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Blog: Why the general election matters to universities in Wales

With general election campaigning well underway, here Professor Julie Lydon OBE, Chair of Universities Wales, explains why the general election is critical to the nation’s higher education institutions.

Universities matter to Wales, its prosperity and its prospects for growth. They drive innovation, create jobs and attract investment to communities needing new avenues to economic success.

In the era of devolved power some may ask whether the general election has as much relevance to Wales’ higher education sector. But there are many important areas where policy decided by the UK Government has direct and indirect consequences on higher education here.

This is particularly true in the upcoming vote, given decisions are still to be made on Brexit and the nature of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Universities are at the forefront of a progressive Welsh education system and decisions taken at UK-level on issues such as our future relationship with the European Union, migration and research councils all impact on Wales’ universities.

That is why Universities Wales is outlining three specific areas we want all parties in the next UK Parliament to focus on.

Firstly, we are asking parties to commit to replacing Structural Funds in Wales in full and devolving a future shared prosperity fund to a Wales level.

European Structural and Investment Funds have played an important role in supporting research, innovation and economic growth in Wales.

Since 2014, Welsh universities have been awarded over £280m of European Structural and Investment Funds as lead partners in projects and are well-placed to deliver them in a way that benefits people, businesses and communities in Wales.

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU means that the benefit this investment has brought to Wales is at risk.

Universities Wales believes these funds should be replaced in full. The UK Government has previously pledged to set up a Shared Prosperity Fund to replace this funding. This replacement should be devolved by design and should operate on a needs-based investment model.

The benefits of the work universities do, supported by structural funds in Wales, can already be seen. For example, the Advanced Sustainable Manufacturing Technologies project (ASTUTE) which, in its first phase, supported more than 250 Welsh enterprises in West Wales and the Valleys in 2010-15 creating an economic impact in excess of £200m returning £8 of economic impact for every £1 invested.

Then there is the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships 2 (KESS 2) project, which promotes high-level skills development by increasing the research capacity of small to medium-sized enterprises, placing master’s or PhD students with those businesses.

The first KESS project achieved 230 PhD and 223 research master’s projects across Wales.
These projects provide just two examples of the huge range of activity supported by structural funds. It is vital that those funds are replaced in full and devolved to Wales.

Secondly, Universities Wales wants the UK to work for all its nations, with a commitment from all parties to ensure that the future UK Government considers the impact of its decisions on the devolved nations.

Decisions on student mobility, student fees, funding for higher education or changes to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme all have consequences for higher education in Wales.
The UK Government should consider the impact those decisions will have – this might be through a more formal process for assessing their effect on the devolved nations, or a strengthening of the role of the Joint Ministerial Committee: a forum of the UK and devolved nations.

Thirdly, we are asking parties to commit to a renewed focus on place-making, including the role of universities in boosting productivity.

There is a chance for a future UK Government to reimagine regional regeneration, with universities at the front and centre of efforts to raise productivity.

Replacing and devolving European Structural and Investment Funds is one key part of
this. But there are other opportunities – including the use of city deals and growth deals and investment by UK Research and Innovation to support the development of research in all parts of the UK.

European programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 have also played important roles in supporting people and places across the UK.

So far, more than €82m (67%) of all Welsh Horizon 2020 funding has been awarded to Welsh universities. We want full association with key programmes such as Horizon Europe and the successor scheme to Erasmus+.

The higher education sector in Wales needs its voice heard in the debate surrounding the future of the UK, how its relationship with the European Union is formed and framed and how new funds are implemented once the UK has left the EU. That’s why we are calling on political parties to commit to taking the steps needed to make the UK work for all its nations: in decision-making, shared prosperity funding and regional development.

Universities Wales represents the interests of universities in Wales, its mission is to support a university education system which transforms lives through the work Welsh universities do with the people and places of Wales and the wider world.