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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM. Delivered at Cardiff University.

First published:
8 September 2016
Last updated:

Prynhawn da pawb. Good afternoon everyone.

Thank you Colin, and many thanks to colleagues here at Cardiff University for hosting this event today.

It’s great to be here in the Postgraduate Teaching Centre, where professionals from industry and masters students mix and study in the same great location. It is a real state-of –the art facility, one which reflects ambitions to engage strongly with the local and global economy.

One of Cardiff University’s main purposes is to “contribute to the social, cultural and economic development of Wales”. It says so in the university charter (so it must be true…!)

Such civic ambition, in common with our other universities, was the product of a national, political and educational awakening.

As the Aberdare Committee of 1881 noted, there was a “widespread desire for a better education system in Wales” in the second half of the 19th century. The establishment of our own university colleges was central to the fulfilment of that desire.

I know that ambitions for an even better education system in Wales are shared, and demanded, across the country even now. Our national mission is to ensure that all citizens benefit from an equal opportunity to reach the highest standards. I am ambitious, and optimistic, about our collective ability to shape a system that is modern, excellent and innovative.

Universities are critical to that national mission. They should be open and outward-looking, connecting the civic, social and economic.

I want to take the opportunity today to share some thoughts on the role of universities as civic institutions:

  • the challenge and necessity of civic engagement following the EU referendum
  • the role of universities as stewards of community, city and country
  • and the importance of innovation, a start-up culture and international links.

Just before I move on, I’d like to congratulate the sector in Wales for achieving its highest-ever student satisfaction level in the National Student Survey last month – outperforming England in fact.

Although we don’t take the narrow view of students as just a set of consumers, delivering the best possible student experience is a fundamental priority.

I’m sure that all in this room would agree that UK withdrawal from the European Union brings significant challenges for our universities. The Vice Chancellor of this institution has himself described the current position as one of “turbulence and uncertainty that many of us have not experienced in our lifetimes”.

It is difficult to argue with that analysis. But those challenges ahead are to be embraced, rather than avoided. There is no other option.

Of course, we must be realistic and recognise that there will forces and powers beyond our control. But as a progressive, as an optimist, I believe in our collective ability to find the solutions, make the big calls and shape a post-Brexit higher education system that is open, confident and innovative.

As Tom Kibasi, Director of the IPPR, recently wrote on the necessity of political optimism and responding to our environment: “The crucial point is not “is it good or bad?” but how do we act together to make sure that our society benefits from all its potential rather than suffers from its possible risks?”

In that spirit, working with Universities Wales, HEFCW and Welsh Higher Education Brussels Board, my officials will this month hold the first meeting of a Welsh HE Brexit Working Group. It will actively co-ordinate intelligence and provide advice on both the impact and possibilities of UK withdrawal from the EU.

In establishing the group, I also want to set a challenge to the sector and interested parties.

The government wants to work with you on innovations in international engagement, to look at new models and markets, and how best to secure those partnerships, research and funding relationships with EU colleagues.

Wales already punches above its weight compared to the rest of the UK in transnational education programmes with China for example, and working together through the Global Wales partnership we continue to increase promotion and opportunities in key markets.

The First Minister is this week in the United States making the case for deeper and stronger engagement. As someone who spent part of my own degree in Missouri, I’m delighted that the sector has identified untapped potential for Wales in the North American market.

We will also be pressing the UK Government to think creatively for a genuine four-nations approach to successor funding arrangements, but also to offer to pilot new approaches within a reformed immigration system.

I was disappointed that the recent post-study work visa pilot is limited to four universities in similarly prosperous English cities, decided without consultation with any of the non-English governments. I have made this point to the Home Office and am determined to engage on behalf of Wales ahead of any potential expansion.

I’m also looking to the sector, working with private sector, to come forward with proposals on encouraging more of our students to spend time studying and gaining work experience abroad, both in Europe and further afield. On that note, I’m pleased to confirm that we are continuing to fund the Generation UK: China programme and will be looking for other models.

