You’d be forgiven, with the Covid-19 crisis dominating headlines and capacity, for forgetting that the end of the transition period, following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, is still approaching at the end of December. While the higher education sector focuses on both the immediate challenges of coronavirus and preparing for the longer–term implications, there is no doubt that when the transition period ends we will yet again be in a much-changed environment.
Wales has been a key beneficiary of EU funding, with over 20% of the UK total of European Structural Funds (ESF) coming to Wales. Welsh universities have been key parts of the puzzle when it comes to ESF, receiving over £290 million in the 2014-20 programme as lead partners. Universities have delivered significant benefit to the Welsh economy with this funding, using it to enhance collaboration between universities, drive research and innovation and to engage businesses, students and other young people in knowledge exchange schemes.
Many students, academics and businesses who have been close partners in these projects are understandably keeping a close eye on the developments of the Shared Prosperity Fund – the Westminster government’s proposed replacement to EU funding.
We believe it crucial, that the Shared Prosperity Fund should deliver at a minimum, the same level of funding that Wales has benefitted from as members of the European Union. Its expenditure should be devolved by design to the Welsh Government and it should be based on need and not the Barnett formula.
Wales is home to some of the most deprived regions of the UK and the case for genuine, transformative change for these areas has never been more important, especially in the current context. It is vital that the Welsh economy is supported to do this, by ensuring Wales does not lose out.
Given Welsh universities’ extensive experience in delivering European Structural Funds, they are in a strong position to offer an important perspective on the lessons to be learned from these processes. The Shared Prosperity Fund should seek to enhance collaboration in what is already a collaborative group of universities, where it is appropriate to do so. It should seek to do this without adding bureaucracy, stifling the very creativity and innovation it should seek to foster and incubate here in Wales.
It should allow for flexibility going forward, to respond to the many challenges and opportunities that the Welsh economy will face, such as the recovery from Covid-19, climate change and automation, among others. Welsh universities, especially given their key economic importance within their communities, offer unique expertise with which to drive this change and continue to deliver locally and nationally for Wales as we enter the 2020s.
The UK’s leading global position will never be more important. As our future trading relationships with partners close to home and further afield become clearer, it is critical that we are able to successfully project Wales as a global presence. Welsh universities will undoubtedly continue to play a key role in achieving this, helping to illustrate Wales as the dynamic, welcoming and innovative nation we know it to be, to colleagues and partners abroad, old and new.
Whilst we – and many others – have been clear from the get-go, that the Shared Prosperity Fund (or any replacement) must do no less than match previous rounds of funding, there is an opportunity here for a bold step-change from Westminster.
We know that education is a driving force behind economic growth. Estimates typically attribute 20% of the UK’s economic growth in recent decades to improved workforce skills, and it’s no secret that countries with high levels of innovation have stronger track records on investing in their higher education systems. In December, UK Government planted its proverbial flag in the ground, announcing a string of major investments in research and innovation, forming a core part of its industrial strategy.
This opportunity, coupled with the need for a rapid and resolute bounce-back from the Covid-19 crisis, means that the Shared Prosperity Fund will be instrumental in the economic success of Wales – and Wales’s universities stand ready, able and eager to rise to the challenge.