New administrations: Uncertainty looms for higher education in Wales

Image: Shutterstock/Billy Stock
Image: Shutterstock/Billy Stock

The aftermath of the Welsh Assembly elections of 5 May will probably be remembered as the most chaotic scenes in the assembly’s history.

After much political manoeuvring, the outcome has been another Labour government, still led by Carwyn Jones, but with a surprise addition that nobody in Wales would have anticipated in the days before, or even immediately after, the election – the addition of former Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams as the cabinet secretary for education.

Such a senior position for an assembly member from outside the ruling party is unusual, but perhaps more surprising are the number of Liberal Democrat manifesto pledges that made it into the programme for government. Of particular interest was the following:

“The recommendations of the Diamond review on student tuition fees will be considered, with a view to early implementation where appropriate, but there will be no negative effect on the higher education budget if there are any changes.”

The Diamond review will almost certainly recommend dramatic changes to the way that Welsh students are funded at university.

Currently, Welsh students receive a grant payment of up to £5,190 toward their tuition fees, regardless of where they study. In his interim report, Professor Sir Ian Diamond said the keeping the current system “is not an option”, so it seems likely that this level of support will not continue – at least for students wishing to study outside Wales.

Before the election, the IOP was one of a number of organisations that signed a letter to then education minister Huw Lewis calling for protection of the HEFCW budget from the cuts proposed in the December 2015 budget. As a result of pressure from a number of directions these cuts were reduced, but ultimately HEFCW’s budget still shrank by 10%.

We’ve yet to see how this will impact the quality-related budget for research in Wales, but, given the importance of this funding to blue-skies research, it would be deeply worrying to see further erosion of the already stretched fund. Despite the understandable focus on industrial applications of research in recent years, it is important that the Welsh Government understands that basic scientific research has value that can’t be easily matched to lines on a spreadsheet when applying for funding. It underpins applied research and innovation; it’s vital to Wales’s research reputation, and it has significant cultural and educational value as well.

All of this amounts to an uncertain few years for the higher education sector in Wales, although the push to quickly implement Diamond’s recommendations seems to have been broadly welcomed by those within it.

As an expensive subject to teach, physics is likely to feel the impact of any reduction in funding more acutely than other subjects, and we hope that as the Welsh Government redistributes a shrinking pot of money it doesn’t overlook the need to support a robust science presence in Welsh higher education.

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