But above all, I want to reiterate that staff and students from across the European Union are welcome at our universities. As a liberal, I continue to believe in an open and tolerant Wales, which has long benefited from immigration from across the world.

Our higher education sector thrives because of the diversity and dynamism of all its people. Over a thousand students from the EU, and from across the world, will be joining us in Wales over the next month and I want them to know that their contribution to life here is, and will be, appreciated.

Wales.Com will also be leading a global campaign during October to promote Wales a destination for international students.

I want now to reflect a little on the referendum result and the opportunities and responsibilities for universities.

Writing in the Times Higher Education, Dr Claire Taylor of Glyndwr University has described the sector’s “feeling of shock that expert views from universities… were roundly ignored by politicians and public”. She argues that following a period of wound-licking, universities must re-capture a notion of community that connects campus, country and the global context.

I welcome both the prescription for next steps, but also such constructive reflection on the sector’s role within, and reaction to, the referendum.

In fact, I would go further.

At a UK level, the pro-EU campaign of universities was too easily dismissed as one of self-interest, almost exclusively focused on income.

This is not to exempt politicians and government from criticism. Far from it. As Anthony Barnett has put it, we have an obligation, across our four nations, to regroup as a “meaningful democracy, socially inclusive, internationally responsible, economically fair and institutionally inventive”.

But it is certainly incumbent on universities to reflect on the distance between campus and community exposed by the referendum. The urgency of now is to recapture a civic mission.

It is a challenge that should engage hearts and minds. And universities are nothing if they are not the place for the challenge of minds!

As a progressive, I have a nagging concern following the referendum result. The victories that help bend the arc of history towards progress – feminism, opening up access to education, civility in our discourse and towards others, civil rights, even devolution – may be far more fragile than we imagined.

The vote showed that when people and communities think advancements are for the benefit of others – rather than for them, their families or society at large – they will think they have nothing to lose by standing against these.

Are we confident that the communities that host our universities do not see those institutions as belonging to other people?

How are Welsh universities owned, rooted and responsible to their region and nation?

How will they help address issues of social cohesion, active citizenship and informed debate in the months and years to come?

These are contemporary challenges but also a call to recapture the spirit of our national education mission.

As I said at the start, our universities owe their first steps to an education revolution of civic, economic and academic ambition. It was the pence of the poor that funded those first steps, with the pounds of philanthropists and government a step behind.

Even here in Cardiff, efforts at the turn of the century to fund a department of commerce failed with only £15 being raised from that sector! Of course, links with industry are much stronger now, but there is still more to do.

Universities, much like the Mutual Improvement Societies and Miners’ Libraries, was of and for the people.

Gareth Elwyn Jones described it as a culture of altruism. A coalition of miners, quarry workers, chapel goers, immigrants, workers from all sectors, funding scholarships and colleges, advancing individuals, communities and the nation. All driving towards what Raymond Williams would describe as the project for an “engaged and participating democracy”.

These actions, and ambitions, came in lieu of distant, centralised state. And universities grew as autonomous institutions with academic freedom – a principle that remains secure.

The task now is a Welsh higher education system that is accessible and relevant to its home communities within a democratic, devolved nation. And to combine it with an openness to students, scholars, opportunities and intellectual developments in Europe and across the World.

Our universities should be the source of robust thinking and free debate, taking their place in the public square rather than retrenching behind institutional walls. I want to see universities engaged in debate and ideas, built on evidence from research and careful thought. Arguments about institutional funding are important, but they must not the sole focus of intellectual and policy discussion.

As part of that approach, our universities should look to the example of those founded in the United States as ‘land grant’ universities. Those colleges, founded in the 19th century when public land was given over to higher education provision aimed at the working class, have recaptured their mission as ‘stewards of place’.

This both reflects the mutually beneficial relationship with their host community, but an ongoing commitment to civic engagement and leadership.

