Senedd roundup: Calls for “rethink” to protect under threat Welsh universities
Plaid Cymru has said the Welsh Government should “rethink” its higher education policies in order to protect the sector, after it emerged that the UK Government plans to place a cap on the number of students from England attending universities in Wales.
The Westminster government is expected to confirm next week they are capping numbers at universities in the face of falling recruits from overseas because of the coronavirus pandemic. Education Minister Kirsty Williams revealed on Friday that it was also considering limiting the number of students that could study in Wales.
Such a move could have catastrophic consequences. A recent report from Wales Governance Centre showed that Welsh universities faced losing between £84–140 million in the coming academic year from losses in fees alone – before any cut in English student numbers.
Plaid Cymru Spokesperson for post-16 education Helen Mary Jones MS – who is covering for Bethan Sayed MS who is on maternity leave, said: “If the numbers of English students entering Welsh HE institutions falls, then it will be another hit the whole sector cannot afford right now.
“Long term, there needs to be a serious discussion on whether we continue to fund almost 40% of Welsh students to leave our country, every year. And if there is going to be a cap imposed by the English education minister, then that will require the Welsh Government to rethink its policies, fast, in order to protect the Welsh HE sector and help to strengthen our universities at this critical time”.
Announcement on plans to reopen schools due next week
The Welsh Government has confirmed there will be an update next week on plans to reopen schools and further education.
Schools in Wales have been closed since the coronavirus lockdown measures were introduced in March.
Plans had been considered for school summer holidays to be brought forward to the end of June, with the new school year commencing in early August, but these have been rejected by teaching unions.
National Education Union Cymru secretary David Evans told BBC Wales: “It would mean there would be a 20-week term in the autumn with just a one-week break in the middle for the teachers.”
Explaining the switch would mean breaking summer arrangements and there would be “contractual issues” he concluded: “By the time you put all that together the complicating factors just mean it’s a non-starter.”
The government had suggested moving the school calendar in the hope that good weather would allow the use of outdoor space to be maximised to reduce the risk of transmission, and that returning in early August could give pupils more time in school before a potential second peak later in the year.
A government source said it was “a sensible and workable option” but “recognised and respected” unions were not in favour.
Plaid Cymru education spokeswoman, Sian Gwenllian, called for the two sides to continue considering the option and said: “A phased and gradual re-opening of schools could then start in August, if it is safe to do so.”
In England, some children will return to school on Monday, but a significant number of parents are unlikely to send their children back. A total of 11 local authorities in England are also refusing to reopen schools at they feel it is not yet safe to do so.
Pupils in Scotland are due to return to school in the middle of August.
Coronavirus testing portal now offers appointments at test centres in Wales
People in Wales can now book appointments for a coronavirus tests through a UK Government website.
Two weeks ago, the Welsh Government announced it was scrapping its own web platform and was switching to the UK-wide system.
The website offers users the opportunity to request home testing kits that will be sent out by post and for appointments at centres.
There were initially teething problems with availability of both options for users of the new system in Wales, but the UK Government has now confirmed that drive-through appointments can be booked at centres across Wales.
Testing kits should be sent out within 24 hours and most test results are delivered within two days.
Fourteen more deaths involving coronavirus in have been confirmed, taking the total number of deaths in Wales to 1,331.
Public Health Wales has reported 86 new cases, taking the total number of infections to 13,913. It was also confirmed that 2,400 tests were carried out yesterday.
Lockdown exercises change criticised for “favouring” cyclists
The Welsh Conservatives have complained about a change to the lockdown guidance in Wales announced yesterday, which they claim favours cyclists.
Under the new guidelines, people from two different households in the same local area would be allowed to meet outdoors – and “local” has been confirmed as within a 5-mile radius.
Both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives complained that the 5-mile guidance was unfair on rural communities but defending the move First Minister Mark Drakeford said the 5-mile limit “is only guidance” and that people should use their own best judgement in their local context. “It is a rule of thumb for people to apply in their local geographies in Wales,” he said.
Amongst the other modest changes announced on Friday was an easing of restrictions on cyclists, runners, and walkers.
In the new rules that come into force on Monday the government states: “…we recognise there are certain forms of exercise which, though you start locally, may temporarily take you further afield. For example, a strong cyclist may get their exercise through bike rides of 40 miles or more. Exercise as a form of “active” travel in this way (a long cycle ride, run or walk) is now allowed, as long as the exercise starts and finishes from home.”
Responding to the new rule change Darren Millar MS, the Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Covid Recovery, said: “You can now cycle huge distances here, yet Wales appears to be the only country in Western Europe where you are not permitted to play tennis, a sport involving two people which, by its nature, involves people keeping more than two metres apart.
“There seems to be absolutely no science behind some of the choices being made by Welsh Minister’s which begs the question why some hobbies and activities are being favoured over others.
“Making the policy change for cyclists alone is also hurtful. You can now cycle for 40 miles, yet you can’t visit family and friends if they live more than five miles away.
“The Welsh Government needs to scrap the cruel five-mile rule and start thinking about the needs of everyone and not just the chosen few.”