'Higher Education Plays a Massive Role in Wales'
Byline: By ALED BLAKE Western Mail
From top-up fees to strikes - higher education in Wales has faced a number of challenges during the past 12 months. Education reporter Aled Blake spoke to the leader of Welsh higher education, Professor Merfyn Jones, about his plans for the next two years
NEWLY-ELECTED to his post of chairman of Higher Education Wales, Professor Merfyn Jones is unequivocal about the problems - and opportunities - facing universities here.
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, Bangor, Prof Jones will be chairman of HEW for two years.
HEW is the united voice of higher education institutions in Wales, giving vice-chancellors a single representation when dealing with politicians, civil servants, ministers and businesses.
After a year which has seen continued protests from students over tuition fees and a lengthy national strike from university teaching staff, Prof Jones says universities can now concentrate on doing what 'they were established' to do.
'Universities and higher education institutions are incredibly important in Wales, and I'm not sure our role is always understood,' he explained. 'I'm not sure people are genuinely aware of the huge financial and economic impact of higher education.
'The sector in Wales has a turnover of about pounds 800m - less than half of that comes from the Welsh Assembly Government.
'Of course, that is an incredibly important investment from the Assembly Government, which is made through the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.
'Higher education is competing for staff, consultancies, research and students, and it raises an enormous amount of money for the Welsh economy as major employers in their area.
'In Wales we have institutions all over the country and it's important their benefits are spread across rural Wales as well as the urban areas,' he added.
Prof Jones, 58, started his university career at Swansea in 1971, working on an historical research project on coal mining in South Wales Valleys - work, of which, he says he is extremely proud.
He then moved to Liverpool University where he stayed for 15 years before moving back to his native North Wales and Bangor in the early 1990s, where he moved up the ladder from Professor of Welsh History to his position now as the university's chief executive.
Prof Jones says he is looking forward to his time as chairman of HEW.
He said, 'I see it as a very important challenge to be able to get the sector's point of view across to politicians and opinion formers of all sorts and to the public in Wales as well.
'I am not sure people are aware that higher education is a competitive business and that we not are just sitting here absorbing public money.
'We are wealth generators in our own right and the big challenge for us in the future is to work with all the partners to turn the Welsh economy around into the kind of economy we are all seeking.
'Higher education has a tremendous responsibility in ensuring we work with our partners to make that happen.'
After the settlement in the Assembly over tuition fees in Wales, came the strike from lecturers. …