The referendum showed that our notions of togetherness and bonds between communities are perhaps weaker than we imagined. Welsh Universities, as civic and international institutions, have a responsibility as stewards of community, city and country.

Accessibility and relevance to community and country can take different forms. There is much good work already, not least in the provision of part-time opportunities for study, which I’m keen to see prosper.

But there is more to do on connecting campus – and higher education more widely – with our communities.

I do not see this as contradictory to the international ambitions of the sector. Done well, it should be complementary. Indeed, the study of Wales, our history, culture, politics, economy should be both for our own citizens and the wider world. The recent launch of the OU in Wales’s Hafan website is an innovative example in this area.

The global outlook of our universities should bring benefits for student and graduate experience, region to region working, transnational industry links, research and development, and strengthened civic and people to people exchanges.

But I am clear that our universities must be ‘of’ their place and ‘of’ their people as a first principle. It is from this stewardship that universities will fulfil their national, civic and international roles and responsibilities.

The best of Wales is a tradition of self-improvement, democratising knowledge and education leadership. Our education reform – at all levels – takes inspiration from these values.

Working together we will get the basics right, raise our standards and ambitions for excellence for all pupils, parents, students and teachers.

It is not only schools and teachers that must deepen and extend collaboration and mutual improvement. Our universities must also deliver on that national mission, working with schools, industry and international partners.

There have been positive developments in universities working with schools to share expertise in areas such as modern foreign languages and digital competency.

Led by Cardiff, but including Swansea, Bangor and Aberystwyth, a pilot undergraduate mentoring scheme is helping inspire school pupils to study languages. We have a long way to go but the pilot is a collaborative and innovative approach to addressing the issue.

Swansea’s innovative use of computer science undergraduate students as teaching support in local schools, and running Technoclub sessions, is also a very welcome development.

Those links between universities and schools are critical to a civic mission, as of course is universities’ outreach work that promotes aspiration and attainment in all our communities.

I take great pride in being an education secretary that has responsibility for both sectors. We should welcome England’s recent conversion to our model of working, bringing higher education alongside schools in the Department for Education!

Of course, universities have a direct role as teacher education centres, and John Furlong’s report is critical in reforming our teacher training courses and developing the skills teachers want and need – linked to a clear focus on leadership and standards.

Professor Furlong’s report also identifies that not a single academic from any teacher education centre in Wales was returned for the most recent Research Excellence Framework. Frankly, that’s not good enough.

To go further, only 1.5% of total UK submissions in specialised educational research was from Wales, and all from Cardiff.

If researchers and academics in Wales aren’t engaging with education reform here, then we can’t rely on universities elsewhere to do it.

I’m not asking for cheer-leaders, but a greater sense of inquiry and interest in our educational environment.

The New York University expert on the social and economic effects of technology, Clay Shirky, has said that “the biggest threat to those of us working in colleges and universities isn’t video lectures or online tests. It is the fact that we live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists”.

He was writing about elite American colleges inflexibility in widening access, demonstrating value as a public good and measuring graduate outcomes. Here in Wales we could have a debate about those matters, but more pressingly the sector needs to be ready for the post-Brexit environment.

It will require collaboration, connecting the civic, social, academic and economic.

As set out in my agreement with the First Minister, I am keen to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in our universities, in partnership with public and private sectors.

The work of NESTA provides evidence on innovation driving prosperity in smaller, nimble countries. From Estonia’s development of technology across a range of public services, to Singapore’s encouragement of SME innovation, and the Basque Country’s commitment to collaborative innovation rooted in a sense of identity and ambition.

These countries share virtues described by the American economist Tyler Cowen as “start-up nations”.

Strong identities and vision, a commitment to innovation, an important national role for universities and a scale where the nation can act together.

We had some of this optimism here in 1999 and it’s been a mixed record. However, although post-Brexit we will not be a new nation, our new environment does necessitate a “start-up” mentality.

