The Context to the Welsh Structural Reform Process

The Welsh HE sector is relatively new, formally coming into being in 1993 as the result of the Further and Higher Education Act in 1992. This Act made changes in the funding and administration of further education and HE in both England and Wales, and created a separate higher education funding council for Wales: the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). Prior to the Act, the Welsh HE system formed a coherent subsystem within the UK’s funding arrangements, with universities funded latterly by the Universities Funding Council (UFC) and previously the Universities Grants Committee (UGC). At that time, Welsh universities formed only a small share of the UK university system, with one large university, the second largest in the UK, and this was the (collegiate) University of Wales, with three foundation colleges in Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff.

Most of the HEIs established in Wales since the 1960s were themselves formed through mergers between individual educational institutes. The most significant merger prior to 2000 was between the University ofWales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) and University College, Cardiff (UWIC) in 1988, creating the first institution in Wales comparable to large research-led universities elsewhere in the UK. This merger was to prove extremely beneficial to the Welsh HE system, clearly adding value and stimulating the development of research and innovation in South-East Wales. The merger was driven by a the late 1980s financial crisis, with the (UK) University Grant Committee requiring that University College, Cardiff merged with neighbouring institutions to restore financial sustainability (Further and Higher Education Act 1992, p. 46; Gummett, 2015, p. 83; HEFCW, 1999).

HEFCW at the time of its creation functioned as an arm’s length body responsible to the national government Welsh Office. All of this changed in

1998-1999, when Wales assumed direct political control over organising and funding its HE system as a consequence of devolution. This devolution redistributed a series of responsibilities to Cardiff to be exercised by the newly elected National Assembly for Wales (WAG) including that for HEFCW. As of 1999, the National Assembly was responsible for the funding of a system comprising 13 HEIs, as shown in with their main characteristics in Table 1 (Gallacher and Raffe, 2013, pp. 467-468; Gummett, 2015, p. 83).

Devolution marked the starting point of Wales’ systematic merger, beginning in January 1999, when the Welsh Office, whose powers were subsequently transferred to the WAG in 1999, directed HEFCW to identify possibilities for mergers of universities and to provide recommendations to the new National Assembly regarding future directions of travel. HEFCW’s report included the important recommendation that it would be most viable to have five to six HEIs. HEFCW also suggested that the National Assembly should invite HEIs to engage in discussion with the aim to achieve a strategic and structural reorganisation within the next 3-5 years. This report, The Scope for Institutional Mergers at the Higher Educational Level, would later be followed up with three more reports (1999-2002) that again emphasised the unavoidable need for mergers between Welsh HEIs. The strategic context to these reports was

Table 1 HEIs Wales in 2003


Total enrolment

(all levels, part time and full time)

Cardiff University


University of Glamorgan


University of Wales, Swansea


University of Wales, Aberystwyth


University of Wales, Bangor


University of Wales, Newport


University of Wales Institute, Cardiff


North East Wales Institute of Higher Education


Swansea Institute of Higher Education


University of Wales, College of Medicine


University of Wales, Lampeter


Trinity College, Carmathen


Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama


Source: HEFCW Annual Report 2003-2004 (n.d.), p. 11

HEFCW’s view that Wales’ HE sector faced a range of challenges in order to adapt and thrive in an increasingly internationalised education environment of the international knowledge economy (GAELWa, 2004, p. 17; Gummett, 2015, p. 84). In concrete terms, the reports identified several challenges that demanded a system restructuring. These challenges are, in summary (1) increased competition from large, efficient organisations in England and elsewhere in Europe and (2) a lack of critical mass to invest strategically in new teaching technologies and practices, new strategic research areas and to compete for UK Research Council and European research funding (GAELWa, 2004; HEFCW, 1999; National Assembly for Wales, 2001. p. 57).

The Welsh Assembly’s Education and Lifelong Leaning Committee’s Policy Review of Higher Education (2002) was one of four reports arguing that mergers were inevitable in view of these tensions and stresses in the Welsh HE system. The report foresaw either collaboration or mergers as being the solution, but despite being forewarned that mergers would be unpopular, plumped for the merger option. They proposed using bottom- up mergers as a process to reduce resistance, encouraging mergers between HEIs with similar missions and visions, with clear mutual benefits, underpinned by careful and structured planning. The WAG then published its report Reaching Higher, which included a strategy for the HE sector in Wales, specifically building upon the Policy Review of Higher Education evidence. WAG agreed with a merger approach, but noted that high levels of university institutional autonomy enshrined in the Act made it very difficult for WAG to impose a top-down structure Welsh Assembly Government 2002, p. 7).

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