By Adrian Masters
As political interventions go, this is one of the most intellectual: one of the UK’s leading scientists, backed by 60 other senior academics criticising all four political parties.
What worries Sir John Cadogan is that he says none of the parties in this election campaign is addressing concerns about the funding gap between our universities and those in England and Scotland.
That’s why he’s chosen to speak to ITV Wales and why he’s written directly to the party leaders.
But why should any of them pay attention to him?
Well he certainly has the credentials as a former professor of chemistry at universities in England and Wales, as well as a government adviser and a leading figure in business.
And he’s speaking in his position as President of the Learned Society of Wales – an institution representing the creme of Welsh academia. The society has 60 fellows and is about to see its numbers more than double. These are heavyweight opinions.
Not only that, but Sir John reckons that the Learned Society is giving a voice to academics, lecturers, governors and Vice-chancellors who won’t speak out because they’re concerned that doing so will cost them dearly.
So what are his worries?
A paper produced for the Learned Society claims that universities have been significantly and deliberately underfunded for the last ten years.
It refers to figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales which show the extent of the funding gap.
Hefcw’s report is here. It’s a few years old, but it shows that in 2007/8 the difference between the funding of Welsh universities and those in England was £62m and with Scotland it was £181m.
The Learned Society reckons the gap over the last decade is over half a billion and a billion respectively.
The bigger concern, though, is not the past but the future which is why Sir John has written to each of the four party leaders spelling out the situation and asking what they’ll do about it.
You can read the letter to the party leaders here.
In the absence of any replies, he’s read the manifestos and finds no credible plan to plug the gap.
Sir John told me,
One Vice-Chancellor told me that if his university had been in Scotland under the Scottish system of funding he would have had another 100 lecturers… It’s not about governors, Vice-chancellors – discoveries are made in the Library and the lab by people working at the frontier. If you don’t have those people working at the frontier with the best equipment, the best libraries and the best students – because we want to attract the best students – you’re not going to win.
And he warns that,
They can’t compete, they’ll slide. They’ll do their best and what’s remarkable is how well universities have done. There have been these pinnacles of excellence but (Welsh universities) are like a pier with too few supports and the danger is that the expensive subjects will take the hit.
That was echoed what Dr Steve Hagen of Newport University told us. He said that what’s not being invested in are things like medical, paramedical and scientific subjects – anything that requires students to spend a lot of time in expensive labs.
We tackled each of the parties with Sir John’s concerns. I’m not sure that their replies will reassure him. See what you make of them.
Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones said
We know that the alleged funding gap will disappear next year because higher education in England is being destroyed, slashed by up to 80%. We’ve protected higher education as best we can in Wales while at the same time making it possible for people to afford to go to university.
Plaid Cymru’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said
I don’t think there has been deliberate underfunding, certainly not during the time we’ve been in government. What we have to do is to work with universities to improve research and development capacity on the side of the economy. We’ve also protected students by keeping fees down. What we also recognise is that in England 75% of the teaching grant is being cut – nothing like that has happened in Wales.
The Welsh Conservatives say the funding gap would be plugged by raising tuition fees which students would only pay after graduating and earning over £21,000. They claim that Labour’s policy of subsidising tuition fees would ‘result in Welsh unversities being underfunded compared to those in England, resulting in a two-tier higher education system.
Kirsty Williams, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats said
(We) have consistently highlighted the growing gap in how our universitites are funded compared with those in England and its vital we get a good balance between support for individual students and support for institutions. After all if we don’t keep pace with developments not just in England, but across the world, we’re not going to have a university sector that’s attractive to people.