A Positive Future for Higher Education

Topic: A Western Mail article by Professor Noel Lloyd, Chair of HEW

Government announcements on Higher Education have been flowing thick and fast over the last few months – on topics ranging from student fees and funding to governance and reconfiguration of the sector. Amongst all the messages it is important to pause and take of stock of what it is we actually deliver and the longer term benefits our universities bring to Wales. Wales’s future economic prosperity depends on our ability to be a full participant in the global knowledge economy. At the same time the promotion of social justice depends fundamentally on the creation of economic prosperity and expansion of high level educational opportunities for people across Wales.

The twin objectives of social justice and economic prosperity must be the foundation on which our universities embrace the future. But the current environment is far from being ‘business as usual’.  The Higher Education sector recognises that the significantly changed economic climate means that we will need to build on the diversity, innovation and flexibility already inherent in our universities in Wales, in order to continue to maximise the benefits of the services we deliver. Each one of our universities is committed to the challenge of delivering a substantial economic gain to Wales, of breaking the cycle of low skills and to delivering the social justice that Wales deserves.

The stakes are high: as a nation we are one of least productive part of the United Kingdom. This challenge takes place in a wider context in which the UK’s competitor nations are moving ahead by increasing investment in research and science – and rapidly increasing the number of people with high level skills. The role of universities in helping Wales address these challenges is pivotal – higher education is one of the few indigenous generators of research and innovation of significant scale in Wales. Any reductions in the research and development taking place in the university sector will undercut Wales’s ability to compete in the global knowledge economy. The UK’s competitor countries and regions have recognised the importance of universities to economic recovery and long-term economic growth by increasing public investment in their higher education systems and research. Moreover, access to a university education is vital – higher education has always been an important springboard to better living standards for individuals and families in Wales and widening this access to higher education to all parts of our society is crucial. The personal transformation effect and the benefits of a workforce in a growing economy based on high level skills and high productivity, is a pivotal route to success in a globalised world.

Universities are able to secure resources – both public and private – that would not otherwise be attracted to Wales. Changes which undermine the university sector’s ability to attract resources into Wales from UK and EU sources will have a negative impact on the Welsh economy.  Welsh higher education is a substantial industry in its own right with a turnover of £1.2bn in 2008/09. This turnover makes a direct contribution to the economy, supplemented by knock-on or indirect effects. These knock-on effects generated an additional £1.5bn expenditure in other industries throughout Britain – with £1.1bn accruing to Welsh industries. Universities direct outputs have a multiplier effect- for every £1m of university expenditure, £1.02m accrues to industries located in Wales and for every 100 jobs employed by a university in Wales, a further 83 were created in industries in Wales.

An outstanding example of what can be achieved is demonstrated by last week’s announcement by HPC Wales (High Performance Computing Wales) of a partnership with Fujitsu Corporation.  HPC Wales has attracted significant levels of funding from Europe and from the UK government and provides cutting edge technology combined with training which will be available to business in Wales. It demonstrates the global reach of our universities and their strength when working together with a clear set of objectives, their commitment to business and their ability to provide high level skills training.
So, what are the key challenges for universities and public policy makers as we move into the next period? I would suggest our top three should be to maximise the ability of universities to lever in earnings from outside Wales to the benefit of the economy; to continue work on underpinning the knowledge economy and cultural and social renewal by delivering improved research performance; and to work with our diverse student body to further enhance the student experience through excellence in learning and teaching, to make Wales the destination of choice for students.

In addition to its economic importance, the sector offers far-reaching opportunities to students to develop their skills for employment, but – perhaps more importantly, is so often a life-enhancing experience.  That is why we must give the opportunity to everyone who can benefit from it and attract students from all areas of Wales, whatever their background.  Seeing students develop over their years at university is one of the most satisfying aspects of the work of an academic.
We must be involved in our localities, contribute to the life of Wales and be internationally recognised.  These are not alternatives – they are closely intertwined aspects of what we are about.