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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM. Delivered at the OU in Wales/Wonkhe ‘Delivering Diamond’ Conference.

First published:
7 December 2016
Last updated:

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Bore da, good morning everyone. It’s good to be here with you today.

I’d like to thank Wonkhe and the Open University in Wales for the invitation.

I very much see this event as an unofficial, but important, contribution to the consultation process that I launched a fortnight ago.

As many of you will know, that consultation closes on February the 14th.

Now, based on the mostly positive reaction to the government’s proposals I’m not expecting a Valentine’s Day massacre on that last day of the consultation!

In fact, I’m very much hoping that we’re on the road to a beautiful relationship as Humphrey Bogart might have said.

One in which we get the balance right in supporting students when they most need it, and enables our universities to compete internationally. As Gavan Conlon from London Economics has put it “doing more, with less, but better”!

You have a packed agenda today where I’m sure you’ll get into the details of the Diamond package. Therefore, in the short time available to me before questions, I thought it useful to focus on three elements: the how, the who and the why:

  • first, I’ll discuss our approach to these reforms
  • second, I’ll set out what I think it means to innovate in this area
  • and Third, I’ll try and place our reforms within a wider context.

Of course, with only ten minutes or so, this will only be a starting point. But I want to share some of our thinking.

We were fortunate to have someone of Sir Ian’s calibre – and his panel of experts – lead the review. We had leaders of institutions here in Wales, as well as representatives from the parties, the NUS and industry. But I do think that Sir Ian’s keen eye, and assured leadership and analysis, has been crucial in getting us to this position.

The report, and indeed our response, is built on foundations that are essential for any progressive reform.

We have been able to balance – and to blend - principles and practicalities.

The issue at hand was clear.

The current system is unsustainable, but perhaps more importantly, was it actually supporting students in the best way? Was it supporting our sector to be the best it could be for Wales? And was it supporting widening access, through part-time and onto post-graduate study?

So, from those challenges, I set out my principles for a progressive and sustainable student support system. I received the support of Cabinet for these, which provided a framework for developing our response to the review.

To remind you, those principles were:

  • That we maintain the principle of universalism within a progressive system
  • That we have a ‘whole system’ approach
  • That investment is shared between Government and those who directly benefit
  • That we enhance accessibility, tackling barriers such as living costs
  • And that student support is portable across the UK.

In practice, this means combining universal and means-tested support; committing to cohort protection for those in the current system; and extending ELQ exemptions rather than abolishing them completely.

And at all times seeking to avoid unintended consequences. Which, if I’m being honest, have too often emerged from the various reforms across the border.

Which brings me onto my second point.

Higher education operates in a UK-wide context. This brings many benefits. The OU itself a good example of a four nations institution that gains from its UK scale, but is nimble enough to operate at a Wales national level. But it also brings many challenges.

Decisions made in Westminster – directly and indirectly – have a knock-on effect on the three other UK nations.

But what is certainly not true, is the perception that policy in England is the norm from which we in Wales might deviate.

This is a pejorative that portrays us as mischief-makers or an errant cousin.

When, in fact, the truth is that our Diamond reforms show that Wales is innovative, international and potentially an inspiration.

We are already taking calls from other administrations. As David Morris predicted on Wonkhe in September:

“questions will be asked across the UK about why can Wales be so much more generous to its students. Diamond could be a game changer, across the entire UK.”

As my officials in our schools’ division well know, I am driven by an ambition that Wales learns from the best, so that we can then be a model of best practice.

I want to see policymakers from around the world visiting Wales to learn from us on how to raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver a new curriculum.

Surely people must be fed up of always visiting Finland or Korea – let’s be great enough so that they come to Fishguard or Caernarfon instead!

I want our HE reforms to become the template for other systems.

It would be a welcome change if Welsh Vice Chancellors decided to enlighten their English counterparts about the bold, collective, decisions that we have taken here. If that starts happening, then I know I will be on my way to achieving my ambition!

And then I may just start to be more sympathetic to other demands about emulating certain aspects of the English system.

Thirdly, I want to go back to a point I made in my statement to the Assembly in September when I originally welcomed the report.

In his foreword, Sir Ian mentioned the famous principle of the Robbins Report that access to university should be based on ability alone, not the ability to afford it.

It is often overlooked that in setting out the aims of a higher education system, the Robbins Report also said that “The system as a whole must be judged deficient unless it provides adequately for all”.

I believe that in being the first in the UK, indeed perhaps the first in Europe, to make available equivalent maintenance support across mode and level of study, we really are moving towards a system that provides for all.

The work of NUS Wales, through their research and continuing constructive engagement, has been bold in addressing student funding priorities head-on. And they have made the case for all types of students, not just the traditional eighteen year-olds.

That’s why I was taken aback in a recent interview with the Times Higher Education when they suggested that we were implementing something akin to the English system.

Let me be clear, I am committed to the idea of higher education as a common good. And one expression of that is the sharing of cost between student, institution and government.

But it can’t just be one type of student. That is neither progressive nor appropriate for a competitive modern economy and society.

So the option is either a system that treats all students the same and government makes a complete retreat from student support, or you commit fully to a partnership where we share those costs when students most need it.

Thanks to the Diamond Package we have a practical, progressive and consistent system that ensures Wales can take the latter option.

And I want to underline our fundamental shift towards that ‘whole system’ approach I mentioned earlier.

Providing parity of support across part-time and post-graduate provides us with a real chance to tackle some of those enduring inequalities in social mobility, employment outcomes, access to the professions, diversity in academia and the essential promotion of life-long learning.

In conclusion I would also emphasise that the shift in student support provides us with the opportunity to be smart and sustainable in higher education funding.

Financial decisions are, of course, for future budget negotiations. But I am committed to a higher education system that is supported to deliver on social mobility, on research and scholarship, on an engaged democracy, on enabling entrepreneurship, and on national prosperity.

These are exciting times to be part of the collective effort to reform education in Wales, building better futures for our citizens and for our nation. Our proposed changes to student support funding and higher education finance are an ambitious, but essential, aspect of that mission.

Thank you for the invitation today to share some of my thoughts on delivering Diamond. I look forward to hearing your questions.

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