The Labour Party is starting now to articulate what the first Labour administration’s education policy for nearly 15 years might look like in government. Of course we have more than a week in politics to go, so much could change and 2025 still seems some way away.

The complexion of what we might see, if Labour are successful, will look very different from the radical talk of the Corbyn days. What do we have to go on? The last time Labour were in government in Westminster was in 2010, when the Brown administration was still reeling from the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. The talk of “prudence” overshadowed by the note left by Liam Byrne for the incoming Coalition’s Liberal Democrat, Danny Alexander, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, saying that all the money had gone.

For the same 15 years that the Conservative Party will have held power by 2025, less attention has been paid to the fact that Labour has held power (albeit in coalitions) in Wales in the Senedd. In fact, not just for that 15 years, but since May 1999 and the first devolved administration. Expunging the ghosts of the past, Labour might want to distance themselves from the Blair administration (the war in Iraq), the Brown administration (the financial and banking crisis) and the five years of Jeremy Corbyn. But is there less to worry about in Wales?

Wales has never much captured the headlines as a devolved “government” in the way that the SNP has dominated Scottish politics with controversy and noise at Westminster. Or Northern Ireland with the lack of government as power sharing has faltered time after time. Perhaps Wales has shown what a stable “sensible” devolved government could look like – and one led by Labour.

A quiet change has been underway in Wales with the inauguration of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research. Whilst not getting much press in England, it is certainly something that has caught the attention of Matt Western, Shadow Minister for Higher Education. It does seem that in most speeches Matt Western frequently references that he is “watching” the reforms of his counterpart in Wales, Jeremy Miles, with great interest. A sensible approach one might argue – watch a Labour reform in Wales, look and learn, and adapt as a shiny new policy for England? Otherwise having binned free tuition fees, a Higher Education policy in England might only be another shade of grey on the current Conservative Party one?

So what is happening in Wales? A piece of legislation that is called The Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act 2022.

Essentially this sees the bringing together of HE, FE, and the skills agenda under a single new statutory body, the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER). In and of itself that might not sound very radical. After all, the current Conservative government has been at least trying to articulate a more joined up approach to the skills agenda across post 16 education.

Indeed, the CTER has many key similarities to the Office for Students (OfS), namely:

  • The registration of providers
  • Monitoring of compliance with conditions of registration – conditions broadly similar to that of OFS
  • “Learner” protection plans
  • Higher Education Fee limits
  • Responsibilities around quality and standards

But… the CTER will do this across FE and HE, not just for HE. Where things change more radically from the OfS is that CTER will be much more than a regulator.

The Commission will have strategic duties in relation to:

  • Promoting life-long learning
  • Promoting equality of opportunity
  • Encouraging participation in tertiary education
  • Promoting continuous improvement in tertiary education
  • Promotion of research and innovation
  • Promoting collaboration and coherence in tertiary education and research
  • Contributing to a sustainable and innovative economy
  • Promoting tertiary education through the medium of Welsh
  • Promoting a civic mission
  • Promoting a global outlook
  • Promoting collaboration between providers of tertiary education and trade unions

That’s quite a list – and it has yet to be seen how this new body will achieve these objectives across what are and will remain as autonomous institutions with their own strategic plans. The last point certainly wouldn’t be on a Conservative agenda!

Notably the Act also:

  1. Removes the requirement for fee and access plans to access student support, but introduces a mandatory registration condition on equal opportunity.  This requires delivery of measurable outcomes as regards participation, student retention, reducing attainment gaps and provision of support for students from underrepresented groups when finishing their course.  The Welsh Government’s intention is that the Act will introduce a more outcomes focused approach to access and participation, which is less bureaucratic and prescriptive.
  2. The Welsh Ministers may require CTER to enter “outcome agreements” with entities CTER intends to provide financial resources to, setting out the activities the recipient will carry out pursuant to CTER’s strategic plan.

Much of the act uses the term “Tertiary” and does not differentiate between FE and HE. Tellingly, “English” Labour has increasingly adopted the “tertiary” formulation, indicating the direction of travel over the bridge, revealing a real interest in the coordination of college and university post-compulsory provision, which just could be modelled on the Welsh CTER.

The Welsh CTER would appear to provide the basis for a more joined up policy driven body with strategic planning duties rather than a primary emphasis on regulation. Part of the Act states:

“The Commission must send a strategic plan prepared under section 14 to the Welsh Ministers for their approval: The Welsh Ministers may — Approve the plan or Approve the plan with modifications”

That would indeed look like a manifesto for much more direct political direction or even intervention in post compulsory education.

No doubt very aware of the resistance to this from powerful institutions, some safeguards have been explicitly written into the Act:

Directions from ministers must not be framed by reference to —

  • a particular registered provider,
  • particular parts of courses of study,
  • particular programmes of research or innovation projects,
  • the content of courses of study, programmes of research or innovation projects,
  • the manner in which such courses, programmes or projects are taught, supervised or assessed,
  • the criteria for the selection, appointment or dismissal of academic staff, or how they are applied, or
  • the criteria for the admission of students, or how they are applied.

So the policy objective seems fairly clear: a single oversight body for tertiary education to develop “more coherent” post-compulsory systems.”

For Wales the CTER means the end of HEFCW.

What might following the Welsh model mean for England?

  • Dissolution of OFS and SFA?
  • Creation of a new Tertiary body with statutory duties that extend beyond Registration and Regulation? (It is worth saying that Wales is not the only reform to create an integrated Tertiary system as Scotland has had this for many years.)
  • Creating a fairer system of student support in England? One of the main premises of the Diamond reforms in Wales was to shift the emphasis of student financial support away from tuition fee grants toward living cost support including providing larger maintenance grants to those from households with lower incomes.
  • Another important change In Wales was that the total level of support available to a student would not be reduced by their household income, only the balance between maintenance loan (repayable) and grant (non-repayable)
  • Revision of quality and standards – possibly simplifying this for tertiary providers from current overlapping roles of OFS, SFA and OfSted? (a greater regulatory coherence across the tertiary sector to prevent overlap and additional burdens would be very welcome for those providers providing both higher and further educations as well as degree apprenticeships and skills)
  • Re-looking at the role of Research England?

If you haven’t yet gone to google translate, dilyn beth mae’r Cymry yn ei wneud, you could do so now to check out Matt Western’s thinking!

Mark Taylor, Chief Finance Officer, GuildHE