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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams.

First published:
17 October 2017
Last updated:


Bore da pawb – Good morning everyone.

It’s great to be with you here this morning, and to follow on from both Colin and Ellen.

I would also like to thank Colin and his team here at Cardiff University for working with my officials to put together today’s event.

Reflection on the last year

A year ago, I challenged our universities to recapture a sense of civic mission.

Civic engagement and leadership requires partnership and action with, and within, our diverse communities and spaces.

As Professor Hazelkorn has said previously: “The responsibility of the university to society is not new, but today’s challenges mean the university cannot sit on the side-lines – nor can its students”.

There is much good work already underway in Wales – at student, department and institution levels.

However, I think we all agree that there is more to do.

And whilst it’s important to be open to ideas and developments from across the world – this is a golden opportunity for Wales to lead the way.

We can build a civic mission – a civic impact – that is rooted in the sector’s historic connection to place and people.

But one that is also modern, dynamic and innovative as government, universities, business and students engage with each other and across the nation.

It is essential that universities are accessible and relevant to their local communities but are also open to the world in terms of students, academics and intellectual developments.

The university as the link between the global and the local will be ever more in important as we meet the challenges of Brexit.

It is because of this almost unique position as the locus between the global and the local that universities need to be open to, and engage with, their local communities.

Not only in the physical space of campuses, but also in the dissemination of intellectual developments and the promotion of free and informed debate.

I was clear last year that although universities are global in their outlook, they must be first and foremost be good stewards of their place and the people living there.

This is how universities will contribute to developing a confident, international and innovative Wales.

Today I want to focus on four key themes that I see as vital for those next steps for universities as civic institutions.

These are:

  • Leading place
  • The contribution to raising school standards
  • Developing active citizenship
  • And, acting as the engine of social enterprise and innovation.

For some universities these will already be established practices, the challenge will be to expand this work.

For others the challenge is to develop work in this area and this Summit is a key opportunity.

Leading place

So I will start by turning to the idea of ‘leading place’, of how universities can be intellectual and ethical organisations as well as local and national actors.

I would like to see Welsh universities pursuing what could be termed as ‘boundary spanning’ civic leadership.

I want to see you working beyond the higher education sector and engaging with other key civic leaders at a national and community level by using your expertise, experience and resources to deliver social innovation and civic engagement, building future leadership capacity, and supporting community and educational organisations.

I want to see you opening up your excellent teaching and research facilities to host communities and engage off campus by disseminating your work in the local community and work with other organisations involved in disseminating academic work to the general public. I know that some of you already work with organisation such as Pint of Science for example.

By greater engagement with your local communities I would expect to also see community input having an increased role in the development of research and evidence.

This would then enable you as a sector to engage more with national debates and policy development in Wales that goes beyond a narrow focus on constitutional powers and funding. We have enough of that in Wales!

It would enable you to focus more on what your communities are telling you is important to them and bring your intellectual resources to bear in terms of developing ideas and policy to address these issues.

The other side of this is of course that you continue to expand your crucial role as a bridge to the world.

This needs to be more than simply increasing international student recruitment, these links to the world need to ensure that there are mutually beneficial opportunities and relationships for students, academics, Welsh business, including apprenticeships, host communities and local schools and the education workforce. I know that this is something that the First Minister has also raised with the sector.

Links with schools

I will now move on to the second key theme – contributing to school improvement.

I have said on many occasions that improving education is our national mission. That we raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver a system that enjoys public confidence and is a source of national pride.

Our higher education sector must further contribute to this - going beyond preparing tomorrow’s teachers, important work though that is.

There should be a significant increase in the number of university senior managers and leaders on local school governing bodies.

We all know that it is leadership which is the prime driver of successful education reform. And that includes both management and governance.

The experience of senior leaders from universities would provide a very valuable contribution indeed to improved leadership and governance in our schools.

I would also urge the higher education sector to maximise its relationships with industry and other academic organisations to help build school and teacher capacity in key disciplines.

You will hear about the excellent modern foreign language mentoring and Technocamps programmes later today. The challenge is to build on these and extend the approaches to other disciplines.

Projects such as these also benefit university students by involving them in their local communities and schools, building their communication and subject skills.

