If We Were Designing a Welsh Higher Education System from Scratch Now, It Would Not Look like What We Have Today; the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Philip Gummett, Joins the Debate - Education in Wales Must Do Better. Discuss

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), December 29, 2011 | Go to article overview

If We Were Designing a Welsh Higher Education System from Scratch Now, It Would Not Look like What We Have Today; the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Philip Gummett, Joins the Debate - Education in Wales Must Do Better. Discuss


OST higher Meducation Council Philip (HE) in Wales is delivered through 11 universities, including the Open University, with a significant contribution from further education colleges.

joins -in do As well as teaching a wide variety of students from Wales, the rest of the UK, Europe, and further afield, the universities also, to varying degrees, pursue research. They also apply both new research and existing knowledge in new contexts, and make their expertise and facilities available to the community around them (so-called "innovation and engagement").

A key difference between higher education and other educational activity in Wales is that the "catchment area" for students is, first, UK-wide (with 25,000 undergraduates coming from, and 16,000 going to, England in particular), and then extends to Europe and the world. The UK is the number two destination globally for international students, after the US, and Wales holds its own well, with more than 19,000 non-UK students (who, incidentally, bring well over pounds 200m a year in inward investment to the Welsh economy and support more than 9,000 jobs). In higher education, success in recruiting students, and securing repeat business internationally, is hard-won.

The same is true of research.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw), on behalf of the Welsh Government, is by default the largest research funder in Wales (in contrast, say, to the north-west of England, where major research investments also come from industry and other government sources).The universities are the major performers of research (again, in contrast to some other parts of the UK). But most of their research income - some of which comes from Welsh sources (like the Welsh European Funding Office) but most from bodies like the UK-wide research councils or the European Research Council - has been won against other contenders.

Once again, tough competition on a UK and wider stage is a fact of HE life in Wales. Altogether, just counting its own income and expenditure, and ignoring the wider economic effects, our HE system more than doubles the investment from Hefcw via its success in recruiting students and winning competitions for research funds.

This is why it is important to provide the HE sector with the basis for effective competition in the first place - which is where public investment comes in, but also public expectations over the use of that investment. The inherently competitive context also provides natural benchmarks for comparing Welsh HE with that across the rest of the UK.

What does that comparison show, looking at the sector as a whole, and recognising that there are variations between institutions? The quality of learning and teaching in all UK universities is assessed periodically by the Quality Assurance Agency. Its reports allow Welsh universities to be compared with all others across the UK. Its latest round of reviews in Wales is under way. While nothing can be taken for granted, these reviews can be looked forward to with confidence because the record in recent years has been broadly good and, where it was not, action has been or is being taken.

Universities also base improvements on the UK-wide National Student Survey which, as its name suggests, collects direct feedback from students. The survey paints a very positive picture for Wales relative to the rest of the UK. At a more detailed level, universities use the results to compare one department's performance with another's, and compare themselves with their competitors, which enables them continuously to pick up points of potential weakness.

Students, and prospective applicants, can learn a lot from these sources, and steps are in hand to publish yet more. New web-based "Key Information Sets", due to come on stream next September will allow applicants to compare universities and programmes in a consistent way for information on student satisfaction, course details (including learning and teaching activities, availability through the medium of Welsh, and assessment methods), costs of study and financial support, and graduate employment and salary information. …

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If We Were Designing a Welsh Higher Education System from Scratch Now, It Would Not Look like What We Have Today; the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, Philip Gummett, Joins the Debate - Education in Wales Must Do Better. Discuss
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