Among the Crachach

Catching up on the news by looking through my copy of last week’s Times Higher, I came across an account of a speech made by Welsh Assembly Minister Leighton 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. Fortunately, however the text of the lecture is available for download here.

There is some discussion of positives  in the speech, including a specific enthusiastic mention of

the involvement of the School of Physics and Astronomy in the international consortium which built the Herschel Space Observatory.

I was pleased to see that, especially since much of the rest of it is extremely confrontational. Much of it focusses on the results of a recent study by accountants PriceWaterhouseCooper that revealed, among other things, that  52% of the funding provided by the Welsh Assembly Government for higher education goes on adminstration and support services, with only 48% to teaching and research. Mr Andrews suggests that about 20% of the overall budget could be saved by reducing duplication and introducing shared services across the sector.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the actual figures in the report, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were correct.  They might shock outsiders to the modern higher education system but most universities – not just those in Wales – seem to employ at least as many administrative staff and support staff as “front-line” teachers and researchers. I’m likewise sure that the Welsh Assembly employs many more such staff than there are Members…

Within academic Schools we need to employ staff to handle financial matters, student records, recruitment, admissions,  and general day-to-day administration. On top of that we have technical staff, to support both research and teaching laboratories as well as computing support staff. Add them all together and you definitely have a number comparable to the number of academic staff,  but  they don’t account for 52% of our salary bill because they are generally paid less than lecturers and professors. The mix in our School is no doubt related to the specific demands of physics and astronomy, but these staff all provide essential services and if they weren’t there, the academic staff would have to spend an even greater part of their time doing such things themselves.

As well as the staff working in individual Schools there are central administrative departments (in Cardiff they’re called “directorates”) which don’t employ academics at all. I have no idea what fraction of Cardiff’s budget goes on these things, but I suspect it’s  a big slice. My own anecdotal experience is that some of these are helpful and efficient while others specialise in creating meaningless bureaucratic tasks for academic staff to waste their time doing. I think such areas are where 20% savings might be achievable, but that would depend on the University having fewer and less complicated “initiatives” to respond to from the WAG.

The Times Higher story discusses the (not entirely favourable) reaction from various quarters to Mr Andrews speech, so I won’t go into it in any more detail here.

However, I was intrigued by one word I found in the following paragraph

 I was interested to learn recently that some members of university governing bodies have been appointed on the basis of a phone call. Who you know not what you know. It appears that HE governance in post devolution Wales has become the last resting place of the crachach.

Crachach? Being illiterate in the Welsh language this was a new one on me. However, I found an article on the BBC Website  that revealed all.

The term used to denote local gentry but 21st century crachach is the Taffia, the largely Welsh-speaking elite who dominate the arts, culture and media of Wales and to a lesser extent its political life.

It goes onto say

The Vale, Pontcanna and Whitchurch are crachach property hotspots while barn conversions in Llandeilo and cottages in Newport, Pembrokeshire, provide weekend retreats.

Hang on. Pontcanna? That’s where I live! I wonder if they let foreigners join the crachach, provided of course they learn the Welsh language? I note however that “arts culture and the media” is their remit, so science apparently doesn’t count. Perhaps I could start a scientific wing? Maybe those Welsh lessons will be useful after all. I’m told that the crachach always manage to get tickets for the big rugby matches…

On a more serious note, however, that part of Leighton Andrews’ speech stressed the importance of university governance. If he’s true to his word he should look into the Mark Brake affair. I think the taxpayers of Wales have a right to know what’s been going on.

23 Responses to “Among the Crachach”

  1. Although not completely untrue, this crachach word is a relatively new one probably of Labour party origin in south Wales. It must be admitted that many Welsh speakers do work in the arts and media and can hold some influence, however I wouldn’t say there’s anything ‘elite’ about them.

    The word is typically used for a witch-hunt on imaginary characters who apparently control the media and other parts of society, just like Jewish people occupying powerful business positions, or the BBC full of homosexuals and ‘ethnics’ – all scaremongering from bitter people. It’s just a word thrown about when people don’t get things their way to conjure up fear of things that couldn’t be further away from the truth.

    The word itself is rather artificial and made to have the coarsest of sounds. ‘Crach’ on its own would mean snob in Welsh, however an added ‘ach’ just makes it sound even coarser.

    The National Eisteddfod has been described as a ‘crachach fest’, although I’m not quite sure how it would be. Again, the word is probably used to scare people about a literary festival in some indigenous tongue they don’t understand and refuse to be a part of. Considering the origins of the Eisteddfod, where bards wrote poetry to earn some bread, is hardly a symbol of elitism. Wales has always, up until recently, been a very classless society and I would like it to remain that way. Class only gets a mention when Labour start a ‘class war’ on whoever they don’t think is one of them.

