Today’s Senedd Roundup: Call for urgent review of university finances rejected

Cardiff University. Picture by Stan Zurek

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Urgent review of university finances rejected

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes the serious crisis facing Welsh universities, with significant job losses announced amid concerns as to the financial sustainability of individual institutions.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to commission an urgent review of the financial sustainability of the Welsh university sector and to give HEFCW a mandate to intervene to prevent the bankruptcy of any Welsh university, though emergency loans if necessary.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure that public funding to Welsh universities is contingent on vice-chancellor salaries being no more than five times median earnings and also ensure universities are transparent – particularly in relation to spending public money.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to remit HEFCW, and any successor body, to require universities to take student and staff views into account when making staffing decisions.

A debate we didn’t want to have

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) said this was a debate tabled reluctantly, but there were alarm bells ringing about the finances of some Welsh universities. Concerns were being raised on a regular basis and couldn’t be ignored anymore.

“….there has been a steady drip-drip of news indicating the worsening financial position of Welsh universities. We have seen successive announcements of job cuts for one, at Trinity Saint David, we are seeing news that there is a potential for up to 170 job cuts, Cardiff has announced up to 380 losses over the next five years….members of the University and College Union voted almost 90% in favour of strike action last year.”
– Bethan Sayed AM

Due to high levels of borrowing by universities, some were at risk should student numbers or fees suddenly fall, while there was now an opportunity to address excessive vice-chancellor pay.

While not agreeing with everything in the motion – particularly any attempt to undermine the autonomy of universities – Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) did support some of it. Universities might be independent, but they were in receipt of public funds and therefore should be more accountable in terms of how effectively that money is being spent. The days of “degrees for everybody” are over and supply of courses was now outstripping demand in some cases.

“No-one will be surprised to see me pressing again about the really serious governance concerns at Swansea (University)….We’ve had these extraordinary suspensions of senior staff, disciplinary processes no closer to being….resolved than they were nine months ago; we now see that there are serious issues with financial reporting. There is no transparency. Students don’t know what’s going on and the staff don’t know what’s going on.”
– Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales)

Financial pressures


Not one to turn down the chance for some Tory bashing, Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn) said the financial situation at Welsh universities was down to Tory cuts, which has led to £800million less being available to the Welsh Government in real terms compared to 2010-11. The Diamond Review reforms are radical and will create “a strong and sustainable funding settlement” for universities.

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said universities were often the cornerstone of the foundational economy in many areas. The student funding system also shouldn’t come at the expense of Welsh institutions or make the “brain drain” problem worse.

David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) believes it’s right for politicians to ask questions about university finances and vice-chancellor pay even if they are independent. David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon), however, added that students in Wales had the highest satisfaction rates in the UK, while universities were less reliant on HEFCW/public funding than they previously were.

Universities can manage their own affairs

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) said that while some AMs may prefer universities to be a government arm, they were autonomous bodies. The Senedd also passed an Act in 2015 which gave HEFCW additional powers to strengthen university financial arrangements – something she said many AMs seem to have forgotten.

“Rather than the picture that has been painted by some Members this afternoon, we have provided HEFCW with enhanced responsibilities in relation to the regulation of tuition fees; monitoring compliance with commitments made in fee and access plans and assessing the quality of provision and financial stability through….a financial management code….In addition, I have discussed with HEFCW the work they have in hand to strengthen governance arrangements in (higher education)….”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

Vote

The motion was defeated by 34 votes to nine.

A more self-congratulatory government-tabled motion underlining the autonomy of universities was passed by 25-19.

Dawn Bowden. Picture by Welsh Labour

Cross-party consensus on a right to adequate housing

This week’s short debate was led by Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney).

Housing problems are “deep-rooted and erosive”

Since being first elected in 2016, Dawn Bowden has felt “frustration” of the depth of housing problems in different communities, resulting in lack of supply, homelessness and unaffordability.

While the Welsh Government has made strides towards incremental change in the housing market through various measures in the rental sectorscrapping right to buy etc., the “persistent, deep-rooted” nature of housing problems requires a fresh response.

