Archive for Leighton Andrews

The Dissolution of the Assembly

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , on March 27, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday’s mail included a polling card for the forthcoming elections to the Welsh Assembly. Coincidentally, I found out this morning that the Welsh Assembly will be dissolved on 31st March, to be re-convened on or after 5th May when the elections are finished.

Until Thursday the Welsh Assembly Government comprises a coalition of New Labour and Plaid Cymru and, although I don’t know enough about Welsh politics to predict what’s going to happen with any real confidence, it seems reasonably likely that not much will change. I can’t see the Tories or LibDems making any gains, at any rate.

I’m not sure of the extent to which Higher Education will be important in the forthcoming election campaign. It sure be, of course, as the relevant issues are those over which the Assembly has direct responsibility, education being one. The WAG’s hands are tied to a large extent by the funding it receives from Westminster, and it also has many other calls on its purse, but I do hope the new WAG, whatever its complexion is, will do the right thing by Welsh universities when it re-forms in May.

I have to admit, though, that I’m very worried for the future. As I predicted when the new funding arrangements for English universities were announced, the vast majority – and certainly all the research intensive ones – will be charging the full £9K fee level from 2012. That means the current WAG’s commitment to pay fees for Welsh-domiciled students wanting to study in England will be much more expensive than the WAG’s estimates, which were based on an average fee level of £7.5K. English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay whatever fee Welsh universities charge, which isn’t known yet.

Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales, compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If numbers remain the same, in order for the funds coming in from England to exceed the money going to England, the fee level charged in Wales must  be at least 64% of that charged in England, i.e. £5760 if all English universities charge £9K. That’s way above the putative mininum fee level of £4K announced by the WAG; if Welsh universities charge fees at that level then the WAG will be providing a large net subsidy to English universities.

And breaking even isn’t anywhere near enough. The WAG has signalled an intention to top-slice teaching budgets by about 40%. We don’t yet know how that will be implemented, university-by-university and department-by-department,  but unless there are to be wholesale closures of “expensive” subjects (i.e. science and engineering) fee levels will have to rise substantially above the level calculated above. My own employer, Cardiff University, a member of the Russell Group of research-led universities, will probably want to brand itself alongside the English universities belonging  to this club by charging a high fee. I hope it doesn’t do this, but  the WAG’s policies are pushing it in that direction. As one of Wales’ biggest recruiters of English students, Cardiff will have to charge high fees in order to be seen as being of the same quality as leading English universities as well as to make up for funding lost in the latest round of deep cuts to recurrent grants.

The recent rhetoric of the WAG is all about achieving greater control of the HE sector in Wales to align it with strategic priorities within the Principality. This is certainly justifiable in principle as Wales has a university system which is far too fragmented and chaotic. Paradoxically, however,  the WAG’s own policies seem to be forcing Welsh universities to look to England for income to make up for the big cuts recently announced.

So what’s the alternative?

I think it would be much more rational to ditch the commitment to fund Welsh-domiciled students for studying in England. If a student wants to go to England then they should experience the same fee regime as students domiciled there. After all, you wouldn’t expect the WAG to pay fees for a Welsh student to go to America, would you? The cash thus saved should be reinvested in Welsh Higher Education, in accordance with the WAG’s strategic priorities, and in keeping tuition fee levels as low as possible within the Principality. The best way to avoid tuition fee levels of £9K is to maintain core grants at a level that makes it unnecessary to charge so much.

It seems to me that this plan is a better deal for Welsh students, for English students wanting to study in Wales,  for Welsh universities, and for the Welsh Assembly Government, but then I’m used to being in a minority of one.

Let’s just say I’ll be reading the party manifesto statements with great interest over the next few weeks…


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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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Why should Wales subsidise English universities?

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , on December 5, 2010 by telescoper

As the argument about increased tuition fees for English universities  intensifies in the run-up to Thursday’s debate in the House of Commons,  the Welsh Assembly Government last week announced that fees for students in Wales would rise to a basic level of £6000 per year, with a possible increase to £9000 “in certain circumstances”.

I’m a bit surprised that the WAG made this announcement in advance of the vote in Westminster, as it seems to me to be by no means certain that England will introduce the post-Browne system that Wales is copying. If the increased fee measure for England doesn’t get through Parliament then Welsh universities will find themselves out on a limb.

More generally, I find it extremely disappointing that there seems to be absolutely no independent thinking going on in Wales about Higher Education funding. The responsibility for this is devolved to the WAG, but time and time again it simply copies what the English are doing. What’s the point of having devolution if you haven’t got politicians willing and able to be different from the Westminster crowd?

One thing that Welsh Assembly Minister Leighton Andrews did announce that isn’t the case in England is that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from any tuition fee rise by a new system of grants, meaning that the Welsh Assembly will pick up the tab for Welsh students. They will still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG will pay the extra (between about £3K and £6K). This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

POSTCRIPT: Leighton Andrews’ speech to the Welsh Assembly can be seen here.


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All in a day’s work

Posted in Art, Biographical, Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 30, 2010 by telescoper

I got back from yesterday’s trip to a very muggy London with a raging sore throat and a brain as sluggish as an England defender on an action replay. Come to think of it, I must be as sick as a parrot. I’m sweating like a pig too, although I don’t know whether that’s a symptom of anything nasty or just because it’s still so warm and humid. Anyway, in view of my likely incoherence I thought I’d keep it brief (again) and just mention a few salient points from the last day or two.

I went to London as part of my duties as External Examiner for the MSc Course in Astrophysics at Queen Mary, University of London. Of course all the proceedings are confidential so I’m not going to comment on anything in detail, except that I spent a bit of time going through the exam scripts before the Examiners’ Meeting in a room that did a very passable impersonation of a heat bath. When I was later joined by the rest of the Exam Board the temperature soared still further. Fortunately the business went relatively smoothly so nobody got too hot under the collar and after concluding the formal business, a few of us cooled off with a beer or two in the Senior Common Room.The students spend the next couple of months writing their dissertations now that the written exams are over, so we have to reconvene in October to determine the final results. I hope it’s a bit cooler by then.

I couldn’t stay long at Queen Mary, however, as I had a working dinner to get to. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) may remember that I’m involved in project called Beyond Entropy which is organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. I’ve been working on this occasionally over the months that have passed since I first blogged about it, but deadlines are now looming and we need to accelerate our activity. Last night I met with the ever-enthusiastic Stefano Rabolli Pansera at the house of Eyal Weizman by Victoria Park in the East End, handily close to Queen Mary’s Mile End campus. Assisted by food and wine we managed to crystallise our ideas into something much more tangible than we had managed to do before on our theme of Gravitational Energy. The School has offered us expert practical assistance in making prototypes and  I’m now much more optimistic about our exhibit coming together, not to mention excited at the prospect of seeing it on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale. I won’t say what we’re planning just yet, though. I’d rather wait until it’s done before unveiling it.

Incidentally, here’s a link to a  lecture by Eyal Weizman where he gives some interesting perspectives on architectural history.

Finally, and nothing to do with my trip to the Big Smoke, I noticed today on the Research Fortnight Blog that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) is planning to reduce the number of universities in Wales “significantly” from its current 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

“This target does not mean fewer students,” he said in a statement. “But it is likely to mean fewer vice chancellors. We will have significantly fewer HE institutions in Wales but they will be larger and stronger.”

How these reductions will be achieved remains to be seen, but it seems obvious that quite a few  feathers will be ruffled among the management’s plumage in some institutions and it looks like some vice chancellors will be totally plucked!

Among the Crachach

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on June 6, 2010 by telescoper

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.