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Friday, December 30, 2011

Pistols at dawn

The recent article by Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan on Conservative Home may well be a declaration of war on Carwyn Jones and his Government but that does not make her points any less valid.

Her essential point, that Welsh Labour need to decide whether they are a unionist party or not is spot on. That is because Carwyn Jones' pursuit of his own foreign policy and the way that he is 'standing up for Wales', is doing more for the cause of separatism than for the 'Welsh National interest'.

This is not to say that I believe that the Welsh Government should agree with the UK Coalition all the time, that is clearly unrealistic. Nor would I advocate that the First Minister should refrain from speaking out when he believes that it is in the interests of Wales to do so. As a member of one of the coalition parties, I have frequently criticised policies at a UK level when I believe that they are compromising the interests of Wales, my constituents or both.

However, Carwyn Jones' choice of language and some of his actions in Government do smack more of a nationalist leader rather than one committed to keeping the UK together. There are also questions about his priorities when, as Mrs Gillan points out, his Government has only published two bills in its first seven months and, with the exception of the Education Minister, gives off the impression of treading water rather than tackling some of the major problems facing Wales.

That these points have struck home is reflected in the rather weak response of Welsh Labour to the Secretary of State's attack. It is all name-calling and bluster from the back foot when they would be better answering Mrs Gillan point-by-point and setting out what they are actually doing. They are attacking the messenger rather than the message.

The new year needs to see the Welsh Government raise its game if it is to properly answer these criticisms. If they really want to stand up for Wales then they need to deliver on the economy, education and health; standing on the sidelines calling the odds does not hack it.
This comment is certainly on point: 'Mrs Gillan said Welsh Labour presided over a “dismal list of statistics on everything from health outcomes to exam performance”.'

The education system is grossly underperforming in Wales as evidenced by PISA and Estyn reports.

Wales's GVA rating is awful and despite promises from Rhodri Morgan stayed awful.

Welsh Labour seems incapable of harnessing Welsh university IP to boost indigenous job creation.

Welsh universities are underperforming compared to other UK regions. Take Scotland which has three universities ranked in the top 100 world rankings, Wales has ZIP, and Swansea is ranked where? Swansea 'university' is even dropping back within the Welsh university league despite lots of WG (Welsh Government) support and enormous spending on supercomputer facilities and its ILS.

I honestly think now that Welsh Labour wants to keep Wales down at the bottom of the economic league tables to ensure re-election.
It only goes to prove that what's been devolved so far is the pain, not the power to address Wales' deep problems after centuries of neglect from Westminster governments, Tory, Labour and Liberals.

You unionists just don't get it.

Most of the Scots want a lot more power, and a large minority of them right now want out of the corrupt undemocratic Westminster system which has leached and exploited the wealth and talent out of many parts of these islands.

Failure to address these issues forces rank unionists even in the Labour party in Wales to demand that Wales gets more say in decisions which will have profound and long lasting effects on her economy and people.

The analogy is that of the domineering and over-controlling parent eventually driving his offspring out of the house and home.

If you want to preserve the union then the issues have to be addressed - and there are no signs that they are. The LibDems certainly have no solutions.

I suspect that a lot of your party's Tory friends don't want to devolve full fiscal powers to Scotland because it would overturn the Westminster gravy train which has kept their elite in power for generations - it would require a complete new constitutional settlement.

