Who needs the University of Wales?
I couldn’t resist a quick and possibly inflammatory, comment about the University of Wales affair.
I’m not sure how much this story has spread outside Wales, but it’s relatively easy to summarise quickly. The University of Wales has had a complicated history which I won’t go into details about, but in essence it used to be the only University in Wales; my current employer, Cardiff University, for example, was for a long time a College of the University of Wales. In 1992 the special status of the University of Wales changed when the former Polytechnic of Wales became the University of Glamorgan. In subsequent years a number of institutions within the University of Wales, including the College of Cardiff in 2004, sought and were granted the ability to award their own degrees rather than degrees accredited by the University of Wales and so effectively became independent. As a consequence, the importance of the University of Wales in the landscape of Welsh Higher Education rapidly dwindled to the point where it was a “rump” of an institution accrediting degrees for just a few relatively small institutes.
Having spent some time in my career working in London, it seems to me that there’s at least superficially a striking parallel between the situation in Wales and that surrounding the former colleges of the University of London, most of which now award their own degrees rather than University of London degrees. The University of London nevertheless still exists, though I’ve never really understood why.
It tends to be the case that administrative structures refuse to die a natural death but instead try to find new things to administer. In order to justify itself, the University of Wales diversified into accrediting degrees from a host of smaller institutions both at home and abroad. To cut several long stories very short, much of its business in recent years has been dodgy to say the least. The University of Wales’ involvement in visa scams and the selling of bogus degrees are just two of the revelations that have led to many calling for the organisation to be scrapped altogether, prominent among them being the Welsh Assembly Minister responsible for higher education, Leighton Andrews.
The University of Wales “brand” has now become so tarnished that some of Welsh Higher Education institutions whose degrees it accredits now seem anxious to sever their ties altogether. The University of Wales, Institute of Cardiff (UWIC) wishes to change its name to Cardiff Metropolitan University and award its own degrees.
I think it’s quite clear that the University of Wales is now damaged beyond repair and should be dissolved, although the mechanism by which this can be achieved is unclear as universities are independent charitable institutions, not run directly from government. So egregious has been the conduct of the senior management of this organisation, however, that I’m sure a way can be found to wind it up. I just can’t see how it can possibly survive these scandals.
Unfortunately, dissolution in itself will not repair the damage already done; some institutions under the University of Wales umbrella will surely find that, through no fault of their own, a great deal of mud will stick.
Leighton Andrews has already called – rightly, in my view – for a reduction in the number of universities in Wales, most of which are small. In my neck of the woods, South-east Wales, for example, a game of musical mergers has been going on for months already between UWIC, Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport but no concrete plans have emerged. In my opinion the region can only sustain one world-class, research intensive university and one teaching led “new” university. Will the chaos generated by the public disintegration of the University of Wales make it easier or harder to achieve this?
But I can’t help feel sad about the inevitable demise of the University of Wales, which seems to me to be more of a tragedy than a farce. Its problems can all be traced back to the terrible decision, taken by the Conservative government in 1992, to allow the polytechnics to call themselves universities. Wales was much better off when it had one University and one Polytechnic, and neither had to prostitute itself to make ends meet.Follow @telescoper