Just over a week ago, the Times Higher Education Supplement brought out this year’s World Universities Rankings. Although universities live and die by such ranking exercises these days, we should take such elaborate attempts to compare apples with oranges with a whole truckload of salt. However, it was still striking that no Welsh university – even Cardiff, which is part of the Russell group – made it into the top 200. Even the Today programme found it worthwhile to mention that depressing fact.
But we should not be surprised. Devolution has been disastrous for universities in Wales, and from what I hear, the situation in Scotland is hardly better.
The problem is that the devolved government of Wales has not learned how to think globally. Devolution should not mean that you cannot think beyond your regional borders – and this is particularly important in the university sector.
Universities compete within international research communities, and increasingly, they also compete in an international higher education market. The Welsh government’s policies are simply not fit to work under these conditions. Leighton Andrews’s diktat on how he wants the sector to be organised is strangling smaller institutions which should be serving local communities, and it isn’t helping the large research-focused institutions, either.
Of course, the worst aspect of Welsh Universities policy has been the ever growing funding gap between Universities in Wales and those in England. This gap grew from £20 Million in 2000-2001 to almost £ 900 Million in 2008-9 – a further 9% cut for 2011/12 is making matters even worse. While falling behind on funding, Welsh universities still have to compete for money of the UK funding bodies, and are monitored by the Research Excellence Framework, the Teaching Quality Assessment and the Quality Assurance Agency.
And the situation is about to get worse. The Welsh government has decided to send part of its higher education money to England in order to subsidise the tuition fees of Welsh students who decide to study elsewhere in the UK. This sounded great in December 2010, at a time when students were staging protests all around the country. Let’s be frank – in 2011, Welsh Labour decided to use Welsh university funding in order to buy votes in the Assembly election. Whatever you may think of the Coalition’s tuition fees policy, bribing voters while doing serious damage to the future development of Wales is reckless and morally wrong.
The consequences will be dire. The bill will be in the region of £280m to begin with, and it is predicted that in the next nine years, the Welsh government will send at least £2.3bn to the rest of the UK, mostly to England. In the long run, the damage to Welsh higher education will be enormous, and this is a seriously regressive policy. Why? Think about it: the Welsh government has decided to subsidise those Welsh students who study in English universities. It is simply a fact that it is easier for students from better off families to study far away from home. Those from poorer backgrounds often have to go to the nearest university, so that they can live at home and save a good deal of maintenance costs. So, if you send a considerable chunk of Welsh Higher Education money to England while starving Welsh universities of funding, it is this group of ambitious young people from poorer backgrounds who will find that they have to make do with underfunded, second-rate universities at home.
Is this really the best way of securing the future of Wales?