Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Below, I reproduce the full statement from the Learned Society for Wales on the Welsh Assembly Government's support for universities. It is a pretty damning indictment of the last twelve years of devolved educational policy for the higher education sector in Wales.

Surely it deserves a better response from the Minister and his department than that published in the Western Mail today. Anyway, judge for yourselves.

"Data from HEFCW (1) show that from 2000-2001 to 2008-2009, with one small exception, it has been WAG’s policy to underfund the Welsh universities, compared with those in England and Scotland. These were the years of abundant spending in other Welsh public sectors.

CUMULATIVE FUNDING GAPS (£million, money of the day)

                                  2000-2001         2007-2008       2008-2009 (est.)       2000-2009 (total)

Wales cf England             1.4                    68.5                      78.0                        361.8

Wales cf Scotland           54.8                 181.0                    180.0                      1061.2

Put another way, the negative funding gap per student (Welsh cf English) has grown from £20 in 2000-01 to almost £900 in 2008-09. The funding gap between Wales and Scotland is much higher. In 2000-2001 it was £780 per student, growing to £2276 in 2008-2009. 

In defence of its actions, WAG has said that future cuts in England “will effectively abolish the so called [sic] public funding gap” implying that the problem will be lessened. This is to ignore the absolute damage done to the Welsh universities by inadequate WAG support over ten years which is set to continue. It is the view of The Learned Society of Wales that such underfunding of the Welsh universities undermines the sustainability of the dominant knowledge base of the Nation.

Higher Education is a devolved responsibility of WAG which brings with it a duty to nourish the infrastructure of its universities so that they are fit for purpose based on internationally excellent staff and state of the art equipment, libraries and buildings. In the light of the above figures it is not surprising that on most indicators the Welsh universities are not performing well despite some admirable, but too few, pinnacles of excellence. Important academic departments have been closed through pressure on funds. Wales is already trailing in Research Council competitions and has been for a decade.

The latest analysis (2) of the distribution of UK health research money showed that Wales received only 1.6% of the whole while Edinburgh alone received 5.6%. In the last Research Assessment Exercise (3) only 14.6 % of research in Wales was rated as world class, the University of Cardiff being the leader at 21%. In the THES ranking of the “top” 200 in the World, Welsh universities do not appear (4). The QS World Universities Ranking (5) puts Cardiff at number 122 with Bangor, Swansea and Aberystwyth at 368, 376 and 380 . The retiring Chairman of HEFCW said three years ago that unless the underfunding of scientific research were to be reversed in two years the position would be irreversible but the gap has continued to worsen.

We do not have a strong enough private sector in Wales to provide the wealth we need. Key economic indicators show Wales to be slipping back. Our largest private employer is TESCO. All agree that Wales must attract more industry and commerce particularly from the high technology sector. There is no doubt that a really outstanding science, engineering and technology base is the only way to attract such companies anxious to get close to the action, not to mention the genesis of start up enterprises. Strong university departments in the social sciences, economics, law and the humanities are also vital, not only to support these industries and commerce but to underpin our large public sector including the Welsh Assembly and the civil service which overwhelmingly recruit from these disciplines.

The figures in the Table spell damage enough for the universities but the following latest decisions of WAG introduce critical uncertainties and do nothing to repair the already perilous financial state of this crucial National resource, hence consigning the Nation permanently to the slow lane.

Thus in November 2010 WAG announced the university budget for 2011-2012 to be £382 million, down from £420 million. Soon, further change was signalled as a result of the English decision on future fees when WAG immediately announced through the Minister that the English settlement would not be copied in Wales but that WAG would pay all required increased fees needed by Welsh students whether studying in Wales or elsewhere. The assumption is that the resulting reduction in budget for the universities would be compensated by fee income from non-Welsh-domiciled students but this is subject to serious uncertainties depending on:

(i) the numbers of students in our Universities and the size of any cap on numbers;

(ii) the number of Welsh students leaving Wales, taking the subsidy with them;

(iii) the number coming in from outside Wales; and

(iv) the level of fees levied by universities here and elsewhere, which will probably vary.

There is also the matter of timing (the expected uplift in fees will not occur until 2012-2013) and there has to be a reconciliation between financial and academic years.

However, despite these unresolved uncertainties, it is possible to put forward a best case analysis, ominous though it is. HEFCW say that this year, in rounded terms, there are 52,000 full time undergraduate Welsh students - 36,000 in Welsh universities and 16000 in universities outside Wales. What is to be done about part time students is yet to be decided. We are told that the maximum fee might be some £9000 per student.

However, WAG is assuming that the figure will be £7,000 (6) , implying an increase in subsidy of £3700 per student in addition to the present £3,300, again in round numbers. Assuming that student numbers and the budget stay the same this amounts to a cut in direct grant to the universities of £192 million (52K x £3.7K) of which only £133 million (36K x £3.7K) would return to the universities. Thus the universities lose a further £59 million from their original budget from WAG which now becomes £323 million, down from £420 million by 23%. But the number of incoming non-Welsh students, presently very significant at 25,000, would produce an income of £92.5 million. Other things being equal this would produce a total sum for the universities of £416.5 million rather than £420 million.

Crucially, the financial health of the universities will suffer if more of our Welsh students are attracted elsewhere and if fewer non-Welsh students come in.

It is clear, therefore, that just holding the budget at its already deprived level of £416.5 million depends on the gamble of not losing Welsh students and, more importantly, keeping up the attraction of the Welsh universities to incoming students at the same level. A further negative factor would ensue if a significant number of exiting Welsh students enter the top English universities demanding £9,000 in fees. In this respect it would be wise to monitor the average A-level points score of those leaving and those staying in Wales.

All of this does nothing to remedy the existing degradation resulting from cumulative underfunding. We recognise that this is a time of inevitable cuts in public expenditure but emphasise that the Welsh universities have taken cuts in advance in times of plenty elsewhere in Wales.

Continued weakening of the Welsh universities on top of a decade of poor support from WAG will reduce their attraction to students and hence loss of income. It will also reduce their attraction to staff and hence loss of excellence thus reducing their attraction to external funding bodies who are interested only in excellence. All will result in further erosion of our key National knowledge base and so on in a downward spiral which holds out little support for the belief that Wales is to be a small but clever Nation.


(1) The Funding Gap, HEFCW,
(2) UK Health Research Analysis (UK Clinical Research Collaboration, May 2006):

(3) RAE December 2008:
(5) QS World University Rankings 2010:
(6) (see disclosure log>education and skills>2011>ED33, February 4 2011)