Archive for HEFCW

Welsh fee plans up in the air…

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by telescoper

I had just finished the exciting job of marking my examinations and collating all the results with coursework when I noticed a rumour circulating on twitter about the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) having rejected plans by all Welsh universities to charge higher fees than the basic £4K laid down by the Welsh Assembly Government. The rumour later developed into a story on the NUS website and then on the local BBC News, Wales Online and the Times Higher.

In case you’re not up with the intricacies of Welsh Higher Education policy, universities here in the Principality will, from 2012, be allowed to charge fees of up to £9K per annum (as in England) if and only if they have approval from HEFCW for plans relating “to widening access and to improving the student experience.” Note there’s apparently no requirement of providing a better education in that. As a mere university teacher I have no idea at all what has gone into Cardiff University’s plan nor do I know why it is deemed satisfactory. Such things are done by our lords and masters in the University administration.

It does seem strange, though, that the process works this way, i.e. that HEIs have to produce plans that they hope will be accepted by HEFCW. Why doesn’t HEFCW simply tell the HEIs what they have to do to be able to charge the fees? I wonder how the clear the guidance from HEFCW was. It might be a case of “Read my mind to see what I want, and if you don’t give it to me I’ll shoot you”.

Universities wishing to charge £9K (which is, predictably, nearly all of them) had to submit their plans to HEFCW by the end of May. Several universities did so, including Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Bangor, and even Glamorgan, who all want to charge the maximum £9K. HEFCW has now announced that none of them meet the standard needed to charge more than £4k. There’s still quite a bit of time for universities to amend their plans before the deadline of 11th July, so this is by no means the end of the story, but it has certainly set alarm bells ringing where I work!

The point is that the Welsh Assembly Government is heavily cutting the funds it allocates to Welsh Universities from 2012, so if institutions are not allowed to charge sufficiently high fees to recoup that loss then many departments are going to be in really big trouble, especially those teaching expensive subjects.

Education Minister Leighton Andrews is quoted as saying

I asked for Hefcw to be thorough and robust when scrutinising the fee plans submitted by our higher education and further education institutions. It is clear that they have been and I heartily endorse this.

There are a number of ways of reading the lie of the land here. One is that it’s actually a sensible process of consultation between individual institutions and HEFCW. Since this is uncharted territory for both there may well be things that need to be clarified on both sides, and HEFCW may therefore be engaging in a sensible process of consultation and iteration in order to help institutions produce acceptable plans. It could also represent an element brinkmanship, so the Minister and HEFCW can be seen to be flexing a bit of muscle, in contrast to the situation in England, where it appears the government has no power to prevent institutions charging higher fees. I always felt it was inevitable that Cardiff, as a Russell Group University, would want to charge £9K, but I can imagine Leighton Andrews being irritated by places like Glamorgan wanting to charge the same.

Whatever game is being played, it’s a very dangerous one and the stakes are very high. The Welsh Assembly Government has already indicated it will pay the fees of any Welsh domiciled students wherever they study in the UK. For the most part that will mean £9K per student per year for Welsh students wanting to study in England. If Welsh universities can only charge £4K per year for students coming from England to Wales then there will be a huge imbalance in funds flowing in and out of the higher education sector. In effect, the Welsh Assembly Government will be subsidising English universities at the expense of Welsh ones.

Currently the number of English students coming to Wales exceeds the number of Welsh students studying in England. The WAG’s plan relies on a net influx of funds to offset the cuts in central funding needed to pay student bursaries. However, English students do not come in equal numbers to all Welsh institutions. More come to Cardiff University than, say, Bangor. So how will this extra income from England benefit the Welsh HE sector generally? Is the proposal to cut HEFCW funds to Universities who succeed in attracting English cash cows students and redistribute the dosh among those institutions that don’t? That hardly seems equitable to me.