Finally on school improvement and following the report by Professor John Furlong about teacher education and training in Wales, there is a clear need for Welsh higher education to develop its research capacity on education policy, delivery and performance within an international context.

As I said in my speech last year, I want to emphasise that I expect to see more academics from the Welsh teacher education centres submitted into the next REF and I further expect to see a higher percentage of submissions from Wales in specialised educational research.

Active citizenship

Moving on to the third key theme, I want to see the Welsh higher education sector developing active citizens in Wales and being an exemplar in this themselves. To me this means Welsh higher education positively contributing in particular to your local communities but also more generally at a national level.

I am particularly pleased by the commitment of the sector to being an accredited Living Wage sector. You are a significant employer and I would like to see you set the standard as excellent employers, serving and rewarding the people of the host communities that work for you.

As research from Cardiff Business School sets out, Living Wage accreditation has been a positive experience for the majority of employers, bringing reputation, HR and business benefits.

I am also hugely encouraged – as are my fellow ministers – that universities have signed up to Welsh Government’s Code of Practice on Ethical Employment in Supply Chains. This will help ensure that university investment empowers and reward workers to deliver excellent services – again this is another key contribution higher education can make to your host communities.

Welsh higher education should also increasingly engage its students as active participants in campus and university organisation.

There is a need for institutions to review students’ voice within the decision-making around governance, executive and services so that they have a bigger role in the decisions that affect them.

As I have said many times before, I take the view of students as citizens, rather than a narrow focus on students as consumers.

I believe that this is an approach that can help define our sector. Not apart or aside from society, but with a responsibility and duty to, and within, our communities.

My cabinet colleague, the Communities Secretary, has expressed the government’s support for the principle of Wales becoming a Nation of Sanctuary.

I know that his officials are working across government and with key organisations to understand how we better remove and mitigate barriers for refuges and asylum seekers.

I recognise the work of universities in this area already, including Cardiff’s summer school which worked with refugees for six weeks on access and aspiration.

Such activities exemplify the relationship between the local and international, campus and community, and civic and academic. I urge all our universities to undertake such activities, and where and when you do, be proud and promote it as much as you can.

Social innovation

The final key theme is social enterprise and innovation.

Building on the code of practice, I would also like universities to look at greater student, graduate, and local employer opportunities when procurement is undertaken. And indeed how universities connect research with opportunities to  directly address societal challenges and opportunities.

Universities should build on good practice and look at providing greater institutional and sector-wide social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for undergraduates.

I know that more institutions are making progress towards Small Business Charter accreditation and I very much welcome this. But let’s keep setting our sights high.

I want to see at least one Welsh university recognised as a ‘Changemaker Campus’ - giving us access to an international network of social innovation.

We’re doing well on student and graduate start-ups, but I still think we can do more.

Through the ‘Be the Spark’ initiative, I believe we can harness our collective optimism to create an environment in Wales that will enable innovation to thrive and foster a “can do” attitude in society from our youngest pupils to leaders of our most traditional organisations.

The HEBCIS survey noted 308 graduate start-ups from Welsh universities in 2015-16, out of 3890 UK graduate starts. So we’re punching above our weight, with almost 10% of the UK start ups.

But this represents just 0.3% of the student population.  Can more be done?

Increasing this figure to just 1% will create 1000 more firms each year.  This is a challenge I put to you.


In conclusion, these four key areas of action are all focused on universities being better connected and contributing to their places and people.

But they are also about being simultaneously connected to the world and using these connections to the benefit of their local communities and indeed Wales.

Today you will hear about best practice and ideas from elsewhere.

It is important to be open to activities from around the world as we seek to further develop, define and demonstrate our sense of civic mission in Wales.

It is also important that today we celebrate what we’ve done so far. We have worked in partnership, and I am committed to continuing in that spirit.

Today is about taking this agenda forward I also want you to tell us what we as the Government can do to support your work.

So, take this opportunity to learn from key thinkers and best practice and share your own ideas.

I look forward to strengthening our commitment to a sector that is built on shared values, the leads and listens to its communities, that provides robust thinking and free debate and that connects campus, community and the world.

Diolch yn fawr – Thank you.