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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In defence of the University of Wales

Nobody can deny that the current controversy around the moderation of University of Wales degrees in overseas universities and the visa scam exposed by BBC Wales at Rayat College London has exposed some serious shortcomings, which need addressing.

It is certainly the case that the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor for the University of Wales should be accompanied by the replacement of the Chair of the Council as well so as to enable the institution to make a fresh start.

However, do these problems justify calls by some for the disbandment of a 118 year old institution and brand that still carries enormous weight overseas and is directly responsible for bringing millions of pounds into Wales?

Of the University of Wales' £17 million turnover, £12 million comes into Wales from its activities with overseas students. That is a business that it is in the process of changing altogether in response to the controversy.

The visa scam of course is more difficult, but looking at it objectively what has happened is that the University of Wales has been the victim of a crime. Did anybody suggest that Swansea University be wound up when it became embroiled in allegations about plagiarism some time ago? No. Instead the authorities dealt with the problem and that is what needs to happen now.

The argument that these problems have damaged Wales reputation abroad is not matched by the facts. The number of overseas students choosing to study in Wales continues to grow. That figure has trebled in the last 15 years.

More importantly though, critics who want to do away with the University have failed to answer some fundamental questions as to what they will put in its place and how they will deal with the impact such action would have on Welsh higher education.

As this article shows, the idea that the University of Wales has enormous assets to distribute on dissolution is a myth:

How can any university which is a degree-awarding body be wound up in “a year’s time”? The university has a duty of care above all to the students enrolled on its degree courses and must see them through to the completion of their studies. Or do you want to abandon 70,000 students?

Do you really think that Aberystwyth University has the resources to maintain the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies? The University of Wales currently pumps hundreds of thousands of pounds
annually into the Centre if you look at the University accounts (which I assume you must have done). Might Aberysteyth University be tempted to treat it in the same lamentable way that it has treated Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER): asset-stripping and extensive redundancies? IGER used to be world-renowned. And is not Aberystwyth University itself now ‘tainted’ by press reports of senior finance officials on ‘gardening leave’ and a missing million (see the Cambrian News, 13 October)?

The University of Wales does not own Gregynog Hall: it is the property of the Margaret Davies Foundation. They might want a say in what happens to it!

It also seems to have escaped your scrutiny that much of the reserves of the University of Wales are specific endowments tied to particular functions. They cannot legally be redeployed to suit other purposes – however noble they may be. The Charity Commissioners would not permit it. The uncommitted
reserves are not nearly enough to do what you suggest – and would certainly not produce a sustainable income.

The situation is actually more serious than that. If the University of Wales were to cease to exist it would immediately become liable under s.75 of the Pensions Act to plug a huge hole in its pension fund, an amount that far exceeds its assets. Nobody has made any suggestion as to how that sum would be found or what would happen to the pensioners.

And this disregard for consequences goes further. Has nobody given any thought to the 230 people employed by the University of Wales and what would happen to them? Not a single penny of public funding goes towards paying their wages. Why are prominent figures demanding that so many jobs are abolished in Wales in the middle of an economic crisis?

What intrigues me most about this issue is the number of Vice Chancellors jumping on the bandwagon and calling for the University of Wales to be abolished because of problems with the moderation of overseas degrees. What they do not tell us though is that the University of Wales does not use its own staff to moderate those degrees. Instead they employ academics in Universities elsewhere in Wales to do the work.

The Vice Chancellor of Swansea University has been particularly vocal about the negative image that the continuing controversy creates for Welsh higher education and yet his university received £803,426 in fees between 2004 and 2011 and released 22 of its staff to carry out this moderation work on behalf of the University of Wales.

Perhaps Richard Davies should put pen to paper instead to explain why Swansea University has slipped in the Times Higher Education World Rankings to 390th position and why within Wales it has now fallen from 2nd to 4th place, behind Aberystwyth and Bangor? Perhaps too, he should explain why third year medical students were obliged to continue their degree at Cardiff after Swansea University failed to appoint replacement staff at their own College of Medicine on time with the consequent loss of substantial sums of money to Swansea?

The Vice Chancellor of Swansea University holds up his second campus project as an example of how higher education is working successfully to promote Wales and the economy, so it might be useful after so many years of waiting if we can now have a final timetable for its implementation and completion. It is not just the University of Wales that has problems.