I’m certainly not in a panic about this news, although I may be on July 11th when we find out the final outcome. In the meantime, as a humble academic at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to such matters, I’ll get on with my teaching and research and pray that those in charge actually know what they’re doing…

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Local Matters

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2011 by telescoper

I think I’ve caught up with most of the signficant things that happened during my travels, so I thought I’d end this series of updates with some local news from Cardiff (and Wales generally).

First, I can pass on some information relating to the  number of potential students applying to study Physics (and related subjects) this forthcoming academic year (2011/12) in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.  I blogged about this a few months ago when it became obvious that we were having a bumper year. As it turns out, we finished with applications up by a whopping 53% on last year.

Second, and related to the first item, the detailed allocations of university funding in Wales have finally filtered down all the way from HEFCW, through the Cardiff University management, and onto individual schools.  As it happens, this has also turned out not too badly for us here in Physics & Astronomy. For various reasons we’ve finally been given the increase in student numbers that we have been requesting for some time without success. In fact we’ve been given an extra 60 funded places, which is a significant uplift in our quota and a much-needed financial boost for the School. This has happened basically because of HECFW‘s desire to bolster STEM subjects as part of a range of measures related to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans for the regions.

Unfortunately the admissions team have so far been proceeding on the basis that demand would exceed supply for this year so has set our undergraduate offers rather high. In order to fill the extra places that have been given to us late in the day, even with our vastly increased application numbers we may have to go into the clearing system to recruit some of the extra bodies. We’ll have to wait until the A-level results come out in August, however, before we know what the situation really is.

It would have been a lot easier if we’d known the rules at the start of the game, rather than near the end, but that’s the way it goes when politicians start tinkering with things…

We will have to lay on extra tutorials and laboratory sessions to cope with the anticipated increase in student numbers, which will be a bit of a struggle, but the extra money they bring in should keep the wolf from the door for a while.

Another thing worth mentioning concerns research in Wales. In the run-up to the Welsh Assembly elections, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) produced a couple of interesting documents. One was about science policy in the devolved nations and the other was a comparison of STEM subjects across the UK.

These documents make it clear that Wales lags far beyond England and (particularly) Scotland in terms of investment in, and productivity of, its scientific research.  In its  recommendations for Wales, CASE included

    • The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales must increase its investment in research – as well as improving the research base directly, this investment should bring more success in winning competitive, UK-wide funding. The indirect costs of charitably funded research should continue to be covered.
    • Policies should continue to build up the critical mass of research through collaboration, including with overseas researchers or businesses.

As I reported recently, we (Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) have tried to persuade HECFW to fund a Welsh physics initiative, intended to achieve precisely what CASE suggests. Unfortunately HECFW turned our bid down. At least for the short term, additional investment in physics research is clearly not on the agenda for HEFCW.  There’s not much sign of it happening in the future either, but we will have to wait and see…

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Loose Ends

Posted in Biographical, Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on April 2, 2011 by telescoper

Just a brief post today, I think, in order to tie up a few loose ends from this week.

For reasons that I really don’t understand my blog suddenly became very popular on Thursday (31st March), attracting nearly 5000 hits in a day. That’s nearly four times my current daily average and a couple of thousand more than my previous busiest day. So this week I had my busiest day, last week was my busiest week, and last month was my busiest month. I guess it’s all downhill from here.

I couldn’t figure out what happened to cause all this interest, as not all the hits were on any specific article and no particular search terms were used to find this blog, at least not that I could figure out. I presume that it was my sarcastic take on Wonders of the Universe that was behind it. At any rate that was the post that generated the deluge of abusive comments that my spam filter caught.

Anyway, other items of relevant news are that two new members of Staff joined the School of Physics & Astronomy yesterday (April 1st; no, seriously…) and there are a couple more expected to join soon. It’s nice to have a few new faces around the place, and I’m sure they’ll all be bringing new ideas about research and teaching to the physics side of the School.

A week or so ago I passed on some pretty disappointing news about the funding climate here in Welsh universities. More details emerged this week about what this means for individual institutions; you can find the full list of allocations here (PDF). The figures don’t tally with those in the newspaper article I referred to in the previous post which was presumably inaccurate.