Sniping from the sidelines is not the right approach, and siding with a right wing secretary of state who doesn't live in Wales isn't going to preserve the whisker of fifty or so votes which kept you in the Assembly in the last election.
I cannot see that Plaid Cymru have any answers either. Their solution of independence would bankrupt Wales and lead to even worse unemployment here. As for siding with the Secretary of State for Wales, I am agreeing with some of what she says. That means that I am looking at the message not the messenger. One of the problems of politics today is that people cannot see the arguments because they are too busy slagging off those who deliver them.
The reason for the friction between Gillan and Carwyn is because Tory v Labour. Nothing to do with 'national constitutional issues of Wales'. Carwyn is in a position of political and democratic paralysis. One thing that has changed since 'OneWales' is that Carwyn has also isolated himself from Scotland and Northern Ireland. There's alot more out there than England. One thing you do not address, Peter, is the positive role Plaid Cymru did play in government. A Plaid administration would 'talk' to the Westminster administration to get the best for Wales in the same way the Salmond administration does in Scotland. That does not mean Wales cannot plough a different furrow. Plaid policies would nor 'bankrupt' Wales, put would play to its strengths, and this is particularly evident in their emphasis on economic development recently rejected by the LibDem/Labour deal on the Welsh budget.
All the signs so far are that Plaid Cymru are lining up behind Labour to be critical of the Westminister Government. I cannot see how that would be different if they were in the Welsh Government. In fact it is likely they would be doing precisely the same as Labour are now.

I understand that this is a Labour vs Tory thing but my point is that Carwyn Jones is allowing that to blind him in the way he responds to the UK Government and is drifting into a nationalist/separatist position.

As for the budget deal, the economic situation wss addressed. An additional £39m was put into economic stimulus measures and there is an expansion of the business rate relief scheme.

We got a better deal in a time of retracting budget than Plaid Cymru got in 2006 at a time of expanding budgets. Plaid's problem was that their demands were undeliverable, unfocussed and unaffordable.
The £39million is the Barnet consequential of the cash injection from Westminster to freeze council tax in England. The budget deal between Labour and the LibDems in the Senedd stitch up was to divert this to education spending, by councils. Business rate relief is a reduction in cash income allocated to councils. It's just moving a number around the application of funds statement. It's just the LibDems getting a soundbite in the 'do nothing' Labour administration. Plaid would have invested more in specific targeted business investment, most notably in renewable energy, a policy you have hailed as both affordable and necessary in other places in this blog.
I can see now why you prefer to remain anonymous.

Yes the £39m is a Barnett consequential but so is the £14.5 billion that comprises the rest of the Welsh budget. Where it comes from is not relevant the key is how you use it and in our case we chose to spend it in a way that will create jobs and stimulate the economy rather than use it to freeze Council Tax here.

None of this money was diverted to Education spending as you claim. That was £20 million of new money added to £14m of money already in the Education budget but now being spent slightly differently.

Business rate relief does not reduce the amount available to councils. The lost money is made up to them from Welsh Government budgets, so the extension of the business rate relief scheme is extra money to small businesses around Wales. It is also targeted because we are extending the scheme that was introduced and designed by a Plaid Cymru Minister.

There is also investment in renewable energy but most of that is not devolved so it is difficult to see how Plaid could have done anything differently apart from chew their gums and try to look as if they have an alternative.
"his Government has only published two bills in its first seven months and, with the exception of the Education Minister, gives off the impression of treading water rather than tackling some of the major problems facing Wales."

"Welsh universities are underperforming compared to other UK regions. Take Scotland which has three universities ranked in the top 100 world rankings, Wales has ZIP, and Swansea is ranked where?"

And Leighton Andrews is largely to blame for this. His hectoring manner, brutal attempts to merge, demerge, remerge and generally muck about the universities themselves without regard to financial circumstances, geographical logic or academic reputations, reluctance to probe allegations of fiscal misconduct around a certain university in the south-east while relentlessly pursuing two others for far less serious allegations and generally behaving like a megalomaniacal lunatic have led to enormous upheaval, confusion, loss and demoralisation.

They have also led to a raft of other far more serious allegations against him personally via rumour, which I suspect are spurious, born of immense frustration at his erratic behaviour, and in deference to you I will not repeat them. In fairness to those making them however, the claims about tuition fees being subsidised for all students bar those in England appear to be correct, despite his denials.

To give some idea of how he is regarded by the people whose side he is ostensibly on - lecturers and students - one friend of mine (an early career lecturer) asked me recently, 'Huw, you wouldn't happen to know why Leighton Andrews hates us so much, would you?' And I had no answer, but I agree with his sentiments.

