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Kirsty Williams, Minister for Education, keynote speech at the Policy Forum for Wales conference, 21 January 2020.

First published:
22 January 2020
Last updated:

Since coming into this role I have embarked on a mission to reform education in Wales. This has become our national mission, shared by government and professionals. I have been delighted by the way in which professionals and learners/students alike have been open to our new ways of working.

I want to stress today that the reform of the post-compulsory education, training and research sector is part of this bigger mission. Not a bolt on to our major curriculum reforms, but a real extension of this vision.

And the underlying principle of all these reforms is that teaching, learning, and research, can and will give Wales a real advantage on the world stage.

And let me be very clear, our national mission and our ambitions for Wales do not stop at the school gates. As a nation we must deliver excellence at all levels of education, and continue to build on current achievements and enable all learners to fulfil their potential.

The post compulsory education and training sector, like many others, is facing unprecedented challenges. Our population is ageing, working lives are getting longer and jobs are changing rapidly.

The final shape of Brexit, whatever that may be, is sure to have an impact on how we fill our skills shortages in Wales.

The potential of green growth to provide economic benefits to Wales when reacting to climate change depends in part on us - preparing people for new roles and new technologies that haven’t even been invented yet.

Advances in digital innovation will also have a profound and long term impact on Wales’ skills system and we do know skilled workers are better able to adapt to new technologies and market opportunities.

Higher levels of skills drive innovation, facilitate investment and improve leadership and management. Businesses in Wales must be able to draw on a flexible, skilled workforce.

That is why this Government is  committed to delivering an equitable, excellent, engaged, and enterprising post-compulsory education and training system. One that enjoys public confidence and, crucially, prepares people for the future.

A system that encourages people to learn and acquire skills throughout their careers: ensuring high-quality options and outcomes for all.

The Personal Learning Account pilot launched in September. This has been designed to support employed individuals gain higher level skills in ICT, construction, engineering and Health. This will enable a range of learners to enter these valuable roles at a higher level than they previously could have. 

And in Higher Education - I have already delivered innovative and unique reforms to student support, including maintenance support equivalent to the national living wage, parity of support for part time and post graduates – the first of its type in the EU.  I believe that this provides new and exciting opportunities for our universities and our students.

In addition, I am also delivering on the promise to deliver the final phase of the Diamond reforms – a sustainable funding settlement for our higher education. The draft budget confirmed that the allocation going to the higher education funding council will increase significantly in 2020/21 and will allow the funding council to prioritise part time, Quality Research, expensive subject premium and innovation and engagement.    

We have also been able to identify the skills demand across Wales by working closely with the three Regional Skills Partnerships. Their work with employers helps us better understand and address skills shortages and gaps. Which means we are able to direct skills funding to the priorities highlighted in employment and skills plans.

I want to see more of this type of collaboration. Welsh institutions, employers, and partnerships working together to respond to regional demands for employment and skills. This helps Government in setting funding priorities, it helps employers, but crucially it helps the learner - by providing good quality training and education in skills which employers need.

Learners need access to a broad and appropriate range of clear pathways which must allow access to all levels of learning. There needs to be a smooth transition between vocational, technical and academic routes.  Pathways need to be clear, meet the needs of the individual but also take account of Welsh economic and social priorities. Choices made by learners need to be based on sound and well timed advice.

These priorities are fundamental to our reforms, which have significantly progressed and developed from Professor Hazelkorn’s review and subsequently, the Welsh Government’s commitments in Prosperity for All, and through my agreement with the First Minister. I have been clear from the start that I wanted your views and your ideas throughout. And I am very grateful that you have given them so generously.

Be assured I have listened to what you have said. And to the feedback and broadly supportive comments, received from learners of all ages, learning providers and your representative bodies.

We’ve used it to draft legislation to enable the establishment of a new Commission - the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, otherwise known as CTER.

I will have the privilege of introducing this legislation before the Senedd later this year and look forward to doing everything possible to ensure we get it absolutely right.   It needs to work operationally, and provide the framework to set a sustainable path for the future ahead.

If the legislation is successfully passed by the Senedd, as I hope it will be, then CTER is expected to be established during 2023. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, established almost 30 years ago, in, and for very different times, will be replaced by this Commission.

So what will the new Commission do differently?

CTER will have a much wider remit. A remit designed to equip them to provide the framework Wales needs to allow all learners to achieve their aspirations and to have a voice in how they do it. 

CTER will plan for an integrated sector. It will do this by enabling a system to incentivise and facilitate collaboration between providers across the post-16 sector. The aim will be to serve the needs of learners, employers, the wider community and the economy. This can only be achieved through a stronger, more integrated and responsive planning and funding system.

For the first time we will bring higher education, further education, mainstream sixth form provision and work-based learning under the auspices of one organisation. We want to see greater diversity of opportunity for learners, and we want them to be able to move seamlessly through the different parts of the sector.

I recognise there has been an increasing effort to achieve collaboration between providers and I welcome all that’s been done so far. It’s time for the organisational framework to catch up, join up and be enabled to set the ambitious new agenda.

CTER’s new framework for this broad sector will contribute to the goals set out in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and Welsh Government will expect it to be:

  • A future proof framework equipped to strengthen Wales’ economic and social foundations in changing times;
  • A flexible framework which responds to learner interests and employer needs for high quality education and training, research and innovation.
  • A framework embedded in, and adding value to the communities it serves whilst being international in its outlook, contributing to the civic mission you have heard me speak of so often.

CTER working closely in partnership with the sectors will have the tools to help create a highly skilled society. One which is equitable, that produces excellence and one where your background, geography or circumstances do not determine your future.

This is an ambitious vision, and rightly so. But we recognise that, even with the right legislative framework and any amount of future outstanding leaders, CTER will not achieve this on its own.

A large part of its work will be in facilitating collaboration, and seeking improvements and benefits for learners. This will need to come from learning providers across the whole sector, alongside our well-established and internationally renowned research community. They in turn will need to work in partnership with their workforce and learners. Everyone has a role to play.

That role could be delivering an evening course in a community centre, one of the extensive range of degrees on offer, a blended distance learning approach or an apprenticeship in a work place.

We must ensure that Further and Higher Education and Apprenticeships are even better connected, and more flexible. There must be clear routes into higher level learning and employment. Everyone will need to understand how their contribution links with that of others. CTER will have a role to play in making sure they do.

We want to ensure that during the next decade and beyond, the people of Wales have the knowledge, skills and support which leads to individual and national success and prosperity.

And we will continue to use and support the excellent provision that we already have in Wales. 

And other countries are watching with interest and respect. In 2019, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development agreed that the reforms we have underway, including our new curriculum and professional learning approach, are heading in the right direction.

And many of our flagship developments here in Wales have been shaped by a truly international perspective. Learning from others is an approach I have taken since I started this job and I have encouraged my officials to seek out ideas and evidence from across the world.

I believe that the high standards our secondary schools are striving for are producing young adults well prepared for the challenges of adult life, both academically and socially, equipped for their next stage in their journey. 

My ambition is to develop a joined up post compulsory education and training system in Wales that is easy for our learners to navigate and that supports our future competitiveness on the world market.

I am determined that these reforms will make a large contribution in achieving those aims. We have an exciting year ahead with the introduction of the Tertiary Education and Research Bill and I look forward to working with you as we develop and take forward our mission for education in Wales.