How universities are leading Wales’ cultural evolution
Professor Elizabeth Treasure, Vice-Chancellor of Aberystwyth University, on behalf of Universities Wales
Wales’ culture has global reach and recognition.
From castles to choirs, the Mabinogion to the Manic Street Preachers, Doctor Who to Dylan Thomas, Wales has a rich and varied cultural tapestry that is recognised by people around the globe. But our culture, and its value to us, is even more than this.
Earlier this month, St David’s Day offered an opportunity to celebrate Wales’ culture in all its glory (albeit mostly virtually this year), but what may not have been apparent amongst the celebrations is the pivotal role Wales’ universities play in developing, advancing and promoting this culture.
When we talk about the benefits of universities, it is often framed in terms of the economy, or viewed through the lens of research and innovation in science and technology areas.
We know, for example, that Welsh universities have led the way on scientific breakthroughs that have both shaped our understanding of the world and how we live in it.
We also know that Welsh universities are proportionately more important to their regional economies than those elsewhere, generating £5bn of impact and nearly 50,000 jobs across Wales. But this doesn’t tell the whole story.
Our universities are hugely important to the cultural life of Wales, safeguarding and enhancing the social and cultural fabric of their communities – both in a local sense and on a national scale.
As well as delivering teaching and carrying out research in arts and humanities subjects, our universities also undertake a wide breadth of research in and about Wales and its language, literature and history, helping to build a deeper understanding of our heritage and our place in the world.
But beyond this, Wales’ universities also act as important cultural and artistic centres within their communities, offering live performances, exhibitions and public lectures and providing community spaces where people can gather and pursue shared activities.
In 2018/19, almost 300,000 people attended dance or drama events organised by universities in Wales, while a further 250,000 attended university-organised exhibitions.
And even a pandemic hasn’t put a halt to these activities, with universities delivering a wide range of virtual events throughout lockdown and beyond – from online creative workshops to virtual music festivals, and lots more in between.
As we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, the rooted presence of universities in communities will continue to provide opportunities for people to come together and share experiences.
As well as being purveyors of culture in their own right, universities are also a key contributor to the creative industries in Wales, providing a critical pipeline of talent, skills and opportunities to a sector that employs more than 56,000 people across Wales.
As well as creating jobs and wealth, the creative industries also play a vital role in creating a strong national brand that ensures Wales’ culture and talent is recognised and celebrated across the world.
Of course, at the heart of Wales’ culture is our language, which is such an integral part of our identity and heritage. And here too, universities have an important part to play.
For many years, establishing the future sustainability of the Welsh language within academia has been a priority for both the Welsh Government and Wales’ universities.
And our institutions have risen to the challenge, working with Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol to provide Welsh-medium higher education opportunities to students across Wales, as well as supporting thousands of people to learn Welsh each year through their popular part-time courses for adults.
Going forward, this aspect of Welsh higher education will become ever more crucial as the Welsh Government seeks to realise its ambition of a million Welsh speakers by 2050.
When we talk about the culture of Wales, it’s important to recognise that ‘culture’ is not static. It is a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving.
Likewise, while universities in Wales have been around a long time they have not stood still. Throughout the tumultuous twentieth century our universities adapted and changed, and in the past five years they have brought a renewed vigour to the ways in which they benefit people and places in Wales.
A dynamic and strong cultural sector is essential to a well-functioning, progressive society and, as the country builds back after Covid, our universities will be pivotal in protecting and advancing our shared culture, cementing Wales’ position as a vibrant, forward-looking nation, confident in its standing on the world stage.