The Graveyard of Ambition?

The news today is full of speculation about the nature and extent of impending public spending cuts expected to be announced in the Queen’s Speech next Tuesday. Among the more specific figures being bandied about is a £700 million cut to the budget Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which encompasses both scientific research and the university sector. It’s impossibly to say precisely where the axe will fall, but it’s very likely that university-based science groups in England will face a double-whammy, losing income both from HEFCE and from the Research Councils. The prospect looks particular dire for Physics & Astronomy, which rely for their research grants on the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which savagely cut back science research even before the credit crunch arrived. If STFC gets cut any further  then the result will be even worse carnage un universities than we’ve experienced over the last year or two, especially since it looks like there will be no changes in its Executive.

Here in Wales the situation is even more complicated, as is explained in a long article in this week’s Times Higher. Cuts to the Research Councils will, of course, affect university research groups in the Principality as their remit covers the whole of the United Kingdom. However, responsibility for Higher Education in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. This means that any cuts to the University budget announced next week will not apply here (nor indeed in Scotland or Northern Ireland).

However, as I’ve blogged about before, it’s not obvious that this is good news for fundamental science in Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government’s blueprint for the shape of Higher Education in Wales, For Our Future, signals what could be dramatic changes in the way university funding is allocated here. There’s a lot of nervousness about how things will pan out.

Currently, most university funding in Wales comes through HEFCW in the form of recurrent grants. However the WAG has recently set up a Strategic Implementation Fund which in future supply 80% of all university funding. The new(ish) Minister responsible for Higher Education, Leighton Andrews (who will be giving a public lecture in Cardiff about the changes next week) seems to be determined to take control of the sector. It’s good to have a Minister who shows some interest in Higher Education, but I’m wary of politicians with Big Ideas.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens over the next year or so, but I think there’s an opportunity for Wales to do something truly radical and break away from systems that simply copy those in place in England with a much lower level of resource. Given that HEFCW has already been told how 80% of its funding should be administered, why bother with HEFCW at all? Scrapping this quango will remove a buffer between the universities and the WAG, which might be a dangerous thing to do, but will also save money that could be spent on higher education rather than bureaucracy. And while we’re at it, why doesn’t the WAG take Welsh universities out of the Research Excellence Framework? In the new era why should Welsh universities be judged according to English priorities?

On the teaching side, the WAG wants to see more flexible study options, more part-time degrees (including PhDs), more lifelong learning, and so on. I think that’s a reasonable thing to aim for given the particular socio-economic circumstances that pertain in Wales, but I can’t really see scope for significant numbers of part-time degrees in physics, especially at the doctoral level.

A crucial issue that has to be addressed is the proliferation of small universities in Wales. England has a population of 49.1 million, and has  91 universities (a number that many consider to be way too high in any case). The population of Wales is just 2.98 million but has 12 universities which is about twice as many per capita as in England. I for one think this situation is unsustainable, but I’m not sure to what extent mergers would be politically acceptable.

The WAG also wants to focus funding on “priority areas” that it perceives to be important to future development of industry in Wales, including health and biosciences, the digital economy, low-carbon technologies, and advanced engineering and manufacturing.  Fair enough, I say, as long as “focus on” doesn’t mean “scrap everything else but”.  The big worry for me is that research doesn’t feature very strongly at all in the WAG’s document, and it isn’t in good shape in any case. According to the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), only around 14% of Welsh research is of world-leading quality and most of that (90%)  is concentrated in just four institutions (Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea).

Physics in Wales did particularly poorly in the RAE and in any case only involves three universities, Bangor having closed its Physics department many years ago. Indeed the RAE panel went out of its way to make unfavourable comments about the lack of coordination in Welsh  physics – comments, I might add, that went entirely beyond the panel’s remit and should have attracted censure. Physics is also an expensive subject so if we are to do better in future we need additional investment. Cardiff University is doing its best bring this about, but I think we should explore closer ties with Swansea and explicit encouragement from the WAG.

STEM areas are woefully under-represented in Wales. Some think the WAG should seize the chance to boost this area of activity, but others think it’s already too late. According to the Times Higher,

Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan and the first female head of a university in Wales, says expertise in STEM will have to be developed in “distinct areas”. Given its small size, Wales must be careful to set itself realistic aims, she says.

The country faces a complex challenge, Lydon adds. “We don’t have anywhere near the range and extent of research (that we should) for our size. We’ve got to move it up a gear, and we’ve got to raise aspirations. We’ll do that in niche areas, and we’ll do that by partnership, not on our own.

“We haven’t the scope and scale; Wales isn’t a large enough sector to be able to do that across the board, but it’s an agenda that is slightly wider than the narrow view of STEM.”

A focus on STEM would neglect some areas in which Wales is strong, Lydon says. Thanks to investment from major employers such the BBC, disciplines such as media are growth areas and critical to the economy, but they are not strictly defined as STEM subjects.

