The Day After: A Welsh Perspective

It’s well after 11am and I’m still at home. Came down last night with some sort of bug that kept me awake nearly all night with frequent visits to the smallest room in the house. Whatever it is is still rumbling on so I’ve decided to stay at home until I give myself the all clear.

This sudden attack of lurgy is probably not connected with yesterday’s dramatic announcements of the results of the comprehensive spending review, which are now being dissected and analysed all over the mainstream press, the blogosphere, and countless common rooms around the country.

I haven’t got the energy right now to go over the ramifications in detail, but encourage you to read the whole thing, which is available in a nifty online reader for your perusal. I will, however, make a few brief comments, with particular emphasis on the situation here in Wales.

First, the announcement of large cuts to the teaching budget administered by HEFCE has clearly sent shockwaves through academia. It appears that only STEM subjects will continue to receive the state contribution and in future students will have to bear the full cost of tuition (but only after they’ve graduated and started to earn over the threshold of £21K). As a supporter of the Science is Vital campaign I was relieved that we seem to won a victory, although the war is far from over. However, I feel great sadness at the cost that our success seems likely to inflict on other disciplines. If you think these are nervous times for scientists, imagine what it must be like working in the Arts and Humanities.

Of course this all applies directly only to English universities: the budgets for Higher Education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are administered separately, so in principle things could work out very differently for Higher Education here in Wales.

However, the total amount of money available for the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) to spend is fixed by the Westminster government through the Barnett Formula. This determines the overall cash for the devolved governments by allocating a proportion of what England spends on those things that are devolved., i.e. Wales is notionally allocated an amount for Higher Education which is proportional to HEFCE’s allocation and similar for other areas of spending such as Health. Once the size of the overall pot is fixed, however, the WAG is not obliged to spend its money in the same way that England does.

Buried in the pages of the CSR document is Wales’ allocation over the CSR period, which shows real terms cut of about 7.5% over the term. However, the Welsh Assembly Government’s reaction puts it rather differently:

In real terms, our total Budget is set to fall by around 3.1% per year on average, or 12% in total over the coming four years. This means that our Budget in 2014/15 will be £1.8bn lower in real terms than it is this year. Overall, in cash terms the reductions to our Budget will be 3% over the period.

Our capital Budget has been hit particularly hard, and will be cut by 40% in real terms – 34% in cash terms – over the next four years. This substantial reduction, particularly next year, where the cut is more than 25% in real terms, will clearly have a major impact on the private as well as the public sectors.

These figures seem different from those in the CSR document, which might be because of some nuance such as the way capital expenditure is accounted. If anyone can explain the discrepancy through the comments box I’d be grateful.

The main point is, though, that if Wales is going to keep current levels of investment in Higher Education (or even cut less than the English are doing) then it will have to take the money from elsewhere, which is not going to be easy to get through the Welsh Assembly. The picture, therefore, may not be any better here in Wales than it is in England, and could well turn out even worse, depending on how the WAG sets its own spending priorities. To complicate matters further, there’s an election next year for the Welsh Assembly, so there’s a wider political perspective to consider.

Within the overall issue of Higher Education spending is the question of whether Wales will decide to protect funding for STEM disciplines at the expense of all others. The WAG has already produced a document that suggests a strong focus on the so-called regional agenda, which may mean more money going into Further Education, vocational training, and part-time studies rather than, say, research-led science. I know what I would prefer, but whatever I say, it’s the WAG’s decisions that really count. And so it should be. After all, unlike me, they were elected!

Of course, if STEM subjects aren’t protected in Wales, those of us working in those areas are likely to lose even more ground to English universities, which already out-perform us in many respects. We have to make our case as best we can and see what happens.

However, I will end with some more local news which is extremely promising. Yesterday we had a staff meeting in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University during which two extremely positive items came to light. One is that we will shortly be interviewing for the extra physics posts we advertised some time ago. Hopefully there will be a new Professor and three new Lecturers joining the staff in the very near future. I’m told we had a huge number of applicants for these positions, and the shortlists for these positions are very strong indeed. This is all very encouraging.

On top of this there is another exciting development on the horizon. After the disappointing outcome of the last RAE for physics in Wales, we have been thinking very hard at working closer with colleagues at Swansea with a view to building a sort of South Wales Physics Alliance. The departments are complementary in many ways: Swansea does particle physics, but Cardiff doesn’t; Cardiff does astronomy, but Swansea doesn’t. Where we are both relatively weak is in so-called “mainstream” physics, which is in the minority in both departments. With a bit of help, I think these two small(ish) departments could form a research institute that really challenges our competitors abroad (especially in England). I’m strongly in favour of this plan, and hope it goes ahead with full HEFCW support (including extra cash), but in this as in some many things, it’s a case of “fingers crossed”.


3 Responses to “The Day After: A Welsh Perspective”

  1. Phil Uttley Says:

    “I know what I would prefer, but whatever I say, it’s the WAG’s decisions that really count. And so it should be. After all, unlike me, they were elected! ”

    Hmm, applying the same reasoning didn’t seem to spare the new UK government from a full-barreled rant (and rightly so), so I hope you won’t go easy on the WAG!

  2. telescoper Says:

    It’s right that elected people should make the decisions, but that shouldn’t spare them from criticism if they make wrong ones. We can lobby and makes the arguments, but who knows whether they listen? In the end the remedy can only be through the ballot box, and by then it might be too late (at least in England)
    The WAG hasn’t actually made any decisions yet – as far as I’m aware – and it has very limited room for manoeuvre anyway thanks to decisions in Westminster. But they still have an important job to do, and with an election coming I think they’re under much more immediate pressure. The problem is, I’m not sure how many votes there are in Higher Education…

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m afraid that I cannot explain the reason for the different figures from the U.K. Government and the Welsh Assembly Government for the spending cuts in Wales. Indeed, I always find it difficult to understand the details of government spending figures, because there is usually deliberate imprecision from government about how the figures are defined. This involves whether and how the effects of inflation are accounted for, how the departmental spending is defined in detail, and whether the figures represent current or capital expenditure (or both).

    It would be perhaps similar to a discussion of distances or volumes in an expanding Universe when the definitions of distance or volume are not defined clearly (line-of-sight comoving distance, angular diameter distance, luminosity distance, etc.) because it suits one or other person not to do so.

    How much the Welsh Assembly Government understands the needs of universities is not clear, although the Minister for for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning, Leighton Andrews, is very familiar with higher education. The government is very committed to the idea of social inclusion, and therefore would like there to be minimal fees, or grants to subsidise the greater part of fees. However, the financial situation will make this very difficult as Peter stated. The Welsh Assembly Goverment may well have to follow the policy in England, with the continuation of the current modest grants to lessen the fees slightly. Indeed, any new legislation from the U.K. Parliament may force the English policy on the Welsh government. The Welsh Assembly Government should be open to polite lobbying from the academic community about funding: it is very probable that vice-chancellors are doing this already. Perhaps Welsh supporters of Science is Vital might care to write to the minister about the need to maintain a higher level of funding of university courses involving laboratory studies.

    The potential collaboration in physics between Cardiff University and Swansea University is a positive development. A South Wales regional physics strategy could provide some useful benefits. However, I’d be a lot more enthusiastic were it an all-Wales strategy. It is a very great pity that Aberystwyth is not involved in this.

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