A right to adequate housing didn’t necessarily mean building a home for everyone but supporting social progress.

“….the sponsors of the recent feasibility report support the idea of taking a mixed approach to the incorporation of the right to adequate housing (via the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). That is, they believe there should be both direct and indirect incorporation so that there is a strong proactive framework for a right to housing in policy making, but also the right to enforcement if that right is breached.”
– Dawn Bowden AM

She accepted there may not be enough time to introduce such legislation before the end of the current term, but hoped the Communities Committee and Welsh Government will look at it before then.

Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), said there was a lot of sympathy for the idea amongst Conservatives and there was a desire to forge a new consensus – similar to the post-war period – where housing was as important as health and education in terms of universal access.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) saw no other solution but large-scale council house building, which he believes will also result in a fall in the number of buy-to-lets and private renting as people will have an alternative.

Working in the spirit of the Covenant

Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), told AMs that while the UK is yet to ratify and adopt the Covenant, there was no reason why the Welsh Government couldn’t work in the same spirit, benefiting from cross-party consensus. There was already a lot happening:

“….it’s not just the number of homes we build but how we ensure they are of high quality, and here our investment in the Welsh housing quality standard ensures that many of our most vulnerable people live in decent homes, and those homes also need to meet the needs of future generations and be near zero carbon, helping the environment and lifting households out of fuel poverty.”
– Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt

Welfare administration devolution has to be properly tested before introduction

Campaign to raise the profile of councillors to be developed to improve diversity

Yesterday, AMs debated the Community Committee’s report on diversity in local government – a summary of which you can read here.

Some communities “markedly under-represented”

Chair of the Communities Committee, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) said that despite efforts to improve the situation, women and some minority communities remain under-represented in councils. Based on current trends, there won’t be equal gender representation on Welsh councils until 2073.

He was pleased the Welsh Government accepted a number of recommendations on remote attendance at meetings and job-sharing, but one of the biggest barriers was abuse:

“Experiencing bullying, discrimination and harassment are unfortunately matters familiar to politicians at all levels. This was a common theme expressed to us as a barrier to attracting candidates, particularly those from under-represented groups. We made three recommendations in this area, including a call for stronger guidance for candidates and elected representatives on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour on social media….”
– Chair of the Communities Committee, John Griffiths AM

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) cited the Conservative’s Women2Win campaign to increase the number of Tory councillors and senior elected representatives as an example of a successful internal party solution. He didn’t think quotas were the best way forward (and neither did the Committee).

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) said the issue of under-representation couldn’t be tackled until forms of discrimination and prejudice were addressed, along with poverty – which is an additional barrier to seeking public office. Also, proportional electoral systems were proven to result in more women being elected than first-past-the-post.

A complicated issue

“I welcome the fact as well that it’s accepted as a priority that the Welsh Government should establish an access to elected office fund to assist disabled individuals to run for office. I have friends who would benefit directly from that but at the moment feel that there is a barrier to them running because of the additional barriers that are put on them because of the disabilities that they face.”
– Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore)

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) accepted it was a complicated issue, asking why was there a better balance of female to male councillors in Carmarthenshire compared to Ceredigion next door? Also, while many people have called for council meetings to be held later in the day to help those who are employed, it will have a counter impact on the over-60s who might have to travel after-dark in the winter to attend meetings.

Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) blamed a general distrust of politics and an increase in prejudice. This was followed by an angry exchange between herself and Leanne Wood over Nigel Farage – the BXP leader’s – record when it comes to prejudice.

Raising the profile of councillors

Deputy Minister for Housing & Local Government, Hannah Blythyn (Lab, Delyn), said there were perceptions that a “politician” is always “pale and male”. What was important was providing the right information on what councillors actually do to challenge misconceptions and a campaign will be launched to do just that.

A number of the Committee’s recommendations are on the table for inclusion in a new Local Government Bill, including – as mentioned – remote attendance and job-sharing of executive roles, as well as extra assistance for disabled candidates.

Welsh Community Bank “will require around £20million” to be set up

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