No, media studies isn’t a STEM subject. Nor do I think Wales can continue to rely on its economy being propped up by public bodies such as the BBC. The expected round of wider public spending cuts I mentioned at the start of this piece will effectively scupper that argument and I’m sure privatisation of the BBC is on the new government’s agenda anyway. The future requires more ambition than this kind of thinking exemplifies. Sadly, however, ambition doesn’t seem to be something that the Welsh are particularly good at.  Dylan Thomas’s phrase “The Graveyard of Ambition” was specifically aimed at his home town of Swansea, but it does sum up an attitude you can find throughout the country: a  resolute determination to be mediocre.

 Wales is indeed a small country. So is Scotland (population about 5 million), but the Scots have for a long time placed a much higher premium on science and university education generally than the Welsh (and even the English) and they have a thriving university sector that’s the envy of other nations (including England). I think it’s time for a change of mentality.

14 Responses to “The Graveyard of Ambition?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I knew an unusual man, a right-wing Scottish Nationalist (and retired engineer), who made the telling point that a sign of Scotland becoming great again would be when it preferred to celebrate Bruce, who won, to Wallace, the heroic failure.

    A local historian where I live in Shropshire – an Englishman who loves Wales – has a conjecture about where Owain Glendwr, who for a short time regained Welsh independence, is buried. This historian is no crank and his talk inspired me to send a short communication to Mel Gibson’s agent suggesting that he give Glendwr the Braveheart treatment. Gibson is now the right age for Glendwr, his filmography shows that he is always up for a a film in which the English are the baddies, and he knows how to made decent cinema (Braveheart was good despite the liberties it took with the historical record). Unfortunately, although I mentioned in passing that I wanted no credit or money for the suggestion, I got a horrible form letter back from his agent designed to deter people who did. I still think it’s a good idea.


  2. […] Stay of Execution So, finally, we hear the faint whistle of air as the axe descends, but it slices into the neighbouring neck. Universities are taking a hit but direct science funding is spared for now. You can read the BIS announcement here and the overall Treasury announcement here. Reactions are all over the interweb already – try Robert Peston at the BBC , the Nature Blog, the Universities UK response, the IOP response, and the New Scientist S word analysis.  Nobody has anything particularly deep or original to say apart from how v.important it is to realise that science funding is an investment. The day before, Peter C at least had a novel line, explaining why things are even more miserable in Wales. […]

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have not yet seen details of how the cuts in United Kingdom spending will affect universities and science, but the website of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills states that there will be a cut of 200 million pounds “in efficiencies from the Higher Education budget”, plus 233 million pounds from delaying funding for a major medical research centre in London and 100 million pounds “in efficiency savings across the department and its partner organisations”. There will be 10000 fewer student places compared with earlier plans.

    Peter made some very good points about the higher education system in Wales. The cuts to English programmes will affect the overall funding available to the Welsh Government through the Barnet Formula, but there is little clarity yet about how this will affect Welsh university and science funding spending. Time will tell.

    One interesting recent development was the report Review of the Cost of Administrating the Education System in Wales commissioned by the Welsh Government. It makes in managerial language some astonishing (and probably unbelievable) claims about very high costs of administration in the Welsh higher education sector.

    The changes being introduced in Welsh higher education by the Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning are likely to have considerable effects. Leighton Andrews was an academic in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wales Cardiff (and then at Cardiff University) before entering politics, and therefore has personal knowledge of the university sector. It is very hard to know how the Strategic Implementation Fund will work out because of a lack of detail so far. It could work well or it could work very badly. I can see some parallels with the policy of the Welsh minister for culture before the last Assembly elections who tried to take funding of six of the largest government-funded cultural organisations in Wales away from the Arts Council for Wales and into direct government control, with the danger that ministerial whim would determine funding levels and activities. That minister lost his seat and Labour lost its effective overall control of the Assembly. That dangerous policy was subsequently dropped.

    I have always felt that some quangos are necessary to take impartial, professional decisions in some complex areas. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales survived the Bonfire of the Quangos of Rhodri Morgan’s administration several years ago, when many functions formerly exercised by the very extensive quango state in Wales were transferred to the Welsh Government and direct democratic scrutiny. Yet, I cannot say that I have been impressed by the policies of the HEFCW, which have led to a large number of small, competing universities in Wales that try to reproduce similar university courses across Wales with the argument that they do so locally, at the cost of duplicated bureaucracy and small class sizes.

  4. telescoper Says:


    That reminds me. Aren’t the next WAG elections next year?


  5. Bryn Jones Says:


    Yes, the four-year term of the National Assembly for Wales ends in eleven months’ time, with the next elections due on Thursday, 5th May, 2011. (The same is true of the Scottish Parliament.)

    That could change policies, especially if there is a change in the parties in coalition.


  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    Anton referred to Prince Owain Glyndwr, so it might be worth spending a moment wondering what might have happened to universities in Wales had his revolution, and return to constitutionality, succeeded. His policy in 1406 was to recognise the Pope in Avignon (during the schism) on condition that the Avignon Pope recognised the Welsh state and, among other issues, would consent to the establishment of two universities in Wales. Had Glyndwr succeeded, Wales might have today two universities with 600 years of learning behind them, and scholarship might have had greater continuity through the Reformation.

