Monday, June 7, 2010


Yesterday, Welsh universities warned of an impending crisis because of the shortage of available places in higher education later this summer.

With applications up by a third in some institutions such as Glyndwr University in Wrexham and Swansea Metropolitan University, it has been estimated that there could be tens of thousands of applicants who will be refused entry despite having the right A-level results.

This is because universities, due to funding restrictions, are being stopped by the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) from taking on more students despite the surplus in applications.

Indeed, Bangor University has been told to reduce its intake by up to 17 per cent for the next academic year.

What on earth is going on?

Our politicians will scramble to proclaim Wales as a small and clever country and yet the key ingredient for any knowledge economy – the graduates we produce – is being restricted, with the state of the public purse conveniently used as an excuse by those in power.

This is despite the promise by Carwyn Jones to increase spending on education by at least one per cent above Wales' block grant from the Treasury.

Worst of all, it would seem that civil servants within WAG have resorted to an elitist view of higher education, with one stating that if Welsh universities recruited more people, then it would affect their capacity to provide high quality provision.

Incredibly, this follows a speech by the Education Minister who said that universities weren’t doing enough to open their doors to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Of course, when money is tight, spending priorities need to be examined carefully to see whether the funds are being directed in the best way possible.

Let’s take the example of Pontio - the new Arts and Innovation Centre in Bangor.

Having been up in North Wales last weekend and met up with former colleagues at Bangor University, there is widespread disappointment that this 'vanity' project, as one called it, is going ahead when lecturing posts are allegedly under threat. Indeed, the crisis facing the Welsh language departments has been quietly shelved and, as usual, the Welsh press has lost complete interest in pursuing this story further.

In more prosperous times, it could be a worthy project but with £35 million of public funding being given to its establishment, could that money be put to better use in opening up more university places to local North Wales students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, over the next three years?

Yes, that would be a difficult choice but surely, the role of any university, first and foremost, is to educate the young people of this nation?

That is why local working people - quarrymen, farmers, tradesmen - donated money they could barely afford to the public appeal to support the creation of the University of Wales in the late 19th Century.

The birth of devolution promised Wales a bright new dawn but what sort of future will this country have if we reduce the number of university places at a time when an additional 10,000 are being made available in England?

If we prioritise grand buildings before the education of our young people, then what sort of statement does that send out to the rest of the World about our commitment to education?

In Finland, where nearly three-quarters of young people go on to university, the stated aim of successive governments of all political persuasions has been that the welfare of a small nation must, first and foremost, be based on a highly educated and competent population. As a result, Finland is rated by international economists as being on a par with the USA as one of the most competitive nations in the World.

Yes, there are hard financial decisions to be made over the next few years but we must also look to the future of this nation.

If we put our young people first and foremost, then we can surely begin to develop the type of vibrant society and competitive economy that we all want and for which the working people of Wales sacrificed their savings over a hundred years ago.