If this is an example of a Minister confronting the problems of a sector, is there any possibility we could persuade him to go and tread some water somewhere? He's making things about a thousand times worse by his mindless bullying - and goodness knows, as your first commentator observed, they were bad enough to start with.
"'Huw, you wouldn't happen to know why Leighton Andrews hates us so much, would you?' And I had no answer..."

Could the reason be that Welsh colleges are underperforming?

That merely lecturing to students is no longer enough given that colleges in former third world states are geared to improving the economy of their nation/state?

Just churning out graduates of this that and the other thing is not enough anymore. We need graduates that can tap-dance and sing a good tune.

Well, not quite... but we do need graduates that can change the status of the Welsh nation, to put the Welsh nation state on an upward economic trend.

But what do we have in Wales?

Graduates more likely to work in the public sector than the private sector. And the end result: a Welsh nation state at the bottom of just about every economic league table.

Whereas former third-world city-states like Singapore are built around enterprise and even has a university geared to research AND enterprise.
^"...on an upward economic trend."

Should have read: "... on an upward economic trajectory."
"merely lecturing to students is no longer enough"

Anonymous, I entirely agree, but my generation are moving away from the model you describe. New entry lecturers, including me, have to train as teachers - and speaking purely for myself, that strikes me as entirely sensible. So now, I do not lecture - I set group work, chair debates, ask questions to elicit answers, and force them to engage with the subject by choosing people to answer them at random so it becomes painfully (embarrassingly) obvious if they have not done any work. I mark work hard, and provide individual feedback on it to make sure they know where they need to improve. So I do get results. The lecture model you describe is getting on for 15 years out of date.

Yet Leighton Andrews' efforts have had the effect of making it almost impossible to hire these new, qualified lecturers - because the money that would go into hiring them is now going into hiring administrative staff (which his centralization is forcing universities to INCREASE) and in negotiations on mergers. So instead of hiring new lecturers, the older ones, most of whom are not qualified teachers, stay in situ. Even before qualifications came in, it used to be the case that younger lecturers would shoulder a larger teaching burden - now they are being blocked from entry, more and more is being shoved onto the survivors.

This is not only unsustainable, it's downright unhealthy. If you will explain to me how this helps us address the question of underperformance in Welsh universities, I would be obliged - because with all my brainpower, I can't.

And again, yes, I appreciate your points on what we teach and how it could be rearranged (I am, however, a history lecturer so I naturally do not entirely agree). However you should remember that what can and cannot be taught in this country is effectively prescribed by central government, insofar as it is an incredibly costly, difficult and long-winded process to set up new departments. They need heavy funding in their early years to establish themselves, market their staff and research to potential students and partners, new equipment, often new buildings, and above all they need to have the ability to say that they are backed by the government before they gain interest from these. Show me how the reconfiguration and the bullying help to deal with this problem, again, because I can't see it.

And finally, as a peerless irony, the university most closely adopting the model you describe (in Wales at least) is Glyndwr - and if Leighton Andrews gets his way it will effectively be closed down and become a satellite of a new university based in Bangor. If that happens, pretty much all it has gained in the last five years will undoubtedly go.
doctorhuw> As far as history teaching goes, I think we have to have some universities in Wales dedicated to only teaching applied science and engineering.

But 'I hear you' and respect you are doing your best.

Your teaching style is somewhat like the tutorials I had when I was a science undergrad. Science is taught different. However because we do labs (as do the engineers) and write up reports; and we have to have lectures because there is so much material to get through, e.g., there is only so much time to lecture/teach the structure of a bacterial cell membrane and how certain anti-cell construction antibiotics work.

I've run a few labs as an “instructor” while doing a PhD in chemistry at Glasgow University, including wet chemistry and dry chemistry, e.g., small molecule structure labs (in which computers linked to a small molecule database were used to analyze bond lengths and angles, so again this is not a tutorial style class because the students have to perform computational tasks with 3D atom data sets).