    P.S. I welcome Leighton Andrews’ words however.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:


    No, the word crachach does not mean a largely Welsh-speaking elite. What you found on the BBC’s website is a lazy journalistic regurgitation of a recent, politically-motivated attempt at a redefinition of an old word.

    Welsh society through to the late 19th century, and arguably through some of the twentieth century, could crudely be characterised as being divided between a poor, largely Welsh-speaking, Nonconformist, disenfranchised majority, and a small, privileged, English-speaking, land-owning, Anglican, politically-enfranchised gentry. The term used by the majority to describe the privileged minority was crachach.

    Though this characterisation is very crude, it does provide a useful description for some purposes. The elite largely owed their status to the patronage of the British state, which barred Nonconformists from many offices and access to some educational institutions, and which demanded the use of the English language for any official purposes. The tax and legal systems reinforced the economic privileges of those who held property.

    There was a strong parallel with Ireland where there was a privileged, Anglican, Tory, English-speaking, land-owning, Anglo-Irish gentry, and a disadvantaged, Catholic, often impoverished, disenfranchised majority.

    There has been an attempt over the past two decades to redefine the word crachach for political reasons by some people opposed to rights for Welsh speakers and opposed to devolution. They have attempted to invent the idea that Welsh speakers somehow represent an elite in Wales today, presumably in the hope that this will instill, or revive, resentment of Welsh speakers among the English-only-speaking majority. The reality is that Welsh speakers had relatively few rights to use their language for official purposes until 1993, schools commonly did not provide Welsh education until the 1970s, and opportunities for Welsh-medium education is still patchy in Wales. It is presumably easier to invent ideas of privileged minorities than it is to argue that Welsh speakers should be denied civil rights or that the National Assembly for Wales should be abolished.

    Anyone interested in Welsh history can find an excellent introduction in
    John Davies’s A History of Wales. A detailed consideration of Welsh politics from the late-19th to late-20th century can be found in Kenneth O. Morgan’s Rebirth of a Nation: A History of Modern Wales 1880-1980. The concept of crachach should be explained there.


  3. telescoper Says:

    It sounds like I might be eligible after all.

  4. Very well put Bryn. I would also like to point out that Welsh language rights are still hard to come by in some areas.

    Peter, welcome to the club!

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I should add that I am confident Leighton Andrews understands the proper meaning of the word crachach, and that he used it correctly to mean a privileged, self-serving elite maintained in their positions with money paid by the majority. The Minister is not one of the people who have attempted to corrupt the meaning of the word to attack the Welsh language: Leighton Andrews is a rational, mainstream democratic representative supportive of Welsh.

    I do not understand how PriceWaterhouseCooper reached the conclusion that half the budget of universities in Wales is spent on supporting administration. I have a hunch that it involved adding up all administrative activities, including setting and marking coursework and examination papers, collating grades, attending departmental committees and other essential activities done by academic staff.

    I do agree with a great deal that Leighton Andrews said in his speech, though not quite all. Much more collaboration is needed within the Welsh higher education sector, and he is absolutely right to call for this.

  6. telescoper Says:


    As I said in the post, I don’t really understand how the figures were calculated but I’m not surprised by the 50% figure. I’m sure it doesn’t count setting and marking coursework either. I’m pretty sure it is mainly accounted for by the central administative units, much of whose time is spent responding to directives from external agencies, including the WAG.

    It’s not obvious to me that this figure would be lower in English or Scottish univerities either. Red tape is expensive.


  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    My suspicion is that there are lots of administrative staff in universities on rather modest pay, and then a crachach of administrators and management receiving very generous salaries. And as Peter stated, that is a problem across the British university system.

    I defer to Huw’s experience of the limited rights of Welsh speakers in Wales, something that illustrates how misplaced the accusations of elitism are.

  8. telescoper Says:

    Interesting to find a description of a “posh French/Welsh restaurant in the Pontcanna area of Cardiff” just around the corner from me as a “usual haunt for the Crachach. BBC & S4C establishment types are frequently spotted in the restaurant.”

    Perhaps one establishment has just been replaced by another..

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn: It does seem to me that a single country should aim to have, as policy, one language that all of its inhabitants can speak, regardless of whether they wish to learn other languages. Bilingual signs in Wales and Quebec are feasible, but post-apartheid South Africa declared that it would have 11 official languages, without thinking it through – what about its road signs?

