Higher education reconfiguration has been a longstanding objective of successive Welsh Governments, from the publication of Wales: The Learning Country in 2001, through to our current higher education strategy, For our Future. It has enjoyed all-party support in the Assembly, from the Post-16 Education committee chaired by Cynog Dafis AM in 2001, to the Audit Committee chaired by David Melding AM in 2009, and was reflected in the decision of the Cabinet of the One Wales Government in June 2010 in support of HEFCW's Corporate Strategy.
The Assembly's Audit Committee in 2009 was unequivocal. It concluded
'We think that the Assembly Government and HEFCW between them need to be much more robust in this area.'
'The Assembly Government, and HEFCW, should use the core grant to institutions, as appropriate, to drive forward their goals.'
The mandate for structural change within Welsh HE is clear and is supported by virtually every independent commentator.
A year ago, I published the report from HEFCW on the Future Structure of Higher Education in Wales. As I said at the time, I believe it made a persuasive case for change.
In relation to South East Wales, HEFCW recommended that Cardiff University should remain committed to developing its position as a research-intensive institution. I accepted this recommendation.
HEFCW also advised that the University of Glamorgan, Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of Wales, Newport should merge. I said in November I was minded to accept the recommendation, subject to thorough consideration of all the evidence and consultation with the institutions concerned, for the establishment of a single metropolitan university for Glamorgan and Gwent, with campuses widely distributed as at present throughout the Valleys, Cardiff and Newport.
Between March and May this year, I undertook discussions with the Chairs and Vice Chancellors of the three institutions, together with the Principal and Interim Chair of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, on the options for creating a single metropolitan university in South East Wales. I have met staff and student representatives from these institutions.
My officials have given careful consideration to a range of issues and evidence available so far relating to HEFCW's proposals, including comments raised in written representations on the report. They have conducted a detailed analysis of the issues and options for such proposals and I shall be making the outcomes of that analysis available shortly.
I am particularly grateful to Professor Sir Steve Smith, Vice Chancellor of Exeter University and a previous Chair of Universities UK. Over the past few months, he has considered very carefully the evidence and arguments and has met all key stakeholders to discuss the proposed South East Wales reconfiguration. His support has been invaluable and I published his report yesterday. Professor Smith's conclusions are entirely in line with this Government's long-standing view about the need for radical change within the Welsh higher education sector.
Having considered the available evidence and the issues raised in discussions, I continue to believe that HEFCW's proposal for a strong metropolitan university in South East Wales remains a sound one. I welcome, therefore, the recent announcement by the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport regarding their intention to merge. They intend to create an institution with an enhanced applied research capacity, a focus on business engagement and employability, and improved access opportunities for local learners.
I have noted the recent response of the governing body of Cardiff Metropolitan University to the proposed merger and of their desire to remain outside of any merger discussions. However, I continue to believe that there is a case for that institution to join with the University of Wales, Newport and the University of Glamorgan.
I now wish to update members on the process I expect to see develop.
The discussions between Glamorgan and Newport focus on a merger that is likely to utilise the existing vehicle of the University of Glamorgan structure. There would therefore be a need to dissolve the existing University of Wales, Newport HE Corporation. I have, therefore, decided to commence, as soon as possible, a statutory consultation on the dissolution of the University of Wales, Newport HE Corporation.
Subject to the outcome of this statutory consultation, I would anticipate seeing real progress on the merger of Newport and Glamorgan by 2013.
Since I am minded to accept HEFCW's proposal, I would also expect to proceed to a similar and concurrent consultation on the dissolution of the Cardiff Metropolitan University HE Corporation. I would hope to see progress in terms of Cardiff Metropolitan's involvement in the new merged institution in 2014.
If the outcome of the statutory consultations resulted in a decision to proceed with merger, there would be a need to plan the development of the new institution. In that eventuality, I would therefore propose to establish a new strategic board, chaired by Geraint Talfan Davies. The board, if constituted, would include representation from all three institutions, including the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and would work for a period of some two years on a 'blueprint' for the merged institution. The board, if constituted, would include staff and student representatives. We would intend there to be minimum disruption for students and staff.
Clearly the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales will need some certainty in planning future arrangements. If the outcome of the statutory consultations resulted in the dissolution of the institutions affected, I would expect that HEFCW’s public funding of provision in South East Wales from 2015-16 onwards would support two higher education institutions, Cardiff University and the new merged metropolitan University.
I believe at this point that HEFCW's recommendations for South East Wales, leading to a more focused research-intensive institution alongside a strong metropolitan university, are the way forward.