    Now back to some additional comments on Peter’s article.

    Firstly, I’ll state my view that a major factor driving mediocrity in Wales is localism. This is the belief that cities, towns and local authorities need, or have the right to, local provision of institutions and activities. This leads to a fragmentation of activities, and serving the interests of broader society has often been ignored. This has affected the university sector through the proliferation of small, independent university institutions, each acting in its own self interest.

    I agree strongly with Peter’s point that Wales is too small to support the number of universities it has today. There need to be mergers, particularly in cases where institutions are nearby: for example, between Swansea University and Swansea Metropolitan University. I remember a similar process occurring in Cardiff in 1988 through the merger of University College Cardiff and the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology to form the University of Wales College of Cardiff.

    My own view is that the Welsh Government should return to the old federal University of Wales system, and should force Cardiff University to return to the University of Wales, and force the University of Glamorgan to join. Then Cardiff University, the University of Wales Institute Cardiff and the University of Glamorgan’s Cardiff campus should merge. There should be attempts to share resources across the university sector in Wales, to share administration, to reduce the number of centres of teaching in some subjects by relocating teaching, and reduce slightly the number of research centres by relocating to increase concentration.

    I like Peter’s radical suggestion that HEFCW should be abolished. What I would also like to see would be for public funding for higher education and academic research to go directly from government to the University of Wales, subject to strict auditing, to be allocated in turn to its constituent institutions by the University. The University of Wales could be given the duty to ensure academic standards across the Welsh university sector, and to raise standards to a uniform level. The University of Wales would then effectively become the funding council and the quality assurance agency.

    Of course, the managements of the various universities would hate what I have written, but then I my concerns are for the health of the university sector in Wales as a whole, and not for the local interests of individual institutions. But then I’m free to write what I like.

  7. telescoper Says:


    I also agree that localism is a problem. More generally, Wales is too inward-looking and needs to start looking outward, at its part in the wider world.

    I anticipated you would advocate a return to the University of Wales, an option that I agree has much to support it. I’d like to add one caveat, though, which is that such a thing would require changes to the way the University is run at the higher level, with wider representation on its gioverning body.

    The WAG has also been thinking about this, and governance is one of the things specifically mentioned in its recent document. It stops short of advocating a return to the federal university, of course, but if that were to happen much would change.

    In the meantime – and in contrast to most of my colleagues – I’d be very keen to explore ways of working closer with Swansea and Aber in physics and astronomy. I think we might start as the Midlands Physics Alliance did, with investment a joint graduate school of some sort.


  8. Bryn Jones Says:


    I’m not sure that Wales is particularly inward looking. I think the problem is that Wales looks outwards but lacks the confidence to believe that it can match the best of what it sees elsewhere, and chooses to embrace mediocrity for lack of ambition. Where an inward-looking tendency does cause problems is when officers in local institutions, such as local authorities and universities, become contented in their grand little posts in their little empires.

    Yes, there would have to be significant changes in the governance of the University of Wales to make it responsive to the needs of the higher education sector, were the University of Wales to be resurrected as a significant force. But it could be done fairly straightforwardly with commitment and drive from the Welsh Government.

    I strongly share your opinion that more collaboration in physics and astronomy between Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth is needed. As I pointed out in some comments here more than a year ago, some initiatives were begun in the 1990s. It is disappointing that these have not continued to grow. The 1990s initiatives did include some element of a graduate school, with joint lectures over a video link for Ph.D. students and occasional conferences/schools for postgraduates at Gregynog. Of course there needs to be some Welsh equivalent of the Midlands Physics Alliance or the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance. Personally I’d call it the University of Wales Physics Academy (using the excuse that Cardiff University is affiliated to the University of Wales). It is really disappointing that you are not finding colleagues more enthusiastic about this.


  9. […] Andrews about the Future of Higher Education in Wales. I mentioned this was coming up in an earlier post about the state of the Welsh university system, but wasn’t able to attend the lecture. […]

  10. […] could be easily implemented by returning to the old University of Wales.  As I’ve mentioned before, as well as suffering from many of the problems besetting the English university system, the […]

  11. […] level of 12. This is an interesting development and one that I’ve actually argued for here. Quoting Leighton Andrews, Welsh Assembly Minister responsible for higher education, the piece says […]

  12. […] argued already on this blog that there are too many small separate higher education institutions in Wales and […]

  13. The Senility of Ambition Says:

    Why bother? Why not just drive to the supermaket, get a few cases of beers, go home, and watch other people do sports on a TV channel owned by Rupert Murdoch? Why not get fat and still dream of being a celebrity superstar, rich and desired by all around the world? Why not just pop down to the Takeaway and buy whatever it is they are selling there, because if there are so many takeaways in Swansea, they must be selling something really desirable, unless of course they are Undertakers to those whose Ambition have died but have yet to be buried.

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