    Of course, Wales could seek independence, but that is a different (and much larger) issue. As an anti-EU Englishman sick of being told what to do by Brussels, I’ve come to understand how the Welsh must feel sick of being told what to do by London. So I’d have plenty of sympathy with independence, but I worry that any debate would be based on crude stereotypes and not be conducted at the deep level needed. Borders aren’t easy to maintain or police on either side.

    Regarding language, when I lived in Australia I looked in mystification at a politically correct government which reduced subsidies for English courses available to new migrants, yet which threw taxpayers’ money at immigrant groups who wished to build ‘cultural centres’ celebrating their own culture. (They should of course be free to celebrate their own culture while living in another, but out of their own pockets.) English is the key to a job for those new immigrants, who were presumably let in for their manpower. The book Language Is Power by John Honey makes this point again and again, most succinctly in its title.

    Nonconformist Christianity has always seemed to me to be closer to the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth than State-blessed, political Christianity. It was mainly the nonconformists who evangelised the British Empire’s slaves – a practice that was sometimes forbidden (!) – while the Church of England even owned some! Abolition was driven mainly by nonconformists who felt more empathy with their enslaved brothers in Christ than with their own ethnic brothers who owned those slaves. I know plenty of genuine believers within the CoE, but I will always be a nonconformist, with both a capital and a small ‘n’.


  10. telescoper Says:

    I thought I’d say that I do think there’s a strong case for Wales abandoning the English form of place names in favour of the Welsh versions. It wouldn’t be difficult for foreigners to adapt and it seems to me it would be a sensible step to recognize only the Welsh form of these proper nouns. The English might persist in calling Firenze Florence but Italians don’t feel the need to put up signs in their railway stations with that form on them.

    I should also make it clear that I’m not at all proud of the fact that I’ve so far failed to learn Welsh despite living here for the best part of 3 years. I do intend to try. I think its a question of respect more than anything else, as one can get by perfectly well in English especially here in Cardiff.

  11. “but I worry that any debate would be based on crude stereotypes and not be conducted at the deep level needed” Does this apply to the anti-EU debate within the UK as well? 😐 If not, why do you think a debate about Welsh independence would lack the necessary depth?

    “It does seem to me that a single country should aim to have, as policy, one language that all of its inhabitants can speak, regardless of whether they wish to learn other languages.”

    While many countries have official minority languages (usually official in just some parts of the country, and almost everyone there speaks the main language as well), there are some with no clearly dominant language; Belgium and Switzerland come to mind. For a variety of reasons, the latter has been around for a long time and is a quite stable country (and quite independent—still not an EU member and only joining the UN a few years ago) and seems to do OK with four official languages. In Belgium (which, in its modern form, is less than 200 years old), on the other hand, the language conflict is the main political issue, though of course it is difficult to separate the language issue from cultural issues. Since it is inconceivable to make one of the two big languages the main language, presumably the only solution is to split up the country. (An interesting—but by no means likely—solution would be to make the smallest of the languages—German—the official language. That way, almost everyone would have to learn the new, official language. Most of the small number of German speakers probably speak Dutch or French as well, so such a solution would make everyone (at least) bilingual.)

  12. “I do intend to try. I think its a question of respect more than anything else, as one can get by perfectly well in English especially here in Cardiff.”

    There are several countries where one can (and some do) get by in English: Finland, the Scandinavian countries etc (and the English spoken there is probably closer to “standard English” than that spoken in Wales). Of course, English isn’t an official language there whereas it is in Wales. However, even if it is possible, it of course makes a completely different impression and opens many doors if one speaks the non-English language.

    Even though it is an Indo-European language (as are, for example, Sanskrit, Persian, Lithuanian (according to some closest to the original Indo-European language) and Albanian), it is much more difficult for an English speaker to learn than, say, a Germanic or Romance language. I think even Greek (ancient or modern) would be easier. But it will give you a headstart in your learning of Irish and Scots Gaelic and Manx, should that desire overcome you. 🙂

  13. Bryn Jones Says:


    The relaxation of language policy in Wales over the past two decades has been motivated by a recognition of rights for Welsh speakers to use their language when dealing with official bodies, in parallel with the right to use English that has existed for centuries. The creation of bilingual provision of services has been driven almost exclusively by the issue of rights, not one of national identity (though many people do see the issue in terms of identity).

    The picture of 19th century Wales as a land divided into two broad types of people – a disadvantaged, Nonconformist, Welsh-speaking majority and a small, Anglican, state-supported elite – is too crude, as I argued. However, the complexity of modern Wales is greater still, and therefore devolution within the United Kingdom has been seen as an appropriate response to the needs of society. The creation of the National Assembly allows government policy to be developed that is more relevant than what used to happen from Whitehall, with a more appropriate adaptation to circumstances on the ground. It gives recognition to Welsh identity for those people who value it. It also preserves a substantial element of British identity for those people who value the United Kingdom. It is a compromise, an attempt at a middle-of-the-road response to different views of national identity.