The picture isn’t as bad as I feared but, with a total cut of about 5% (in cash terms) across the sector it could hardly be described as good, especially when inflation is running about 5% on top of that. My employer, Cardiff University, has done slightly better than average, with a cut of only 3% in cash.

However – and it’s really delightful to be able to pass on some good news for once – the School of Physics & Astronomy has just been awarded a pretty large increase in its quota of undergraduate students. This is excellent, as I’ve previously reported that we have had a huge surge in applications this year. We’ll have to work hard to squeeze the extra bodies into laboratories, tutorials and even lecture theatres, but the income they will generate should help us carry out the strategic plans we have developed, perhaps bringing in even more new members of staff.

I’m still a bit grumpy, though, as our teaching terms has another two weeks to run, while some lucky bastards have finished already and are now on their Easter holidays…


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Local News

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 25, 2011 by telescoper

I’m looking forward to tonight’s Annual Chaos Society Physics Ball, in advance of which I’ll have to go home to get my glad rags sorted out.

This posh night out should provide some welcome fun at the end of a week in which various items of news concerning Welsh universities have generated considerable anxiety around these parts.

For a start the Welsh Assembly Government has announced funding levels for HEFCW, the body that distributes funding to Welsh universities. According to a newspaper article

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw) has seen its core budget slashed by 8.5% from £453m in 2010-11 to £388m in 2011-12.

Well, pardon my numeracy but a cut from £453m  to £388m is actually a drop of 14.3% not 8.5%. This is much worse than the cuts already announced by HEFCE for English universities, although it remains to be seen how HEFCW will pass on this cut to the institutions it funds. Whatever it does will cause considerable pain, as this cut is being imposed a full year before universities will be allowed to recoup any losses by charging increased tuition fees.

There was also some even more local and even more disappointing news this week concerning HEFCW. Over the past year or so, the three remaining physics departments in Wales (at Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) have developed a proposal to form a strategic alliance along the lines of similar initiatives in Scotland, the Midlands, and South-East of England which resulted in the injection of large amounts of cash into physics research in those areas. The bid went into HEFCW in January and this week we received the decision. No.

I suppose the decision wasn’t surprising given the current funding climate, but it’s nevertheless extremely disappointing to realise we’ve  missed a very important boat. If  Welsh physics had gone down this road a decade ago – which I believe it should – then we would be in much better shape to face the very uncertain future that hangs over us. Still, I suppose it spares us the effort of trying to think up an acronym.

What’s especially worrying about this is that it seems to me that it makes it  inevitable that Welsh physics will do as poorly in the forthcoming Research Excercise Framework as it did in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.
I think it’s worth quoting the observations made by Sub-panel 19 (physics) after the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise:

Sub-panel 19 regards the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance collaboration between Scottish departments as a highly positive development enhancing the quality of research in Scotland. South of the border other collaborations have also been formed with similar objectives. On the other hand we note with concern the performance of three Welsh departments where strategic management did not seem to have been as effective as elsewhere.

Ouch! The final sentence is completely out of order, of course, as it exceeds the remit of HEFCE (which administered the RAE) to try to dictate how Higher Education is run in Wales, as this responsibility is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. It is, however, to some extent a valid criticism. England and Scotland have pumped money into physics in order the develop strategic alliances. Wales hasn’t. And it isn’t going to either.

Given Wales’ relative autonomy when it comes to Higher Education I still don’t understand why its universities forced to participate in the REF anyway, but since it looks like we are stuck with it, I worry what the outcome will be, especially since Welsh physicists have been systematically excluded from the physics panel.

The last item of news concerns HEFCW itself. A report produced by John McCormick has recommended that it be scrapped and replaced with a new body called Universities Wales.

There are many reasons why scrapping HEFCW could turn out to be a good thing. For one thing, a new body might realise that continuing involvement in the REF is wasting a huge amount of time and money in the Welsh HE sector on an exercise that takes no account of Welsh strategic objectives. Nevertheless, I’m  a bit worried by some of the rhetoric coming out of the Welsh Assembly about this issue.

