In recent years eleven Welsh universities have become eight. It would seem likely that this total number will fall again in due course. This consolidation is logical and if done with the interest of students at the forefront of planning can be of mutual benefit. Within a university, it can increase student choice, but there is the risk that choice of institution becomes limited. This short paper will consider these factors and propose a pro-active approach from Welsh Government to attract interest from universities currently based outside of Wales to consider opening campuses here.
Arguably the most controversial aspect of recent university consolidation has been the closure of the Caerleon campus of what was University of Wales College, Newport. Originally, the Welsh Government approved the merger of the University of Glamorgan and UWCN on the basis that all campuses would remain open. Even going back to the millennium when I was an undergraduate student in Treforest, the University of Glamorgan was itching to be a Cardiff based institution. Now it has a large presence in Cardiff and Treforest but in Newport the students seem to have drained away. An architecturally impressive, if prone to regular roof repairs, City Centre campus draws the eye with a prime location on the city’s riverfront but there is none of the bustle of student lifestyle which you expect (and sometimes bemoan) in university cities. It is to be hoped that USW refocus and invest further in fast-growing Newport, but as things stand there is little practical indication that will happen.
Nonetheless, this one example should not stand alone as a sole negative example of consolidation. Having recently returned to studying at Cardiff University, it has struck me how vast the array of options for studying, attending talks, societies and support are. As a ‘mature student’ not all are particularly applicable to me, but it has been eye-opening to see how much is out there. Cardiff University really is a very impressive institution. To provide such a comprehensive offering to students requires critical mass. Smaller universities will struggle to provide such a range. Good consolidation should expand opportunities for students including cross-pollination of different specialisms from each of the merged institutions. In no way should a reduction in the number of universities be a reduction in the number of overall students.
A further existing innovation is rolling out higher education courses to further education colleges, thus providing local access to high quality study. The flexibility of this model allows for targeting in areas where there is an identified need to improve certain skills. USW has a focus on increasing access to higher education and has partnerships with FE colleges. The students gain from having access to the support services at the university. Although the extent to which it is possible to replicate the feel of being part of the wider student scene of a university based in another town may be limited.
Globalisation of the education and research sector is another factor which inclines towards the need for larger institutions, although there is also scope for partnerships between universities. There is a market for innovation from research and if Welsh universities are to be competitive in this field into the future one cannot ignore the relative size differences of universities around the globe.
However, providing a range of choice and experience for a student is not just a matter for within an institution. That choice of diverse institutions with their own specialisms should exist for the sixth-former nervously filling out a UCAS form which could well determine the direction not just of their next three years but of their career. The population of Wales is unlikely to grow at such a rate as to reverse the trend of university consolidation. While there should not be any attempt to limit the options of students seeking to learn outside Wales, there is a political and economic argument for trying to make staying in Wales to study an attractive option and to pull in talented people from around the globe who could contribute to the well-being of Wales through-out their post-university career.
If this challenge can only be partially answered by existing Welsh universities, the Cabinet Secretary could look to create an environment which actively seeks to encourage institutions from outside Wales to set up campuses in the country. Returning to the disappointment felt in Newport by the down-sizing of the university presence, this could provide an ideal location for such a trial run. The Welsh Government could seek to strategically attract universities which offer specialisms that would boost the Welsh economy and / or fill a gap not currently catered for within Wales. It might be that a large nearby university may wish to invest over the border, for example the University of the West of England in Newport or Liverpool University in Flintshire. However, there is no reason to limit the policy by geography. It might appeal to universities in Europe to have a UK presence at a time of Brexit uncertainty. The university sector is a hub of the “citizens of the World” outlook, Wales could offer a home which works for the institution and increases opportunities and choices for Welsh students.