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Building Wales’ Future

As Wales enters an election year in 2021, Universities Wales – the body representing the interests of the nation’s universities – launches its manifesto, Building Wales’ Future. Here Universities Wales chair, Professor Julie Lydon – vice-chancellor at the University of South Wales – outlines the key priorities for higher education in Wales.

Who could have predicted the seismic changes which have happened in Wales, the UK and across the globe since the last Senedd elections?

The world is more different now than we could ever have imagined in 2016. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has brought uncertainty about the future of Wales’ international relationships.

The presidency of Donald Trump has reshaped the nature of public discourse; we have seen a powerful civil rights movement make us reflect on the effort incumbent on everyone to tackle racism; and a global pandemic has caused a total shift in the way work and live.

Wales’ universities have responded to these challenges in the only way they know how: by adapting and working together. They are delivering skills to more people of all ages and backgrounds and carrying out world-leading research and innovation.

In the last five years our universities have been helping to build prosperity, putting themselves at the centre of their communities, strengthening Wales’ place on the global stage.

The universities’ Civic Mission Network is developing and strengthening their work for communities across Wales.

Every university is now an accredited Living Wage Foundation employer. Schemes such as degree apprenticeships have been exciting developments in supplying new skills for the workforce.

Internationally, we continue to build on partnerships and projects around the world promoting Wales as an open and welcoming destination for students and researchers alike.

Nothing better reflects the speed and resilience with which our universities can respond to challenges than the reaction to the crises presented by Covid-19: from new online learning, to the delivery of pastoral care for students; from PPE manufacturing, to researching treatments for the disease.

The next five years promise to be as testing as the last. As we emerge from the pandemic, we will have to renew society, drawing on the positives to challenge old ways of working and living.

Our response will define the direction Wales takes. It gives us the chance to build a future where collaboration and partnership across sectors can drive new growth, innovation and opportunities.

Our manifesto, Building Wales’ Future, sets out the role universities can play in delivering the aspirations for the nation’s future.

Welsh universities are well-placed to support the delivery of an ambitious vision for the nation that includes creating a sustainable, green Wales, providing the skills for Wales’ digital future, being part of a globally competitive and outward-looking nation.

Our asks are focused on research and innovation, skills, international activity, and sustainable funding.

We want parties to commit to establishing a Deputy Minister for Research and Innovation, to work with universities and capitalise on opportunities to drive economic growth.

We are asking for support for student mental health and wellbeing by mainstreaming the funding that universities and students’ unions received during the pandemic.

We want the Reid review of government-funded research and innovation implemented. This would mean a commitment to real-terms increases in quality-related research funding, increases to innovation funding and institutions incentivised to win investment from outside of Wales.

If we are to ensure a future of prosperity and growth, then addressing Wales’ skills shortage and changing workplace is critical if we are to ensure a future of growth, where society is civically engaged.

We want parties to commit to developing an ambitious Universities for Skills programme which supports innovation, collaboration, scaling up activity and further develops systems of flexible learning.

And we are asking for the degree apprenticeship offer to cover a wider range of subjects and include master’s level.

Universities have a crucial part to play in Wales’ position on the international stage, so we are asking parties to commit to securing Wales’ global presence by investing in university networks and programmes with a target set to increase university exports by 75% to £950 million by 2030.

Wales’ universities are integral to the direction Wales travels in the coming years. There is plenty of work ahead and there will be bumps along the way. But we can be optimistic too, if we work together, build on successes of the past and exploit our nation’s strengths and talents.