Universities are not the property of the Welsh Assembly (which in fact only funds part of their activity). Universities are independent charitable institutions. Their autonomy is essential in allowing them to do what they do best, free from the short-term expediency that dominates the thinking of the political establishment.

But that’s not to say that the Welsh Assembly is wrong to expect universities to respond to the changing socio-economic landscape. It’s all a matter of balance. If Universities Wales is sufficiently “hands-off” to allow universities to do what they do best – teaching and research – but sufficiently “hands-on” that it can help the HE sector to reorganize in the ways it clearly must, then this could be a very good move.

And if HEFCW does die, I’m afraid there will be few around these parts that mourn its passing.


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The Welsh University Challenge

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , on February 13, 2011 by telescoper

Last week I received an email from BBC Wales asking me to get in touch with one of their reporters. It turned out to be about a blog post I wrote some time ago concerning the recent decision by the Welsh Assembly Goverment to pay the fees of Welsh domiciled students wherever they go to study within the UK. The reporter had read my post and wanted to “pick my brains” for a story she was working on. I didn’t have time  last week as I was too busy, but I found out yesterday that the BBC had indeed run a story.

According to the BBC version, the policy of paying for Welsh students to go to English universities will cost the Welsh Assembly Government £51.7 million in 2015-6 although,  according to their projections, this will be more than offset by an expected £83.5 million coming from English students electing to study in Wales (who will have to pay their own fees).

The net cost of this policy will be about £97.6 million in the same year, allowing for the assumed net profit from English students, which will be met by cutting the core teaching grants to Welsh universities by about 35% – this is less than the cuts in England, but big cut nevertheless.

But these calculations depend on several assumptions. One is what level of fees are charged. If all English universities charge £9K (which is possible) then the outflow of cash related to Welsh students going to England increases. If Welsh university fees are capped at £6K (which also seems likely) then the cash inflow decreases. In fact, in this scenario the differential between  money in and money out completely disappears.

Moreover there is the question of how many students move in each direction. It’s possible that in the Age of Austerity more students will be forced to study near their family homes, which will also alter the balance. In addition, student places are being cut  in Wales while there is a possibility that the cap on numbers in English universities will soon be lifted. This raises the possibility that Welsh students may be forced to study in England anyway, as they might not be able find a place in Wales. We’re certainly not going to benefit much in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University from the current boom in applications, as our numbers have been cut since last year despite applications going up by 50%…

On the other hand – and I’ve anecdotal evidence for this from talking to parents at UCAS admissions days – there seems also to be a feeling that the WAG’s commitment to students is serving to convince a number of English residents that the Welsh universities are in safer hands than those in England.

So, although I strongly support the WAG’s reasons for wanting to help Welsh students as much as possible there remains considerable uncertainty about how things will pan out over the next few years. It could get very grim if reality departs significantly from the projections.

One of the arguments put forward by Leighton Andrews (the Welsh Assembly Minister responsible for Universities in Wales) is that the policy of paying for Welsh students to go to England was in fact a commitment made the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition that controls the Welsh Assembly. That’s fair enough,  but of course it makes one wonder what will happen if the balance changes with the Welsh Assembly Elections due in May 2011.

Only when we know the complexion of the new WAG will we learn whether it might revisit the policy. I’ve heard many arguments for and against, but it still strikes me as very strange to see the devolved administration spending so much of its hard-earned budget in England. That £50.7 million would go a long way if it were kept in Wales.

All things considered, however, despite all the difficulties I think the situation is much more positive for universities in Wales than in England.

Incidentally, another sensible idea being discussed by Leighton Andrews is that Welsh schools might be forced to ditch “soft” A-level subjects, such as (inevitably) Media Studies, in favour of “quality” ones (presumably including mathematics and physics). Perhaps he should do the same for Mickey Mouse degrees in Welsh universities too?

