The main outcome of the General Election has been the opposite of the one intended, which is to say it has caused a much greater degree of uncertainty. That uncertainty has positive as well as negative aspects to it for universities. On the positive side, it is to be hoped that the even harder line on international students outlined in the Conservative manifesto may be less likely to be implemented now that the government is in a minority, albeit still Conservative. The issue around international students was very much identified with Mrs May personally (along with her closest advisers) when she was Home Secretary, and that approach accompanied her into Number 10. The departure of those advisers, and the PM’s generally weaker position following the failed election gambit, may leave some room to manoeuvre. The arguments are overwhelming that international students should be welcomed to this country and treated as generously as possible. The latest reliable data in possession of the Home Office apparently show that international students do indeed, as we have always argued, come to this country, study and then go home. The overwhelming majority of those that do not leave the UK at the end of their studies remain here legitimately. There is no evidence that the public see international students as migrants, and indeed it does not seem that immigration played a significant role in the election. The soft power and economic benefits that arise from a system open to the world are well known, and the tide is surely turning in favour of a jobs-led Brexit. So I continue to hope that it will be possible to achieve some progress on this matter in the new political landscape. The Conservative position in Parliament also means that further higher education reforms in England are unlikely; this matters to us only because a period of stability whilst other reforms bed in would be most welcome. It is also helpful that we have not had a change in the ministerial team, which provides a measure of continuity. On the negative side, the chances of reaching agreement with the EU Commission and member states on British EU exit now look rather more difficult and, as I mentioned last month, practical problems will soon begin to arise. As promised in my last email, I and other vice-chancellors have made these concerns known to relevant ministers and I’m confident that in due course solutions will be found.
On a more general matter but one that has acute relevance for many colleagues, you will be aware that the government has finally published its proposals on citizens of other EU countries living in the UK. One would hope that there will be further movement on these proposals because the reaction to them has not been uniformly positive, either from the Commission or from those most directly affected. It would be helpful if colleagues from other EU countries could let me know any particular concerns they may have so that I can feed them back via UUK and the Russell Group. We have also been asked to comment directly to the Department for Exiting the EU. The best outcome would be for the government to end the uncertainly fully and finally, as soon as possible, recognizing the worries that people may have who have been living here for many years and simply want to retain their present position, and so it is important for us to be able to submit workable suggestions on how that could be achieved.
Meanwhile in Wales the government has published a white paper entitled Public Good and Prosperous Wales, which is about what is now being called post-compulsory education and training, or PCET. This encompasses not only higher but further education, work-based learning, apprenticeships and the like, and includes research and innovation. The idea is to create a new body called the Tertiary Education and Research Commission for Wales (TERCW), which would take on all the current functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) as well as responsibility for the planning, funding, contracting, quality, financial monitoring and audit of further education and work-based learning. The implications of this could be far-reaching, and I won’t go into the detail of the proposals here, but the aim is to be able to respond to the changing needs of the Welsh economy into the future and to be able to take a more strategic approach across the whole ‘post-compulsory’ or ‘tertiary’ landscape. I was very pleased to see an explicit commitment to the importance and maintenance of QR (REF-based) research funding in the white paper, along with proposals as to how to manage research and innovation in Wales through the creation of a statutory committee entitled Research and Innovation Wales as part of the new body. In certain ways this mirrors the creation of UK Research and Innovation, which contains Innovate UK and Research England within it. Higher education in England will be regulated by a separate body entitled the Office for Students, of course; in Wales these two functions would be brought together under the same umbrella organisation, which has certain advantages. The big challenge will be ensuring the integrity of the dual funding system (QR on the one hand and research council or strategic funding on the other), along with the preservation of the Haldane principle. There are assurances on that matter in the white paper but we will be wanting to be looking at the implications in some detail. I am pleased to say that much effort is being devoted to the consultation process on this important matter, and we have until the autumn for the white paper consultation which will be followed by a technical consultation. It will be some time before any proposals could be enacted; years in fact, because these reforms would require legislation followed by some time to implement.
This month we also had the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) results; Cardiff received silver as we expected and of course will want to be working hard to achieve gold or whatever the equivalent may be in the future. I say that because in 2019 there is to be an independent review of the TEF which could result in a number of changes or even, conceivably, its abolition. While the latter seems unlikely, nobody with any sense attempts to predict anything these days. The methodology certainly needs serious consideration, particularly with respect to the question of whether the message it sends (via the Olympic medal system) to prospective applicants who might be unfamiliar with universities is one that is necessarily helpful to them.
We also moved up three places in the QS World Rankings, to 137. It’s worth observing that 51 of the 76 UK universities in the QS went down, which says something about both the competition in the world and the challenges we face in the UK.
In other good news it was wonderful to see so many Cardiff academics receive awards in the Queen’s birthday honours. Professor Malcolm Mason, Cancer Research Wales Professor of Clinical Oncology in the School of Medicine, was awarded an OBE for services to the NHS and cancer research; Dr Alison Parken, of Cardiff Business School, received an OBE for her work into equality and diversity, while Ms Wendy Sadler of the School of Physics and Astronomy has been awarded an MBE for services to science, engineering communication and engagement. Professor Pamela Taylor, Chair of Forensic Psychiatry in the Division of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences in the School of Medicine was awarded a CBE for her services to forensic psychiatry. I should also like to say that the Geological Society awarded this year’s prestigious Bigsby Medal to Professor Carrie Lear from the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences in recognition of her work in geology and contribution to climate science. I should like to congratulate all of them warmly on behalf of the University.
In another expression of confidence in Cardiff University and the top-class expertise of our academics, earlier this month we were able to announce the establishment of the Wales Centre for Public Policy. This new Centre (which builds on the work of the previous Public Policy Institute for Wales) will be funded for five years by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Welsh Government to the tune of £6m. The idea is to provide independent advice and reliable, rigorous evidence to inform policy-making. Not a new idea in itself, but implementing it effectively is notoriously difficult and the new Centre will be employing a pragmatic combination of gathering the most reliable evidence from existing sources, and drawing in leading experts on particular matters, with research into what works and into innovative means of delivering public services and the like. This is a real feather in our cap and shows that we can contribute in terms of research, innovation and impact across a whole range of academic endeavour.
With best wishes