Statement from Higher Education Wales on the Higher Education (Wales) Bill

In response to this afternoon’s statement from the Minister for Education and Skills in connection with the Higher Education (Wales) Bill, please find below the following statement from Higher Education Wales:

Welsh universities understand that governments, here and elsewhere, are nervous regarding the impact of reducing university funding and their future accountability. Universities believe they are, and should be, accountable and indeed the charitable status of universities requires that they operate for the public benefit.

At the same time, Welsh universities and those across the UK, thrive on the principles of autonomy which are widely considered to have enabled them to become world class. An appropriate and proportionate balance has to be found to enable universities to succeed in their missions and to deliver economic and social prosperity to Wales.

So government requirements form one strand of the accountability framework within which universities operate. We would expect this Bill, and any subsequent legislation, to respect that fact. Universities are particularly concerned that their accountability directly to fee paying students should not be undermined. We believe it is important that appropriate provisions are in place to safeguard the interests and investment of our students with whom we work so closely in Wales, especially those who are not in receipt of a tuition fee grant subsidy.

The extent to which important provisions are left out of the Bill to be determined by subsequent regulations, mainly through the negative resolution process, is a major concern for universities. This means that the overall impact of the legislative framework is difficult to assess. Many of the issues delegated to regulations raise questions which could have a potentially serious impact for universities including their national accounting status as Non Profit Institutions Serving Households (NPISH) and charity status. These in turn, could have a bearing on our universities’ ability to operate and therefore attract key partners, jobs and ultimately growth for Wales.

The Bill, exceptionally, includes the power to later amend Acts through subordinate legislation. We strongly believe that all provisions should be subject to an affirmative legislative procedure involving due consultation with all stakeholders and a vote in the Assembly. It is vital to get the Bill right, and it should not be passed in principle unless all key stakeholders are confident that it is.

It is important that appropriate provisions are in place to safeguard the interests and investment of students, the public and universities themselves which is why we believe that any regulatory changes should empower and support our universities, and must not risk causing any damage to the sector which could be difficult to unpick in the future. Wales’s universities reach all parts of society, feeding the social, economic and cultural wellbeing of our nation, and Higher Education Wales will work proactively with the National Assembly and the Welsh Government to ensure any new regulation is not only proportionate but builds on our reputation as part of a recognisably world-class UK-wide higher education system.