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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM. Delivered at the HEFCW HE Strategy Consultation Conference.

First published:
19 October 2016
Last updated:

Bore da, good morning everyone.

Many thanks to David for the kind invitation.

It’s good to be with you this morning – here at the Hilton.

I know that we were initially going to meet at the Millennium Centre – just a stone’s throw from my office on Ty Hywel’s Fifth Floor.

I’m acutely aware that in the context of Hazelkorn, the idea of ‘arm’s length bodies’ is a live issue, but perhaps this change of venue is taking it a little too literally…

In my first five months as Education Secretary I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to get around the country, meeting students, researchers, lecturers, professional services staff and yes Vice Chancellors and Chairs too.

Last Thursday I visited both Cardiff Metropolitan and the University of South Wales. Not only did I get the chance to discuss issues with international students at Cardiff Met, I also enjoyed the challenge of landing an airliner in USW’s flight simulator!

It was good to catch up with Julie and to welcome Cara to her new job, and to Wales. Although there’s always more to do, we should be proud that we’re well above the UK average for our number of female Vice Chancellors.

And just last Friday, I attended the Open University in Wales’s graduation ceremony. Very little matches the sense of achievement, celebration and triumph experienced at OU ceremonies, so I was delighted to be able to join the graduates, their families and the OU staff who supported them during their studies.

Just as those graduates will have been reflecting on their journeys, I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on the last five months in preparing this speech.

In thinking about the rapid pace of developments, and keeping focused on the challenges and opportunities ahead, the words of two rather different oracles come to mind.

Firstly, the radical and reforming Welsh Liberal MP Stuart Rendel. In many ways he was the parliamentary father of a Welsh education system, and an important influence in Aberystwyth University’s early years.

I’ll come back to his vision in a moment.

Secondly, the prominent American philosopher, and two-time heavyweight champion of the world… Mike Tyson.

Let me explain.

When, at the peak of his powers, Tyson was asked about opponents’ detailed strategies to defeat him – he simply said: “Well, everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the nose!”

As I set out in my recent speech at Cardiff University, the EU referendum vote was felt by many in the sector, as in politics, as a powerful punch in the nose.

I won’t repeat those same arguments here about the disconnect and distance between campus and host communities – although I have welcomed the reaction by many in the sector to that challenge in recent weeks.

But the shock of that vote and its potential implications does necessitate:

  • stronger collaboration across the sector and with government
  • a flexibility in international engagement
  • and new thinking on research and funding relationships with EU and global partners.

But despite coming only a month after I took office – the Brexit vote doesn’t shake my commitment to the priorities set out in the agreement with the First Minister and in our Programme for Government:

  • Early implementation of the Diamond Review, having considered the practical implications;
  • Promoting and enhancing both academic and vocational routes into and through FE and HE;
  • Expecting our universities to fulfil their national, international and civic roles and responsibilities;
  • A commitment to flexible progression, across full and part-time, benefitting learners of all ages, employers and communities;
  • And prioritizing support for better links between education and industry, focusing in particular on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Now, back to my second soothsayer, Stuart Rendel.

In introducing the Welsh Education Act of 1889, he took an international view of Wales’s potential.

He said:

“This House could make no better investment than to assist the Welsh youth in acquiring higher education”

And he explained why:

“It is a common complaint that in commercial trading and manufacturing pursuits Englishmen are generally distanced by Germans, who are harder working, more thrifty, and better educated men, with a much greater command of language. I submit that the Welsh rival the Germans in all these respects.”

Although speaking, by definition, to a mostly English audience, he stressed that Wales had the potential and obligation to compete internationally and look beyond our nearest neighbour.

Our current policy development, and examples of best practice to emulate, is shaped by a similar international perspective.

Right across the education portfolio, I am asking my officials and those in the sector to seek out ideas and evidence from across the world.

Our opposition to segregation and selection in schools is based on OECD examples.

The importance of reducing class sizes as part of initiatives to reduce the attainment gap and raise standards draws on North American experience.

Our response to the challenges and opportunities for higher education must also draw upon wider perspectives than what’s happening next door.

In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the Hazelkorn report is the detailed experiences of higher education systems across the world:

  • whether it’s the thought-provoking differentiation framework in Ontario
  • the emphasis on flexibility within a regional and national approach in Ireland
  • or New Zealand’s strategic approach to international education.

I want our system and universities to be an example to the rest of the world.

But in order to achieve that, we must be confident and innovative enough to:

  • draw upon the best examples of evidence and data based thinking
  • further enable and promote staff and student outward mobility
  • and that we learn the lessons of better coherence and co-ordination across the PCET sector.

So, what does that mean for the development of the strategy?

I am clear that it must be ambitious, and in the spirit of our national mission to open up opportunities and raise standards for all.

It must recognise the importance of collaboration, of enabling innovation, and a system that is accessible and flexible to all irrespective of their background or their route into HE.

It should embrace our distinctive language, cultures and commitment to democratising knowledge. Therefore, I am pleased that you have given prominence to the principles underpinning the Well-being of Future Generations Act

It should also encourage and support flexible modes of study and ensure that our institutions can measure up against the best in the World.

However, ultimately it needs to recognise the fundamental responsibility of contributing to building a better society and economy - through research and access - for current and future generations.

Wales is a great place to study and work.

Our excellent performance in the most recent National Student Survey is evidence of that. As is our long and proud tradition of welcoming students, academics and staff from across the world. And we are committed to this more than ever.

At this time of uncertainty, however, we need actions as well as warm words.

Therefore I was pleased to confirm last week that EU nationals studying in Wales in 2017/18 will continue to be eligible for financial support throughout their study.

I am also already impressed by the commitment and drive of our Brexit working group members, who are showing great determination in addressing challenges and looking to capitalise on opportunities.

