access, aspiration and ambitions.

And to empower each citizen, learner, researcher, and worker to not just understand and accept their society and sector.

But to change it, to be adaptable, to be part of real social and economic change.

Civic mission challenges

So in my forthcoming, and last, annual remit letter to HEFCW, I will set out key civic mission objectives for the higher education sector.

I want nothing less than our universities be the most engaged, the biggest contributor, the largest resource in the debates, challenges and issues facing the nation and all our communities.

They are the stewards of community, city and country.

And that comes with rights and responsibilities.

It means that the idea of place – of being of and for communities – should be the defining feature of higher education in Wales.

And I want to the world to sit up and take note.

Therefore, those remit letter objectives will be:

Firstly, civic engagement must not be a university ‘nice to have,’ a bit of fun extra activity, just something that Kirsty Williams keeps telling universities is important.

It needs to be part of each institution’s DNA, mainstreamed into their core activity, with funding and investment decisions taking full heed of civic mission and engagement as it relates to institutional strategy and their host communities.

Secondly, I expect to see HEFCW – and the same should apply to the Commission for Tertiary Education & Research in the future – work with institutions to ensure that civic engagement activity is developed, delivered and extended in such a way that it is recognised and visible to their host communities.

This means better involving key local and regional stakeholders within that process, and across and within universities themselves. I hope that the recent governance charter will help move this agenda forward.

Thirdly, institutions must be encouraged and incentivised to develop accessible and creative means of disseminating and sharing widely the knowledge, understanding and innovation that is produced in our institutions.

This is particularly relevant for, but not limited to, new resources for our new school curriculum.

The new curriculum is a huge opportunity for academics of all stripes to produce resources for Wales, made in Wales – from Welsh histories to financial education, from Big Data to Political education, and from languages and literacy to geography and climate change.

My messages is - don’t stand on the side-lines, passing comment based on a partial reading of the new curriculum – get involved, get writing, get working with teachers, parents and colleagues.

And there is funding available.

Fourth, and finally, I want to see HEFCW develop and implement measures of civic engagement, ensuring Wales is a world-leader in this regard.

I’m not asking for a crude league table.

However, we must be better at measuring and monitory this activity, so that it is visible to students, citizens, the nation, and the world!

The Civic University Commission has called for a Civic Index – it is clear that the sector in England is moving forward with the civic mission agenda, and there’s a danger that where we once led, we might end up playing catch up.

I don’t want to be in that position, and I’m sure the sector doesn’t either.

It is Wales that led the way on the real living wage for all staff;

It is Wales that leads the way on reforming governance,

It is Wales that leads that way on seeking international civic mission partnerships.

It must be us too who lead the way on measuring and monitoring civic engagement – in line with our ‘prifysgol y werin’ traditions, but through modern techniques and analysis.

I want to see this work happen at pace, and with real commitment and dedication from HEFCW, the sector and interested parties here and overseas.

We have a huge opportunity to lead from the front – we must grasp it.


In bringing my remarks to a conclusion, I should recognise that The Open University in Wales continues to make a significant contribution across these civic mission challenges.

Opening up quality higher education right across the country – an 80% plus increase in new learners since our student support reforms, with nearly half of students from our more disadvantaged communities.

Getting back involved in teacher training, offering new and exciting routes into the profession.

And working with other organisations across Wales to take debate and research into communities across the country, online and in a more traditional sense, but there’s still more to do.

To return to Ezekiel Cullen’s report which paved the way for public education in Texas, some hundred and eight years ago.

His call to action for the Republic, making its own way, was that:

“Intelligence is the only true aristocracy in a government like ours.

And the improved and educated mind has and will triumph over the ignorant and uneducated.”

For me, Wales now has the opportunity to build our own aristocracy.

And that is:

True public service education, combining equity and excellence, delivering for all citizens.

And as it says in the introduction to the new Curriculum for Wales guidance, published just a few weeks ago:

“Improving education is our national mission.

Nothing is so essential as universal access to, and acquisition of, the experiences, knowledge and skills and that our young people need for employment, lifelong learning and active citizenship.

The four purposes are the shared vision and aspiration for every child and young person.

In fulfilling these, we set high expectations for all, promote individual and national well-being, tackle ignorance and misinformation, and encourage critical and civic engagement.”

Together, we can meet those challenges and be well on our way to that Brave New Wales.