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Tertiary Education Act – (Nearly) One Year On

As the Senedd enters the final stretch of its time in session before the Summer Recess (discounting the little breaks for the upcoming Coronation and May Day bank holidays, plus the small Whitsun recess), some may be wondering where we’re at on the implementation journey of the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act.

Our Senior Account Manager in Wales who oversees education affairs, Kieran Sawdon, looks at where we’re at in its development.

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The Act, which dissolves the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) and replaces it with a new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER), is about far more than a name change. Unlike HEFCW, which currently looks after only higher education and R&I, CTER will cover all post-16 education in Wales. Sixth forms, adult education, further education colleges, apprenticeships, and indeed higher education and RD&I will all fall under its remit. Upon its formal establishment it will be one of the largest public bodies in Wales in terms of funding, second only to the NHS.

The passage of the Act in June 2022 was hailed as the Welsh Government’s biggest achievement in the first year of the Sixth Senedd, and was viewed as a reflection of the success of its Co-operation Agreement with Plaid Cymru. So what have the main talking points been since its passage?

Most of the attention thus far has been on key appointments, namely the Chair, Deputy Chair and Chief Executive. The Education and Welsh Language Minister, Jeremy Miles, confirmed the appointment of Professor Dame Julie Lydon and Professor David Sweeney as the Chair and Deputy Chair respectively in December 2022, following their involvement in the pre-appointment hearings held by the Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee. The minister highlighted Prof Lydon’s experience during the establishment of the University of South Wales; and Prof Sweeney’s experience as Director for Research, Innovation and Skills in the Higher Education Funding Council for England as the prime reasons for the appointments.

The CYPE Committee, while welcoming and endorsing the appointments, noted a shared reservation with the two individuals in their reports on the new Chair and Deputy Chair. The Committee highlighted that both candidates draw skills and experience from primarily HE backgrounds. Given CTER’s wide-reaching remit, this understandably raised concerns within the Committee, with members suggesting they would have preferred a greater mix in the two top roles.

Additionally, the Committee indicated that it was slightly concerned that neither the Chair nor Deputy Chair are Welsh speakers, which risks undermining the Welsh Government’s Cymraeg 2050 aims. The Committee stressed in its pre-appointment hearings that both should engage closely with Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol in this area in order to best support them in their roles, especially given the Coleg’s advisory role for the Commission.

In terms of appointing a Chief Executive for CTER, however, the process has not been straight-forward. Applications for the role closed in November 2022, with party spokesperson Sioned Williams using her allocated time during Education and Welsh Language Questions to quiz Jeremy Miles on when to expect “white smoke” on the decision. Ms Williams voiced concerns that the Commission was still without a Chief Executive, despite the implementation period already starting, and called for the successful CEO to have a FE background to ensure the Commission is balanced.

Only last week did Jeremy Miles announce Simon Pirotte OBE as his preferred candidate for the role. Mr Pirotte currently serves as Principal and Chief Executive of Bridgend College and has a background in HE, FE and 11-18 Schools sectors in Wales, England and the USA. Interestingly enough, the minister directly appointed him following a failed recruitment process. Mr Pirotte will sit before the CYPE Committee in May for his own pre-appointment hearing. The nature of Mr Pirotte obtaining the coveted preferred candidate status, and indeed the failed recruitment process beforehand, will undoubtedly be raised in either the hearing or future sessions in the Siambr.

Meanwhile, Shadow Education Minister Laura Anne Jones has been pressing the Welsh Government for further commitments in relation to CTER’s role in RD&I, a reminder that CTER will have influence in a policy area that has proved to be quite the thorn in the side of the Welsh Government. The Commission will hold an Innovation Sub-Committee, chaired by Deputy Chair Prof David Sweeney, and will be expected to work alongside Economy Minister Vaughan Gething’s Wales Innovates strategy, which formally launched in February.

The strategy, while welcomed, did not commit to fully implementing the Reid Review. This was despite, as Conservative MS Darren Millar put it, “a chorus of voices” in the Welsh RD&I sector calling for the Review’s recommendations to be actioned in full. The Review, published in 2018, was the Welsh Government’s previous attempt to assess the strengths, gaps and future potential to sustain and grow strong RD&I activity; and was by the Welsh Government’s own admission, highly anticipated. The economy minister blamed Brexit for the recommendations being brushed aside, calling it a consequence of the UK Government failing to meet its promise of “not a penny less” for Wales, alongside additional budgetary stresses triggered by the cost-of-living crisis. It is therefore safe to say Prof Sweeny will have a stacked in-tray when arriving in office.

After almost a year since the Senedd unanimously voting in favour of the Act, this is where are. Two of the three major roles have been filled, the third likely to be fully confirmed within the next month. There are, of course, more internal operations going on in the Welsh Government that we will not be fully privy to as the implementation phase continues through to April 2024, which is when the education minister expects to see CTER fully operational.

 

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