I am keen to see the group evolve and look ahead to collaborative opportunities for the sector internationally.

I want to take this opportunity to briefly remind everyone of our next steps in relation to the Diamond Report.

My Cabinet colleagues and I have endorsed the principles contained in the report. They outline a fairer, sustainable system of student support and higher education funding.

The proposals would make Wales the only country in the UK to implement a system that provides parity of support for undergraduate full time, part time and post graduate students.

Of course I continue to consider the practical implications of implementing the recommendations to ensure stability and sustainability for the long-term.

Officials are currently in discussions with the SLC on the timescales for implementation of our reforms, and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government has started discussions with HM Treasury.

I hope that we will be in a position to issue the Welsh Government response within the next two months, and that we can implement in time for the start the 2018 academic year.

I can confirm that the response will build on the following key principles:

  • maintaining the principle of universalism within a progressive system
  • for the first time anywhere in the UK, ensuring a fair and consistent approach across levels and modes of study
  • ensuring shared investment between government and those who directly benefit
  • enhancing accessibility, reducing barriers to study such as living costs
  • and that student support should be portable for Welsh students anywhere in the UK.

It is worth noting the reaction of observers elsewhere in the UK, such as the Higher Education Policy Institute, who think that we may end up providing the progressive template for other systems in the UK and elsewhere. It is right that our system and our universities should be leading the way.

As I said last month, universities are stewards of community, city and country.

They are critical in shaping the confident, international and innovative Wales that must emerge from these challenging times.

That civic engagement runs across society, the economy and community.

Universities without commercial engagement with its wider economy, weakens that economy. And a weaker economy will finally result in a weaker university.

We can already see some excellent examples of ground-breaking work where a collaborative approach has been adopted and where our colleges and universities have shown a strong commitment to their civic mission.

They have specialised in commercialising their knowledge, for the benefit of the Welsh economy, Welsh society and, ultimately, the world.

Take, for instance, the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre.

Established in 2006, CUBRIC seeks to understand variations in the brain and behaviour in health and disease, by developing advanced imaging methods that reveal specific features of brain structure and function. It brings together world-leading expertise in brain mapping with the very latest in brain stimulation and is set to become one of Europe’s top facilities for brain imaging.

The SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC), based at Swansea University, is an excellent example of extensive collaboration.

One of six IKCs in the UK and the only one in Wales, it is a fusion of academic and industrial expertise. In addition to Swansea University, it is a partnership of University groups including Imperial College, Bangor, Cardiff, Glyndwr, Bath and Sheffield and multi-nationals such as Tata Steel, BASF, and NSG Pilkington.

…and on my recent visit to Aberystwyth University I heard about their excellent Summer University, its flagship widening access programme for young people from across Wales. Principally aimed at young people who live or attend a school or college in a non-traditional HE area, or who are from a care or care leaver background, it is now in its sixteenth year. I saw at first hand the real difference collaboration between universities and schools can make.

These are just a few examples, but there are many more.

In the 2014 REF, many Welsh HEI research groups distinguished themselves by producing UK-leading ‘Impact’ case studies. Behind this ‘Impact’ success, though, lie very real examples of where research and innovation activities have benefitted industry, SMEs, the economy, health and wellbeing. It is essential that we pursue this success in the future.

I will not go into much detail today on ITE accreditation and education research here as I have already, both in the chamber and elsewhere, set out proposals and challenges.

But I do expect to see substantial progress immediately with regard to collaboration and partnership agreements between schools and universities and between universities. There is a strong education tradition in Wales of mutual improvement, but we need to see more of it now in our contemporary system.

I am pleased that our universities are fully engaged with the three regional skills partnerships and their work to identify higher skills needs, aligned to priority sectors. This is part of a growing agenda involving City Deals and Growth Bids where I am keen to see full higher education sector involvement.

Of course, collaboration must take place within and across Governments too.

Before closing, I want to quickly address the reforms taking place in England, which of course have implications for higher education and research across the UK.

Although we are approaching higher education policy and purpose from different perspectives, I have engaged constructively with Jo Johnson on his government’s proposals.

Where appropriate, I have agreed to provision being sought for Wales in the UK Government’s Bill, to ensure that the interests of students and the Welsh HE sector are protected.

For example:

  • provision to enable delivery of alternative student finance in Wales with the aim of ensuring equality of access to student support for all
  • provision to ensure that the UK-wide approach to tackling unrecognised degrees can continue under the new arrangements being introduced in England; and
  • provision to enable joint working between the proposed new regulatory and funding bodies in England and HEFCW.

On TEF, I have listened to representations from the sector and I appreciate that, although imperfect, it is likely to provide a public-facing measure of quality that mustn’t disadvantage the reputation of our sector in Wales.

But, if proof were needed, the recent ideas on linking TEF and international recruitment shows that there are many unresolved questions and potential pitfalls.

Closer to home, officials continue to work on the recommendations of the Hazelkorn review, ahead of consulting further.

Meeting the key priorities and approaches I’ve outlined today will drive our response.

This includes considering the case for system-wide reforms that the report recommends and we will consult further in due course.

But it’s not a matter of waiting for an edict.

It is imperative that universities, schools and colleges work closer together – and are flexible and innovative in these approaches. There is not one solution or shape for such collaboration.

It is essential that these approaches:

  • benefit learners of all ages
  • improves links with industry
  • ensures a rounded excellent experience for all students
  • promotes progression in both academic and vocational routes
  • and enables and rewards research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

I hope that, in the limited time available today, I have set out my confidence in the sector to meet the challenges ahead.

You have the tools, and the responsibility, to educate, enthuse and energise our wider society.

Government is here to work with you – as you must work with us – in collaborative innovation that drives social mobility, national prosperity and an engaged democracy.