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Wales set for university mergers

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , , on December 22, 2010 by telescoper

Just another quick post to pass on the news just out that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has announced that the number of universities in Wales must reduce by a half over the next two years.

I’ve argued already on this blog that there are too many small separate higher education institutions in Wales and that’s a view which is probably held by many across the sector. Mergers and/or closures have seemed to me to be inevitable for some time given the general climate of austerity and the consequent chill winds blowing through the groves of academe. According to HEFCW, the plan is that by 2013 no “region” of Wales will have any more than two universities although I’m not sure what counts as a region.

Until recently there were four different “universities” with campuses in Cardiff: Cardiff University (where I work); the University of Glamorgan (which has a presence in Cardiff, but which has its main campus in Pontypridd); the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD); and the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC).

In fact RWCMD was absorbed by the University of Glamorgan a short time ago, but still uses its old name as part of the merged institution.
Apparently one more merger will be necessary to satisfy HEFCW’s requirement, which I guess will involve UWIC also being absorbed by the University of Glamorgan. If that does happen, I hope HEFCW will keep a close eye on matters of governance. The UoG doesn’t seem to me to have a very strong track-record with respect to resafeguarding standards of academic practice.

Depending on how “region” is interpreted, there might even be pressure to include the University of Wales, Newport in an even bigger new South East Wales institution presumably headed by the University of Glamorgan.

Elsewhere in Wales the merger process is already underway. Last week, Swansea Metropolitan and the University of Wales Trinity St David announced plans to create a united institution. Going back one stage, the University of Wales Trinity St David was itself formed through the merger earlier this year of Wales’ oldest education institutions, Trinity University College, Carmarthen and the University of Wales Lampeter. Although these have merged it appears they will carry on using their existing names, which may cause some confusion but we’ll have to see how it goes.

It’s important to note that universities are officially independent bodies, so HEFCW (through which public funding is channeled to them) can’t really just tell them to merge. However, many of the smaller institutions are so dependent on state funding that they basically have to do what HEFCW tells them or face financial oblivion. Of course it will require Vice-chancellors to agree, and since presumably half of them will cease to be VCs, there will be some reluctance. Turkeys tend not to vote for Christmas. However, HEFCW has promised that “core funding will be deployed in ways which lend force to the achievement of that target”. In other words, they’ll be calling on the odd VC to make them an offer they can’t refuse…


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Uncertain Universities…

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on November 24, 2010 by telescoper

Interesting snippets of Higher Education news today from the BBC website.

It seems that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HECFW) has voiced concerns about the sustainability of no less than five Welsh universities. Although it hasn’t named them, I think it’s likely to be those most dependent on state funding which is pretty certain to shrink drastically over the next few years. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify the five most likely to fold. This news has emerged as a result of a request by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act.

This comes as no surprise to me, actually. It’s clear that, for its size and population,  Wales has too many separate institutions currently regarded as “universities”. A sustainable system would have less than half the number than we have now, but managing the change to a more rational structure is bound to be a difficult process, especially if it is allowed to happen by organized neglect (which seems to be the plan). Wales drastically underfunds its Higher Education sector compared to England anyway and, with what jam there is spread over far too many institutions, there’s very little by way of resources to devote to any real sort of strategic development.

Another interesting bit of information in the BBC report is that the Welsh Assembly is expected to outline its response to the Browne Review before Christmas. I was expecting the WAG to but  the introduction of any new fee system will probably have to wait until after the Welsh Assembly elections next May.

Meanwhile Cardiff University students are holding a protest against the possible introduction of fees at the very moment I am writing this, as part of a day of action across the UK. Although there are no definite plans to increase fees in Wales at the moment because the WAG has not announced its policy, I think most of us working in academia think a big increase in fees is imminent in Wales, just as it is in England (provided the necessary legislation gets through the House of Commons). It remains to be seen, however, whether Welsh universities will be allowed to charge as much as English ones, i.e. up to £9000 per annum.


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