Welsh Government announces radical reforms to tertiary education in Wales


12th November 2021

The Welsh Government has announced its proposal radically to reform tertiary education in Wales, including the regulation of universities and colleges in Wales. Some elements of the organisation of tertiary education in Wales have been in place for nearly 30 years and this reform has been characterised as a historical moment.

It is noted that the big increases in student numbers, devolution and advances in technology have pushed the need for reform following the Hazelkorn Review in 2016. As a result, the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill (the Bill) was introduced at the Senedd on 1 November 2021 and, if passed, will become law by summer 2022. In this article we will review the Bill and the subsequent reaction of those in the sector.

Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill

In 2016 the Welsh Government had proposed that a review of tertiary education and training in Wales was required.

The Hazelkorn Review subsequently recommended the establishment of a new arms-length sponsored body which would be responsible for all tertiary education and research in Wales. This reflected concerns about the duplication of provision, unnecessary complexity and a lack of coordination between the different education and training providers.

The Welsh Government has noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for this reform to ensure that there is a “more strategic, coherent, and efficient approach to overseeing tertiary education and research.” As part of these reforms, it is proposed that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) itself will be dissolved.

Commission for Tertiary Education and Research

If implemented, the Bill will establish a new Welsh Government sponsored body – the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER). The CTER will result in all elements of tertiary education in Wales being under one regulated body which will monitor, register and regulate providers as well as setting standards in the sector. The Welsh Government hopes that this will ensure that learners have the support of a coherent sector which will be focused on widening access and increasing opportunities. This will be the first time in Wales’ history that tertiary education will be under one umbrella.

The intention is to establish the CTER in 2023 and it will be responsible for the following sectors:

  • Further education, including colleges and school sixth-forms
  • Higher education, including research and innovation
  • Adult education and adult community learning
  • Apprenticeships and training

Funding

The CTER will have numerous duties such as ensuring facilities are funded and secured for further education and training. This will include a power to fund local authorities for the purposes of mainstream school sixth forms.

It will also have the power to fund higher education, apprenticeships, research and innovation and other activities in connection with tertiary education including information, advice and guidance.

When providing funding, the CTER may be required by the Welsh Government to enter into an Outcome Agreement with the bodies that it funds, which will set out how a provider will contribute to the objectives of the CTER’s strategic plan (outlined below) and the overall goals.

Regulation and oversight

The providers of tertiary education in Wales will need to register with the CTER to be eligible for some forms of grant funding and Welsh Government student support which predominantly funds higher education courses and student maintenance in Wales. The CTER will keep a register of those providers that have registered which will include conditions attached to the registration (depending on the category of provider).

The CTER will have a range of powers to ensure that providers remain compliant with their conditions of registration. It will have powers of recourse to address situations where providers are either at risk of failing or have failed their ongoing conditions of registration. This is intended to protect the interests of learners, taxpayers and the Welsh Government.

Quality of education

The CTER will monitor and promote improvement in the quality of tertiary education in registered and funded providers. It will have the power to develop and publish policy frameworks which will consider quality, the assessment of quality and professional development in the workforce.

Estyn will continue to hold its duty to inspect tertiary education and training providers excluding those in higher education. Estyn and the CTER will agree a plan of inspections, and the CTER will provide funding for the exercise of Estyn’s functions.

Apprenticeships

The Bill establishes a new Wales-specific apprenticeship system which (it is intended) will be flexible and responsive to the needs of learners and employers in Wales. The operation of the system and the delivery of the apprenticeship will be undertaken by the CTER but Minsters will have strategic stewardship of Welsh apprenticeships.

Strategic duties

As well as establishing the CTER, the Bill will establish nine strategic duties which reflect the long-term vision of the sector and guide the CTER’s future work.

The nine duties are as follows:

  • promoting life-long learning;
  • promoting equality of opportunity;
  • encouraging participation in tertiary education;
  • promoting continuous improvement in tertiary education and research;
  • promoting collaboration and coherence in tertiary education and research;
  • contributing to a sustainable and innovative economy;
  • promoting tertiary education through the medium of Welsh;
  • promoting a civic mission; and
  • promoting a global outlook.

Comment on tertiary education in Wales

The response to the Bill has addressed both the substance of the Bill and its timing. Many college leaders have called on the Education Minster to allow the “chaos” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to subside before introducing radical reforms.  In particular, the Association of School and College Leaders have called for a pause, saying that its members were “totally exhausted by the task of simply keeping our schools and colleges open”. Eithne Hughes, Director of ASCL Cymru, said that the timing of the announcement was an indication that the Welsh Government was “out of touch” with the “massive disruption being felt across our schools and colleges due to coronavirus”.

There have also been questions raised as to how the CTER proposes to regulate certain matters such as value for money in school and college settings and ensuring that learners have as wide a choice as possible in terms of options open to them after completing their compulsory education.

As ever, funding remains a key concern including (for example) whether the reforms will be accompanied by an increase in funding in a sector where funding is always a challenge. To meet the strategic duties set out in the Bill, it is arguable that a funding increase is required to ensure broadly-based, high-quality provision for all learners. Many thought that funding itself should be primarily focused on learner interests with links to a responsive labour market and employers rather than institutions. This is so that, for example, learners undertake training in professional skills as well as sector-specific skills with employers that will in turn assist with their search for employment in the future. Some respondents noted that it would be an opportunity to strengthen collaboration, cooperation and communication with employers in the learner’s fields of interest.

During the consultation stage many respondents to the draft Bill had concerns about the proposed approach to registration and regulation as they thought it unnecessary and would be more complex, require more administrative effort and could result in greater costs to institutions than current arrangements. They also expressed concern that the registration conditions on the providers are excessive and may result in unequal treatment of the providers. Despite these concerns the registration of providers was included largely unchanged in the final version of the Bill.

In summary, the timing of any reform is challenging. The reform of tertiary education in Wales had support from the sector during the consultation stage, but it comes at a turbulent time given the wide-ranging and long-lasting implications of COVID-19. Beyond that a key test will be whether, once established, the CTER can promptly fulfil its duties to the satisfaction of the various stakeholders and establish itself as an effective successor to HEFCW.

This article has been co-written by Matthew Smith and Sara Trevor.

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