    The turning of a majority of the population of Wales from the state religion (the Church of England) to Nonconformity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is an interesting phenomenon. There are likely to have been many factors behind it, including language, increasing personal freedoms and the appearance of the state church as being an agent for the privileged within society. This led, after much political campaigning, to the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales in 1920, and its removal, replaced by the Church in Wales as a separate branch of the Anglican communion.


  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn: Wthout dissenting from your preferences, I prefer Peter’s concept of respect to the more aggressive notion of rights. Rights have to be granted (eg, the right of habeas corpus granted by the England’s lawmakers), and secular philosophers have never coherently answered the question of who grants the entire human race the ‘human rights’ which they assert. Give me fair relationships, and respect, over rights any day.

    Phillip: as I recall there was a street poll in Belgium some years ago in which a majority of people preferred, over the status quo, the dismantling of the country and its parts applying to join France or the Netherlands. The oddest compromise, though, seems to be in Canada, where the politically aggressive Quebecois have managed to get French/English road signs all over the country, including in places where 99% of people have English as the language spoken at home. It would be as anomalous as having English/Welsh road signs in Kent or Yorkshire.

    To my words “I worry that any debate would be based on crude stereotypes and not be conducted at the deep level needed”, you ask: “Does this apply to the anti-EU debate within the UK as well? If not, why do you think a debate about Welsh independence would lack the necessary depth?”

    (1) The anti-EU debate here is most deeply about accountabillity of the lawmakers to the people. As evidence that this debate is not based on crude stereotypes, I have not detected any racist undertone to it except in the BNP, which recently won a princely 1.9% of the votes cast by a turnout of 65% of the electorate (and the distribution of the BNP vote suggests that this was mainly a protest against *non*-European cultures). In contrast, democratic accountability is a deep issue of genuine concern to many.

    (2) The EU is a very recent institution. It postures that to oppose it is to be against the civilisation that produced Mozart, Goethe, Dante etc, but they were around long before the EU was. The EU has yet to put down deep roots. In contrast, Wales and England have a common history going back 700 years. This began with a horrible campaign by Edward I of England, but true commonality grows from the people upwards, and 700 years is long enough for the Welsh and the English to have plenty in common. So I would not compare the anti-EU debate in England with the anti-UK debate in Wales except over the issue of democratic accountability.


  15. “as I recall there was a street poll in Belgium some years ago in which a majority of people preferred, over the status quo, the dismantling of the country and its parts applying to join France or the Netherlands.”

    I think that this result would come up in any poll, conducted at any time. The results of a referendum would be interesting, including the number who voted at all.

    In Belgium, in the old days, the Walloons were the upper class and the Flemish were the ignorant peasants. These days, Flanders is economically the stronger part, and Wallonia benefits most from value transfer.

    I know practically nothing about how the Welsh stereotype the English or vice versa. Are you saying that the 700 years of common history leads to crude stereotypes, whereas more recent events (e.g. the EU) tend to be discussed with the necessary depth?

    Maybe familiarity does breed contempt. On the other hand, one could argue that, with a long common history, both sides have the necessary knowledge for a meaningful discussion (as opposed to one based on stereotypes due to lack of direct experience).

  16. Steve Jones Says:


    And the nominees for the 2010 3QD Prize in Science are…

    I hope everyone here will be voting for no. 24

  17. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: If that is what the Belgians want, maybe it should happen!

    A world-class film came out of Belgium in the 1990s, called Daens – the surname of a 19th century priest who found himself in the vanguard of a movement for social justice in the Flemish-owned factories filled by French-speaking workers. The pendulum seems to have swung more than once between the two peoples of Belgium.

    The antipathy among English Eurosceptics is directed specifically at a very recent institution, the EU, and nobody is going to get a platform by ranting against continentals. Antipathy in Wales, however, is to something older and deeper – those consequences of an enforced union that are negative – and the Welsh will need a greater measure of self-discipline to keep the debate clear of xenophobia. If you want information on how the debate actually runs, you should ask people who live there. (I don’t.)


  18. Woken Postdoc Says:

    The minister may be right about 52% of money soaked by administration. Where I do my research, the university absorbs ~60% of a fellowship or grant as “overheads”. A bit of that is useful (e.g. the computer network) but vast sums seem to sink into central admin sections that few people actually use. Cheery or Orwellian, outreachy departments are paid to spout managerial psychobabble. In-house “personal development” courses are imposed on researchers, on topics unrelated to academic careers.