Wales can ill afford to teach subjects that no longer speak to the bottom line.

Wales needs an enterprise university and universities tied to teaching applied science and engineering.

Time is not on Wales’s side – the Welsh economy is in a mess and if England goes belly-up this will have a very bad impact on Wales in part because the Welsh university system is not geared to rebuilding the Welsh economy.

Sorry, but I would be happy to see history lecturers fired and universities that don’t speak to the bottom line closed down.

If we don’t adopt this line, we will be a third-world country.

Our “Welsh business model, which includes our Welsh education model” is dumb, backward and not focused on the bottom line.

Wales is turning into a non-combatant, a nation that does not compete with emerging economies.

We MUST adapt or face an obscure future looking backwards.

Might seem a radical solution, but so because we have left it so late to affect changes to compete with former second/third-world states.
PS … while studying for an ‘applied law degree’ I was taught in the Socrates method/style – where ‘you get called on’ wherein you/one have/has to stand up to answer a Professor’s line of questioning”. It’s fun if you are prepared, hell if you are called on and not prepared. Some law Profs gave a call-on schedule, some did it at random, each Prof had their own style. Law is very interactive, so controlled discussion is part of the learning process. I now work as a patent lawyer making technical arguments before a world-class patent office.
Part 1 of 2

Anonymous - an interesting reply. However, I have some reservations about it (leaving aside the disaster it would be for me, my friends and colleagues - I will answer impersonally).

1) You have been trained as a scientist and as a lawyer. Let's leave aside the technical skills you developed as a scientist, which are a special case (engineering, I would agree with you, is a challenge and in academia has a reputation for being the hardest degree of all, even ahead of the BM). I note that you talk about the skills you developed in training for law - an ability to prepare thoroughly, think on your feet, write clear and coherent reports. Might I point out those are also things that could be developed through a history degree? Or an English degree, for that matter? Perhaps you suffer from a certain narrowness of vision when it comes to the benefits of different subjects?

2) You say Wales needs at least one university that is dedicated to enterprise and science. I agree this would be highly desirable. Yet Leighton Andrews appears to be actively sabotaging the one university - Glyndwr - that is both able (via its hook-up with Airbus) and willing to pursue this agenda.

3) From the point of view of economics and "the bottom line" (I hate that phrase, by the way, but that is purely a personal prejudice and I realize what you are addressing) I have two questions. Why do you assume that history undergraduates do not study economics? Many of them do. I did, and I now write about economic history (currently the railways - and with a very clear eye to the implications of how previous models could be applied to the current network, which I think we all agree is a complete mess). You can also study science from an historical perspective, which is extremely useful in science degrees by providing context for the discoveries and development of scientific thought over time (even ICL, the greatest of the universities that follows your model, maintains a humanities department for this purpose). As part of my own PhD, I made an extensive study of law - not enough to qualify as a lawyer, but enough to make the life of those who cross me over it (the SLC and nuisance phone callers) a real and absolute misery.

The second point concerns business and the benefits of arts degrees in running one. I do run a small business on the side, to keep myself afloat financially. At the moment, I am working on a commission for picture research from America, as part of an historical project with implications for tourism. So this is a way of getting money in from abroad, utilising history. More significantly, however, I have come to realize that there is a strict limit to what you can learn about business, promotion, getting commissions etc until you actually go and do it. I thought I had learned a lot about business from my father by helping him when I was a teenager (he was in business for thirty years) but I have learned more in twelve months of running my own than in twelve years of observing him. So maybe we should be chary of assuming that training people in business, however and wherever it is done, will automatically translate into successful businesses a few years down the line.
Part 2 of 2