The higher education sector was perhaps too slow to adapt in the first decade of devolution, too slow to recognise its new devolved, democratic environment. We need to work in partnership to embrace the challenges ahead, with the energy and enterprise of a start-up.

Cardiff was recently recognised as the 45th most innovative university in Europe, which shows that we have the tools here in Wales. On my recent visit to Swansea’s Bay Campus, the work of the Engineering Manufacturing Centre in particular also impressed me.

I also want to see greater promotion of undergraduate opportunities for social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Cardiff Metropolitan’s award-winning centre for entrepreneurship, alongside projects such as University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s Creative Bubble in Swansea and Bangor’s success in software licensing are to be welcomed.

However, only two Welsh universities are currently involved in the Enactus programme. This is a global programme which provides social enterprise opportunities for student teams.

Unfortunately neither of the Welsh teams has yet won the UK national competition for students. I want to see more Welsh students get the opportunity to undertake such entrepreneurial action at a university, national and international level.

No Welsh university is yet recognised as a ‘Change-maker Campus’, a designation for leading institutions in social innovation education. There are fewer than 40 worldwide, but universities from England and Scotland are in there, alongside Brown, George Mason and Johns Hopkins universities. I’d like to see some progress on this.

The number of active university start-up businesses in Wales has increased by 29% this year. And we’re punching above our weight in the UK context, with 12% of the total UK graduate start-ups and 15% of UK staff start-ups. Graduates from this University have established more than 270 start-up companies in the last three years. These are the foundations for further encouraging enterprise amongst students, staff and graduates.

Before concluding, I will cover a couple of other priorities from my agreement with the First Minister.

I’ve talked a lot about civic responsibility and the relationship between the state, society, student and the sector. The funding of higher education, if it is to be sustainable and progressive, must also share those same characteristics of a social contract.

Sir Ian Diamond will soon be presenting his independent, cross-party review of higher education funding and student finance. As set out in my agreement with the First Minister, the Government will consider those recommendations, with a view to early implementation where appropriate.

When the report is published later this month, I will make a statement that afternoon to the Assembly on the strategic direction and principles of the recommendations.

In responding to the review, I am clear that Wales needs a higher education funding settlement that supports students when they most need it, and enables our universities to compete internationally. Fear of living costs must not prevent higher education being available to all who can benefit.

Sir Ian and his cross-party panel of experts have been diligent in their work. I am hopeful that we can be optimistic, ambitious and innovative in bringing forward a settlement that:

  • maintains the principle of universalism within a progressive system;
  • for the first time anywhere in the UK, ensures a fair and consistent approach across levels and modes of study;
  • ensures shared investment between government and those who directly benefit; and
  • enhances accessibility, reducing barriers to study such as living costs.

I look forward to working with the sector and others once the report is published and the government develops its response.

My agreement with the First Minister also committed to consulting further on the specific recommendations of the Hazelkorn review. Further information will be published in due course.

I do believe that issues of governance at a national level require further examination. We must recognise the imperative for contemporary understanding and a breadth of perspective and experience which meets the needs of learners, employers and the nation.

In my agreement with the First Minister, we recognised that ‘high quality education is the driving force for social mobility, national prosperity and an engaged democracy”.

Those three pillars of individual advancement and ambition; skills and economic development; and an active citizenship and democratic culture; are integral to a high-performing education system.

Academic and vocational routes into and through further and higher education should be open to learners of all ages. To achieve this, universities must be connected to their communities and country, and of course to the economy of which they are a key component.

As stewards of community, city and country, universities are critical in shaping the confident, international and innovative Wales that must emerge from these challenging times.

Through research and recruitment you are a bridge to the wider world. Those bridges currently cross choppy waters, and government will work with you to keep those bonds strong. But you must also draw strength from impact, influence and innovation at home.

I ask you to re-capture and re-invent that civic mission, realised and relevant for our contemporary challenges.

I am confident in your imagination and innovation to meet that test, and seize the opportunities and responsibilities ahead.

Thank You.