But Swansea's Vice Chancellor is not the only one who has condemned the University of Wales whilst their institution benefits from the moderation activity. Over the same period of 2004 to 2011, Glyndwr University recieved £978,993 and released 90 of their staff to moderate University of Wales degrees. Aberystwyth got £518,036 and released 19 staff whilst Bangor received £2,233,674 for the 85 staff they allowed to carry out this activity. In total the University of Wales paid £7,644,431 to Welsh Universities in return for using staff to moderate UoW degrees.

What is clear is that there is a political agenda here that needs to be understood and that it is nobody's interest for the University of Wales to be disbanded.
Dear Peter, Well done on making a rational balanced contribution to the debate, and also for flagging that this has become a great distraction (or smokescreen) to more worrying shortcomings in Welsh HE. It is encouraging to see that some AMs have seen through the 'issues' raised by BBC Wales for what they really are. While no-one can deny there are issues to be addressed as UoW, there has become a sense of hysteria and muck-raking.
It is interesting to note that not too long ago Swansea University was seeking a very close relationship with the University of Wales and may have been disappointed that the UoW chose to seek partnership with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Swansea Metropolitan University. At a time when Higher Education in Wales is going through major reconfiguration might comments about the UoW be less of a smokescreen and more of a spoiler?
Thank you, Mr Black, for putting the other side of the story. I write here in a personal capacity, but as a University of Wales Moderator for a programme in Spain, I am thoroughly proud of the work that the University of Wales does, and I endorse the comments that external examiners have made over the years about the value that the not-for-profit foundation that owns the private university adds to the educational, business and social community of the region. There are no phoney PhDs or ex-popstars there, only dedicated professionals and educators. It is worth mentioning that as well as calling on the experience of a phalanx of Wales-based academics to act as Moderators to enhance programme quality, the UoW also uses external examiners from a wide range of UK universities to regulate standards, and their work is further triangulated triangulated by external examiners from their domestic university system. I would have hoped that members of the Welsh Government would not be so cavalier in dismissing the value of having a dispora of thousands the youngest, brightest and best in countries around the world who think of Wales as being their alma mater. A small country like ours cannot afford to throw away this remarkable reource.
The University of Wales has brought lots of benefits to Wales, but sadly big mistakes were made approving some courses. Also, there seems to be an issue with respect to POWIS - it is not clear what the issue or issues were, but POWIS has essentially shut up shop (but with those already 'in post' will be allowed to complete their placements with promised funding). cw

I agree that Swansea University has its own issues as outlined by Peter Black. Swansea University has spent millions of public funds on a supercomputer facility and its ILS but has a hopeless patent record. It's standing in the league tables is a joke.
CW get your facts right please. POWIS has not shut up shop and the University of Wales will continue to fnd POWIS scholarship itself. POWIS has registered 44 new products in two years against a target of 30 for the entire project. Tnis is somethimg you, of all people, should admire.
Anon (11:15)> I guess in your haste to find fault you overlooked the conditional statement in my post: "…but POWIS has essentially shut up shop (but with those already 'in post' will be allowed to complete their placements with promised funding)".

So the statement is true, that POWIS has essentially shut up shop, but those already receiving funding under POWIS will be allowed to complete their placements with promised funding.

According to Edwina Hart POWIS lost European funding because “… the review (of POWIS), which was completed in the spring, identified significant management and governance shortcomings in relation to EU funds”. Now you may disagree with that statement but that is the reason cited for cutting the funds of POWIS.

I concur that more details should be forthcoming with regard POWIS and Edwina Hart’s statement that “significant management and governance shortcomings in relation to EU funds”.

PS Anon (11:15): is that you Dylan? I ask because you write: "POWIS has registered 44 new products in two years against a target of 30 for the entire project." Such a precise statement suggests so.

On the assumption that this was you Dylan, your comment that POWIS has registered 44 new products - in what way were they 'registered', under what criteria?

Patents applied for? In the patent field (re: utility applications) we don't so much register a product, but the invention itself.

Design patents speak to the ornamental features of a product, but don't protect the inventive idea behind the product.

So in what way were these "44 new products" registered?

Another question, is POWIS sponsoring any researchers on embryonic stem cell projects? I ask because such work will likely not result in European patents – are you aware of this issue? cw
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