It’s been a difficult few years for Welsh universities. OK, so senior management aren’t short of a few quid and vice-chancellors are still very well paid.
But the recession has cut deep and job cuts, course closures and a clamour for collaboration are the product of tightened purse strings. Nevertheless, the underlying threat to universities in Wales was less about money and more about reputation.
Maintaining the good name of Welsh higher education (HE) is crucial to a thriving knowledge base and buoyant economy. Expectations have never been higher and amid spiralling fees, universities must prove to students that their investment is worthwhile.
The problems are magnified in Wales, where universities are heavily reliant on students from England. While the Welsh Government has decided to protect its learners from tuition fee inflation, students from England have to pay full fare – and we need the money.
Competition is fierce and making Welsh HE attractive to learners across the border – and overseas – is integral to its survival. And the fight doesn’t stop there.
Vice-chancellors are battling for staff as well as students and there have been reports of academic “poaching” by institutions in England. But now is not the time to sit back and feel sorry for yourself.
Instead, Welsh HE must find new ways of marketing itself to a wider audience; a way of setting itself apart from rival sectors the world over.
Late last year, Cardiff University’s Professor Peter Halligan landed upon a plan to do just that… and the intervening six months have been well worth the wait.
A four-page feature promoting HE in Wales was published yesterday in “Science” – an academic journal with an estimated readership of more than one million.
The article, which focuses on university research, career opportunities, and the Welsh Government’s fledgling science strategy, charts the good work going on under the radar in Wales.
It is designed to help market the sector on an international stage and includes contributions from First Minister Carwyn Jones and retiring Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Harries.
Around 70% of Science readers hold PhD degrees and the journal, available in print or online, is considered one of the foremost recruitment tools for universities. It is, by definition, a good news story.
Even the mood in Cardiff Bay has lifted and Education Minister Leighton Andrews yesterday said the Welsh Government’s new university strategy would be “outward, not inward”.
After three years of reconfiguration, he said a smaller number of stronger universities would be well-placed to promote themselves and Welsh HE “more vigorously”.
Prof Halligan and his team have set the ball rolling. A little intuition goes a long way and their faith in university research has put Wales on the map for all the right reasons. Long may it continue.