2011 has been a momentous year in the history of higher education, not just in Wales but the UK and globally. Here in Wales we have experienced intense political and media focus. Key events have included the decision on a new fees and funding regime for Wales, a review of university governance which reported in March, a successful referendum to extend the powers of the National Assembly, including powers in respect of higher education, and elections to the National Assembly for Wales in May. The period has ended with a renewed focus on structural change aimed at addressing the challenges faced by UK higher education in the years ahead.
I believe now is a good time to reflect on what we have achieved in the last year, to celebrate our successes and champion the inspirational work that continues across all of our institutions. We can build on the foundations of these achievements and continue to shape and drive a sector that is robust, efficient and fully able to rise to the challenges we face at home and abroad.
2011 – A snapshot
In 2011 universities have led the way with innovative collaborative projects on science and research. This year the High Performance Computing Wales (HPC) project commenced, which is a £40 million research alliance aimed at giving Welsh businesses and universities access to the most advanced and evolving computing technology available. The project will help make Wales a market leader in this field and HPC Wales is already gaining international plaudits for its work and future plans. Other major university initiatives such as ASTUTE, an advanced manufacturing alliance working closely with business and receiving significant European funding, began its life. These projects will help deliver the sort of economic transformation we are all working flat out to achieve. Looking forward to 2012 universities will be building on such strategic collaborations in the wake of the anticipated Welsh Government Science for Wales strategy in 2012. Professor John Harries’ draft document issued in the summer helped to raise the issue of science and research – a topic of major importance to Wales’s future economic success.
We look forward to working closely with Minister and Professor Harries to make Science for Wales a success that helps set the direction for the work of universities and our partners.
Widening access to Universities is something of paramount importance to Welsh Universities. This year, the University of the Heads of the Valleys, a flagship university-led project has continued to grow and provided opportunities to those that traditionally may not have had the chance to access higher education at all. Other initiatives include Reaching Wider. Now in its eighth year of operation, the pan-Wales Reaching Wider programme continues to increase higher education participation from groups and communities in Wales by raising aspirations, creating new study opportunities and learning pathways to higher education.
The inaugural Student Finance Wales Day took place in universities and schools all across Wales on 14th November 2011. Now an annual event, Student Finance Day is dedicated to explaining the recent changes to our diverse student population. Our aim is to dispel the myths around the new system and to ensure that all students have access to the right information they need for making this significant decision in their life. Plans are already underway for a bigger and better National Student Finance Wales Day next year and we look forward to working with our partners, the Welsh Government, Universities UK and the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association (HELOA).
Wales has seen year on year increases in the capture of research income, alongside the launch of important new collaborative partnerships with key ‘anchor’ companies such as GE, Airbus, TATA and EADS and we have made swift progress in establishing and launching the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol which will take forward with Wales-wide efforts to expand Welsh medium HE in Wales.
In March this year the Western Mail exclusively covered a report from Oxford Economics showing that nearly a quarter of a billion pounds is contributed to the Welsh economy by international and EU students. This means that over 9,000 jobs in our communities are sustained by the presence of students from overseas. Positive experiences of our universities contribute to a higher international profile for our nation and helps foster future business and cultural links. But the direct economic contribution of international and EU students should not be downplayed at a time of economic difficulty. This report showed that these economic benefits are much larger than previously thought and includes a £23m annual boost to the tourist industry in Wales.
The agenda for international engagement in higher education is a broad one and is about themes that rightly go beyond student recruitment. In 2011 universities in Wales, through Welsh Higher Education Brussels (WHEB), formed three cross-institutional teams of leading academics in Wales whose mission is to lead new bid for European research funding – a rare area where funding is high and increasing. Universities are determined to improve our share of research funds from national and international sources.
For this reason the university sector was well represented in the First Minister’s successful mission to China in October. Universities are one of Wales’s few bridges to the rapidly growing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies and the launch of a collaborative and university-led high level skills consortium and other partnership in Chongqing helped to set the seal on closer links between Wales and China.
We will continue to build on our successes and ensure we have a clear path which puts the learner at the heart of every area of delivery. Students no longer have to shout or wave placards to get their voices heard in universities in Wales. Across the country, students are actively engaging at every level within their institutions and gone are the days when students only saw the Vice-Chancellor at graduation! Today’s students don’t just want more interaction with decision makers, but rather better quality interaction and to be involved in decision making processes. The 21st century student is enthusiastic, committed and keen to engage with university leaders. Students bring an added dimension and viewpoint to discussions that can be hugely beneficial and we look forward to encouraging even greater interaction as we move forward into 2012.
Professor John Hughes