Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language at Open University event, 22 May 2023.
Thank you to the Open University for arranging this evening's event and for the invitation. It's a real pleasure to be here, it was great listening to Louise open the conference.
I cannot let this evening pass without paying tribute to you Louise as you step down as Director of the Open University in Wales.
I want to thank you for all your continued years of service to higher education in Wales. We will miss your knowledge, judgment and expertise borne from a real depth of experience across the sector.
Your work has seen a hugely welcome increase in first year, part-time and postgraduate enrolments. Many more students are experiencing the potentially transformative effects of higher education as a result. You have truly delivered on our shared commitment to Wales as a nation of second chances, where it is never too late to learn.
It is an understatement to suggest that the last few years has been a challenging time for us all. I am very grateful for the leadership you showed in chairing the Independent Review of the 2020 Exam Series.
Louise, thank you. You can be justly proud of your achievements and wish you well as you move on to the next chapter.
I believe we do best when we collaborate. Listening to the panel discuss and the range of voices in the conversation reminds me how important this is and how fortunate we are in Wales to be able to - and be committed to come together in this way – the voices of tertiary, lifelong learning, business and those of you working in our communities.
Over the weekend I reread the chapter in Patricia Hollis excellent biography of Jennie Lee, who you will know was the Minister tasked with founding the University of the Air. It was anything but a collaborative experience in fact. The WEA, the BBC, the Education Press, many in the Cabinet, the Treasury, the Post Office, Birkbeck College, most of the universities - all ranging from sceptical to openly hostile to the idea.
An important political reminder I suppose, that good things aren’t always the product of consensus.
Consensus and collaboration are different things. I believe we do best when we collaborate. It’s by working together we will continue to enrich education and society in Wales, ensuring opportunities are accessible to all individuals and – more than that - that learners are equipped to support and shape our communities.
I want to begin by reflecting on the panel discussion. The idea of the citizen as student is at the heart of the mission of the Open University, but the idea of the student as a citizen is equally crucial. Not as the embodiment simply of a set of skills, experiences and qualifications which will enhance their ability to enjoy a decent living and a fulfilling life – although it may well do that. But our best way of changing society for the better is a well-educated population. In a very real way, the best economic policy is education, and the best social justice policy is education.
Adult Education has a very important part in our history as a Welsh nation. The collective effort of working people to save and invest in Workmen’s Institutes and reading rooms, to send the next generation to Labour colleges and so on, can’t be seen solely through a lens of material progress – it is fundamentally a movement to create a better society/ - “the role of adult education (as Hywel Francis, that great adult educator said)… even in the most difficult and abject times… as a resource for enlightenment and for changing circumstances – individually and collectively, creating social spaces for working people”.
The economy and society at large gains from viewing higher education and its impact holistically rather than solely through the lens of individual development or achievement. I was pleased to hear the views of the panel on this, and in particular the importance of collaboration across sectors if we are to realise that goal.
Education has a social value, and there is more we can do to maximise its value. Historically, the beneficial impact of higher education has often focused on the economy. That is certainly critical - and we can always do better at translating effort in one into impact in another – but there are many other facets too. The enrichment of our culture, the enhancement of our democracy, strengthening our communities, nurturing our voluntary sectors, and drawing evermore on the rich diversity of our society.
Now I know that this can sound well-meaning and a bit vague. I think of what we have done in schools with our new Curriculum for Wales. The four purposes are broadly described but they are aspirational and energising – and catalysts for change. How do we do that in our higher education sector? By working together and moving beyond conventional practice.
In a speech a year ago, I said:
I believe we can work together for a national Wales-wide ‘student as citizen’ offer and recognition where Wales guarantees you the: experiences, knowledge and skills that will help you be an engaged and responsible citizen. Contributing locally, nurturing wellbeing and resilience, employability and entrepreneurial skills, drawing strength from diverse communities, and being a true citizen of Wales and the world. This must be part of the new social contract between students, universities and the nation.
It needs to be driven by institutions to reflect their local circumstances – and I am looking forward to seeing that become a reality.
I know that many of you have already begun to view education through this lens, so we are not starting from scratch. But we do need to see a cultural change in our institutions, businesses and of students enabling the benefit of higher education to be viewed as something that this does not stop when a course completes or rests with any one individual.
We must also acknowledge that culture change is not something that can be achieved overnight, and work to nudge the agenda over time.
The new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) will also have a role to play with a focus on its strategic duties. The Commission will take responsibility for the funding and overall strategic direction of adult learning, in addition to further education, higher education, apprenticeships and school sixth forms.
It will provide the funding to local authorities, colleges, and Adult Learning Wales that is so critical to realising the mission of adult education.
But it will do this with a renewed strategic focus - enabling and ensuring lifelong learning for people from all walks of life.
The Commission will be empowered to ensure that our tertiary education and research sector is organised to meet the needs of learners, the economy, employers and the entire Welsh nation and will be essential in realising our strategic vision for the post compulsory education and training sector in Wales.
One of the key roles of the new Commission will indeed be to support institutions to build on their own strengths and missions so that they complement each other as part of a whole sector approach.
It will support institutional strengths, mission and delivery, whilst recognising that we all benefit from a system of strong complementary institutions. I laid down this challenge to the higher education sector in that speech a year ago; be clear and focussed about the unique role your institution plays within the tertiary system in Wales. A year on, I am looking forward to hearing more from the sector on this.
Each institution shares the responsibility of delivering for a wider range of learners, at different times in their careers and lives, but how that is done - to what extent, at what times, by who - will vary from institution to institution. But national prosperity and thriving communities will come from working together.
We need to make sure that how we fund and deliver higher education doesn’t create unnecessary barriers to participation. In very challenging times for public funding and personal finance that is especially important and especially difficult. But I do want to make sure that those in part time learning continue to benefit from access to the most progressive student finance support in the UK so we will explore what more we can do to ensure the part time loan cap in Wales supports our aim of widening access to the broadest range of part time courses. Work will start on that shortly.
I wish to finish this evening by also thanking everyone in this room for your hard work and dedication making the education sector in Wales the success it is today.
Yes, there is more to do, but we must also reflect on achievements, as we take a breath, and regroup for the next step. It's clear to me when I attend events like this that there is an exciting sense of commitment and dedication to ensuring that in Wales higher education offers the highest quality of learning and is available to all.
Wales is a nation of second chances, where it is never too late to learn.