Archive for Leighton Andrews

University Admissions in Uncharted Territory

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2011 by telescoper

It turns out I have a few minutes spare before going to our staff Away (half) Day this afternoon, so I thought I’d pass on another interesting bit of news that came out this week.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, known to all and sundry as UCAS, has released some interesting statistical information on numbers of applicants to UK universities and how this compares with the corresponding stage in the admissions timetable last year.

We’re still very early on in the process so it would be unwise to read too much into the figures available so far. The big question, however, is whether the ConDem government’s decision to raise fees for university students to £9K per annum has had any effect on the number of students applying. In fact the headline figure is that after several years of growth in overall applicant numbers, the figures for 2012 entry are down 9% on last year. Still early days, of course, but it does look like the new fee levels may be having the deterrent effect we all expected.

Another interesting thing that struck me, from Table 6 of the UCAS analysis, is that the number of students applying to study courses in the physical sciences (including Physics & Astronomy) is down by just 1.6% on the same stage last year, compared to an average of 7.9% across all subjects. (Note that this is not the same as the 9% mentioned above, because students get more than one choice of course..).

Of particular interest to us in Wales is the breakdown of applicants by domicile and choice of institution.  From Table 4 we see that the number of English students applying to Welsh Universities is down 13.4%, while the number of Welsh-domiciled students applying to study in England is down by only 4.3%. If this differential persists then it will have a big impact on the Welsh Higher Education sector, because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision to cut funding for Welsh Universities in order to pay for its  subsidy for  Welsh students wanting to study in England.

It’s too early to predict what will happen to overall student numbers for 2012/13, but I’m sure planning officers in universities all around the UK will be looking at the interim figures with a considerable degree of anxiety.

Who needs the University of Wales?

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 12, 2011 by telescoper

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.

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…

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…


Share/Bookmark

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?

Share/Bookmark

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.


Share/Bookmark

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!