3) Finally, universities themselves do attract a lot of foreign investment, and most of it in Wales at least is not in science (that goes to ICL and Oxbridge). I meet many foreign students, including large numbers from China, over here, paying full tuition fees for arts courses. Not only do they provide cash for the universities themselves, they spend the money they have brought with them in the local economy, buying food, books, paper, etc. And it does so happen that on occasion money will be paid out by the governments of foreign countries to universities to endow departments or facilities for them, although that in itself can of course cause embarrassment at times (cf LSE and Gaddafi). So it is a useful way of attracting foreign investment and more generally of building a local economy. If we followed your advice to close such places down, it would devastate the entire economy of Wales west of a line drawn from Neath to Colwyn Bay (which is very largely supported by Swansea, UWTSD, Aberystwyth and Bangor, all arts universities) and seriously affect that of Cardiff and the Valleys. Only the north-east would remain relatively unaffected.

I don't suppose we will ever see eye to eye on this subject. However, we come back once again to my central point. Yes, there are grave problems in Welsh universities. Nobody disputes that. I do not see that Andrews is addressing them. He is attacking the symptom - too many small universities - not the cause - an inability to grow and adapt dictated by policies of central government via the University of Wales, plus the peculiar geographical arrangements of Wales itself which is mostly very thinly populated and difficult to travel around (although what he could do about that I don't know)! And by doing so, he is making matters far worse. His sole aim seems to be to attack university Vice Chancellors for daring to think that the Welsh Assembly ministers are a bunch of rapidly-changing nonentities who have no idea of what they are talking about - the minor detail that they are right having passed him by. What a shame that it is the staff and the students who are paying the price for it.

While your prescription is interesting, I am unconvinced that the Welsh economy (which has drifted a long way from any sort of industry) could sustain it. Science and technology investment goes where science and technology already is. And that's not Wales, and whether we like it or not, it isn't going to be. Most universities in Wales have experimented with your pattern, and seen it fail through lack of funding and political will.

My prescription, by contrast, would be to work with what we have to attract students and research funding from abroad in such subjects as Welsh universities have international reputations in, be those in arts or science. There are world-renowned departments in pretty much every Welsh university, although collectively (as noted) they tend to fall short of sustained brilliance. Interpol at Aber, Welsh and Celtic Studies at Bangor, Archaeology and Theology at UWTSD, and any number at Cardiff, however, genuinely are regarded as among the best in their field and maybe we should work to develop them rather than trying to build on what we haven't got.
Dr. Huw> I note your comment: "Science and technology investment goes where science and technology already is. And that's not Wales, and whether we like it or not, it isn't going to be."

I refer to a review/report chaired by Simon Gibson (chief executive of investment fund Wesley Clover).

Simon Gibson (Clover) was reported as saying: "[H]igher education (in Wales) was sitting on an untapped “gold mine” of IP, which could be commercialised." (Western Mail (Business News section), "Welsh unis {sic} sit on a ‘goldmine’", Sion Barry, Jul 11 2007.)

There is an untapped goldmine of intellectual property within the Welsh university as identified in the Gibson report.

We are not talking about huge amounts of funding, but a change in the culture within Welsh universities.

As Gibson observed: “By changing the culture of universities and how they operate just a tiny bit, could make a huge difference.”

I don’t speak for Leighton Andrews but I have had some exchanges with him.

Perhaps Leighton Andrews sees such feet-dragging and has concluded that ‘enough is enough’; Welsh university management either bucks up or ships out in which case I share that view.

Bottom Line: Time is not on Wales’s side.
Yes, I have heard of the Gibson report. As it happens, he produced very little meaningful evidence in support of it, and most of what he was talking about was actually commercialized anyway, for lesser rewards than he outlined (e.g. IGER was one place he talked about, but it certainly wasn't - and isn't - financially viable on its own however you manage the intellectual property). Although a couple of rent-a-gobs supported it, it went nowhere because there wasn't really anywhere for it to go.

Moreover, it's interesting to note he blamed the government for obstructing exploitation by micro-managing and having confused and contradictory policies - although, as I say above, he was rather over-estimating what there was to exploit in any case.
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