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Coronavirus delays Welsh higher education bill

Image: National Assembly for Wales [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Progress of reforms paused due to Covid-19

A Welsh higher education bill that would pave the way for the country’s main funder to be replaced has been put on the back burner because of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The news comes as a report from University Alliance claims that after Covid-19, the public wants universities to concentrate on applied subjects such as nursing and engineering.

In a statement on 9 June, Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams confirmed that the bill—which would introduce a replacement for the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales—had been delayed because of the coronavirus.

“The challenges we are facing because of Covid-19 mean that the first minister and I have reluctantly agreed to postpone the introduction of the bill,” Williams wrote. “This was not an easy decision to make, and one I wish we did not have to make.”

The Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill would replace HEFCW with a Tertiary Education and Research Commission, which would have responsibility for post-16 education. The bill was announced by Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales, in July 2019, in response to Ellen Hazelkorn’s suggestion of a new post-16 body in her 2016 review of higher education in Wales.

Williams said the coronavirus crisis had forced “a new urgency” in reforming the system. “Now is the time to think bigger and bolder about how our tertiary education sector can maximise public value, with a new unified commission at the helm,” she said.

The bill will be published in draft form for consultation as soon as possible, Williams said, stressing that the reforms were “vital to a successful and sustainable future for learners of all ages, our economy, colleges and universities”.

A spokesperson for HEFCW said it welcomed the news that draft legislation would be published for consultation, and its view “remains that there is much potential merit in a cohesive post-compulsory education and training sector, funded and regulated by a single arm’s-length body”.

Meanwhile, University Alliance, an association of technical institutions, has released survey results showing that a majority of the public think universities and research will be vital to the UK’s recovery from the damage caused by the coronavirus, with 62 per cent agreeing it was “very important” for universities to teach applied subjects such as nursing and engineering to help the economy recover. Just 12 per cent said it was important for University Alliance institutions to teach arts subjects.

A total of 61 per cent said more funding should be made available to train nurses, who should be educated at university, and respondents recognised that universities were helping to tackle the virus through research into finding a vaccine, training nurses and sharing research facilities.

Debra Humphris, chair of University Alliance and vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton, said it was “gratifying that the role of universities in both the battle with Covid-19 and the national effort to rebuild in its aftermath is being recognised by the public”.