    The minister probably should not be surprised to hear that opaque deals or underhanded networking can influence the composition of “university governing bodies.” I’m still too low in the pecking-order to interact with governing bodies, but I’ve seen or heard about enough stitch-ups lower down. Things do happen, of a kind that would get an honest MP or medic sacked or deregistered. Don’t we all know at least one dirty professor or reader who contrives to customise a lectureship for his current postdoc-mistress or student pet? They know how to hide their tricks, and how to game the system, e.g. inducing strawman candidates to run for the sake of appearances. When caught with his pants down (literally or metaphorically) he might squeak, threaten the whistleblower, and claim that it’s all legitimate “affirmative action” (or somesuch).

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    Best way to keep admin down is DIY. Subcontracting it out seems simply to start an industry that grows to leave researchers with as little research time as if they did the admin themselves – and it costs a lot more, to boot. Whcih is exactly what should be done to administrators.

  20. I’m not 100%, but English nor Welsh are official languages. English is the lingua france by default and is used for government and for law. Welsh simply has the same legal standing as English. I.e. you can demand to have a court of law conducted in Welsh or deal with the government in Welsh.

    Usually due to the seriousness of the matter you will get your Welsh court of law, however it was recently deemed than the jury didn’t have to all understand Welsh. They could get the information second hand via a translator etc.

    For government it’s much harder. The law states that Welsh must be provided for, and it is for most matters, however if you want something more specific you might get a response of English only literature, Welsh is coming soon, or Welsh leaflets will be delivered here upon request.

    The issue of rights for the Welsh comes up with, if you’re made to pay tax, surely all public services should be in your language as well? This isn’t always the case. Others also argue over minority rights (Simon Brooks in Cardiff’s Welsh Dept. for example) where in a UK where large amounts of people are allowed to move around, Welsh speakers should be instilled with additional rights to protect themselves from the consequences.

    Although Welsh and English have the same legal standing as each other, English has the benefit of being the lingua franca, supported by large media powers, in the UK and USA. If a manager refuses workers to ability to speak Welsh in the workplace, there’s not much that worker can do. If it had an official status, Welsh could gain some legal clout where any discrimination could be challenged, like it already is for other minorities. Like some have argued in the past, the purpose of government is to protect the minority from the majority.

  21. Bryn Jones Says:

    Huw is right that there are no official languages in Wales, nor in Britain more generally. The Welsh Government requested that the British Parliament should give the National Assembly the power to legislate to declare both English and Welsh as the official languages of Wales (among other issues relating to Welsh language rights). A legislative competence order has been passed and action should follow.

    The Woken Postdoc made some pertinent points about the overheads on grants and on fellowship money paid to universities by funding bodies. Indeed, the level of the overheads has increased substantially within recent years under the new full-economic costs system. I have previously expressed my concerns that in some universities these overheads disappear into the central university administration, rather than being paid direct into the departments where the research is carried out.

    Peter will be able to tell the story of a substantial amount of extra funding that was paid by the old Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council to the University of Nottingham to support astronomical research, beyond the normal grant funding. I understand it disappeared into central university activities. The money was not passed on to the relevant department.

    Yes, the Woken Postdoc is correct to complain about the favouritism in recruitment at a relatively junior level in universities. I’ve seen it, and experienced it (negatively, several times).

    The Minister complained in his speech about recruitment to senior managerial posts being made on the basis of telephone calls. It reminds me of the story a former colleague told me about the time he received a ‘phone call asking whether he would be interested in the vice-chancellorship of a new university, following the enforced resignation of the previous incumbent. His response was to exclaim that he hadn’t known that the university existed. He declined the invitation to apply for the post. (This was not in the Welsh higher education system.)

  22. Anton Garrett Says:

    Appointing somebody you know personally over somebody you have met only at a job interview is not *necessarily* corrupt. The issue is how to decide fairly between somebody about whom you know a lot (most of it good) and somebody about whom you know a little. The latter might be better or worse – but how do you know?

  23. telescoper Says:


    Different universities have very different policies as to what happens with the overhead. This is because different universities have different levels of devolution in their internal structure.

    Contrary to your statement, overhead money in Nottingham did formally come into the School rather than central funds but the School was “taxed” at a level that put it permanently in deficit so the funds weren’t able to be spent.

    Worse still, I understand that, in Queen Mary, the School gets nothing at all and it all goes to the centre.

    Here in Cardiff some of the overhead goes to central administration but a big chunk comes to the school, and some even goes directly to the grant holder to spend as he/she wishes.


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