The announcement of the Prime Minister’s resignation and the prospect of a successor in place by the end of July clearly in one sense creates a transformed position for the country. In another, unless there is a general election (which appears unlikely given the woeful performance of the Conservative Party in recent elections), the parliamentary arithmetic remains the same and any new incumbent will face the same issues as Mrs May has for the past two years. The agreement she reached with the European Commission will not change and has never come close to receiving parliamentary support, so the most likely outcome now appears to be either exiting with no deal at the end of October or a form of continuous delay that could, in effect, frustrate Brexit entirely. The Speaker of the House of Commons appears determined to ensure that the clearly expressed will of Parliament not to sanction a no deal exit should be respected, which (if Mr Bercow is successful) leaves the option of a second referendum. So far Parliament has not been able to assemble a majority for this, and neither has Labour been able to reach a consensus. Thus the Brexit impasse is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, although the likelihood of a no deal exit at the end of October now seems appreciably greater. On the plus side, the universities minister for England, Chris Skidmore, has announced that EU students starting in the academic year 2020/21 will retain home fee status and be eligible for financial support. This welcome development (if followed by the Welsh government, which seems very likely) gives us more certainty and reduces risk whatever happens on October 31 this year.
Unfortunately the publication of the Augar review at the end of May presents a new range of risks, chief amongst them the proposed reduction of home fees from £9000 to £7500. The review applies only to England, but on many measures it would be very difficult for the Welsh system not to follow suit because of the interconnections between the two countries. As happens so often, the interests of the devolved administrations have not been taken into account and there has been little or no consultation, despite the obvious ramifications for Wales in particular of a change to the fee regime of this magnitude. The annual cost to this university of such a reduction would be some £23m, which would be hugely difficult to deal with if there were no mitigation. The danger is that both widening participation and student experience would suffer, and we will need to engage in intensive discussions with the Welsh government if these measures are put into practice. That said, the Augar review was closely associated with Mrs May personally, and although there may be some attractions in it for some of the leadership candidates who are vying to replace her, these changes would require legislation at a time when there are other major issues to be dealt with and an uncertain majority for any programme of government legislation. While it is important to make clear the damaging impact the headline proposals contained in the Augar report could have on universities and on students, for relatively little benefit, there is still hope that the very well received Diamond reforms in Wales, which push money to those who need it most when they need it most and ensure appropriate levels of funding for universities, might supply a better model for England to follow than this ill-conceived plan.
I should like to draw your attention to a report that was published at the beginning of the month on the attainment gap for BAME students. The work was jointly led by Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS University of London, and Mr Amatey Doku, Vice-President Higher Education, National Union of Students. The report contains suggestions for a range of measures including providing strong leadership, having conversations about race and changing the culture, developing racially diverse and inclusive environments (on which I think we need a real focus), getting the evidence and analysing the data, and understanding what works. We already have a BAME attainment gap task and finish group (chaired by Dean of EDI Dr Sam Hibbitts) who are producing an action plan; in support of their work I and my colleagues will be using the helpful checklist for institutional actions and will work together with this group, the Students’ Union, the Race Equality Steering Group (chaired by Michelle Alexis), academic schools and professional services to ensure that we make real improvements in this area and on the broader issue of racism. On reading the report I was most struck by the introductory words of Amatey Doku (who is always worth listening to): ‘Finally, I ask university leaders, from whom strong leadership on these issues is essential, not to treat the BAME attainment gap as a numbers game. Data analytics and targets will be critical to ensuring that there is accountability and transparency, but we must never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with the lives of individuals who face systematic discrimination from all parts of society.’ That is what we must keep at the forefront of our minds as we approach these pernicious problems and offer our support to all of our students and staff who face this behaviour in their daily lives.
Moving to other matters, congratulations are due to Professor Bernard Schutz, who has received the singular honour of being elected to the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences in America for his work on gravitational waves, and to Professor Anwen Williams, who has become only our second Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. We are justly proud of both and it is gratifying to see their contributions recognised in these ways.
Finally, it was good to see that we moved up seven places in the Complete University Guide at the beginning of the month to rank at 26th, improving our scores or remaining the same in all but one measure. As ever, we should take these things with a pinch of salt but others do read them and it is undoubtedly helpful to see this improvement.
With best wishes