UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Universities in Wales Told to ‘Adapt or Die’ But How Should They Adapt?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 Dec 2010

Yesterday’s headline on the BBC News Web site was blunt: “Universities in Wales told to ‘adapt or die’“.  The article went on:

Education Minister Leighton Andrews has told universities and further education colleges in Wales that there will be fewer of them by 2013.

Mr Andrews told the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ conference higher education institutions must “adapt or die”.

He warned their future funding would depend on a willingness to “progress swiftly to merger and reconfiguration”.

The minister went on  to inform an audience in Carmarthen that “the higher education sector’s failure to respond to reconfigure and collaborate as the government intended was costing it money“.

What are the implications for those working in the IT and Library departments in Welsh HEIs? And what are the warning signals which are being sent to HEIs in England and Wales?  There seems to be two key themes:

  • Centralisation
  • Embracing change

I think those working in IT need to be seen to be responding to such drivers. And, despite the downsizing in numbers of institutions, there can also be opportunities:

There will be fewer HEI’s in Wales by 2013 and fewer vice-chancellors. That does not mean fewer students or fewer campuses.

But the opportunities provided by continued to support similar numbers of students may not be reaped by those working in support services:

[The minister] repeated the findings of a PriceWaterhouseCoopers review which showed HE in Wales spends 48% of its budgets delivering teaching and research but 52% on support services.

So there’s a need to challenge such findings or to demonstrate tangible benefits provided by the 58% of the budget used by support services.

Hmm, should Welsh library services be the first to respond to the need to demonstrate their value? Haven’t Welsh academic library services being provided the political and economic driver to respond to yesterday’s post in which I argued that Library data which is currently being gathered by Library services and submitted to SCONUL, but then only available to subscribers and only available in PDF format, should be made freely available?

How will Welsh service departments, such as Library Services, IT Services and Web teams react? Doing nothing is clearly not an option. Of course whilst the small numbers of Welsh Universities provide an opportunity for the government to explore ways of reducing levels of funding, the close-knit sector  can also allow those working in service departments to respond more rapidly than would be the case in English Universities.

Support services in Welsh Universities have a well-established communities and events, such as the annual HEWIT conference where earlier this year David Harrison gave a talk on “2010… so that’s it for IT Services … or is it?” (MS PowerPoint format). In addition there is the Wales Higher Education Libraries Forum (WHELF) grouping of Chief Librarians and Directors of Information Services drawn from all the higher education institutions in Wales. From the WHELF blog I learn that WHELF activities include:

  • Raising the profile of services and developments in Welsh HE library and information services in our own institutions, in Wales and beyond; Influence policy makers and funders on matters of shared interest;
  • Implementing collaborative services and developments for the mutual benefit of members institutions and their users;
  • Working with other organisations, sectors and domains in support of the development of a cooperative library network in Wales and the UK;
  • Providing mutual support and opportunities for the sharing of good practice through meetings, mailing lists etc;
  • Providing staff development and training opportunities for member institutions;
  • Collection, dissemination and evaluation of statistics from member institutions.

The first and final bullet points would suggest the WHELF might be an appropriate organisation to push the opening up of statistics in order to raise the profile of the work being done in Libraries.  But on the other hand might organisational inertia prevent such a grouping from responding quickly? Sarah Wickham yesterday suggested (in a prsonal capacity) an alternative approach:

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 both provides a right of access to information held by public authorities (including individual HEIs, but not including Sconul) as well as requiring authorities to publish information pro-actively through their publication scheme. A request for the raw data could be made under the Act to each institution. A requester could then analyse the data for dissemination as a service to the wider community …

I can’t see any other information I would expect institutions may wish to withhold – other than the budgetary if for the current financial year where occasionally an argument may be made for witholding (although exemptions all subject to the public interest test).

The wider community will be looking to see how our Welsh colleagues respond!

2 Responses to “Universities in Wales Told to ‘Adapt or Die’ But How Should They Adapt?”

  1. Welsh universities have been encouraged to reconfigure for many years. Along with my job at Swansea Met I have been active in the trade union Unison since 1992 when the new universities were incorporated. I have heard the call for reconfiguration since then.

    The Welsh Assembly Government has tried to influence the universities but has been met with reluctance to merge, especially at the highest level of management. As a collegue says, you can’t get turkeys to vote for Christmas.

    At meetings with the minister on Thursday and Friday last week, it is clear that he is loosing patience with the Welsh universities. The new lever that he wants to employ is to restrict their ability to join the market in HE and charge more for programmes. The funding council will not allow a rise in fees unless the Assembly Government’s conditions around widening access and reconfiguration are met.

    There are two problems that I can identify. Universities may choose to keep fee levels where they are, or to raise them to £6,000 only; I’m not clear if it is a rise to £6,000 or £9,000 that is the trigger. The second is that the proposed rises in England do not go ahead and the market dissappears.

    The lever is cofusing as the burden of debt is passed on to students, not Welsh domiciled students, but those we attract from England and elsewhere. I understand the NUS anger at this.

  2. Rebecca Davies said

    Brian – thanks for your interest in the work of WHELF & your interesting suggestions and comments. WHELF libraries have a long standing commitment to working together & on demonstrating our value – so we’re going to seriously consider the issues you’ve raised. One of the joys of Wales & also our workloads is that we only get a chance to meet up (virtually or in person) about 4 times a year – so we’ve decided to discuss, not just your proposal, but other considerations too about how we can openly and easily communicate the contributions we make and the statistics we gather. Because this is an issue we want to talk through together our next meeting is via videoconference on (xxx forgotten the date apols – but it is in my calendar) so we’ll post a response on the blog quickly after our meeting. Sorry this is a bit of a way away – it’s not organisational inertia but the real mountains & the mountains of work getting in the way…

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