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Putting about some stick

Betsan Powys | 09:51 UK time, Wednesday, 26 May 2010

_47925355_leightonandrews170bbc.JPGOver breakfast this morning I learnt many things about what happened in the 2010 election and, even more significantly, why.

There was a lot to digest, facts and figures and trends that add up to a pretty happy outlook for Labour in Wales, a huge challenge for the Conservatives, much head scratching for Plaid and better news for the Liberal Democrats than I think for one moment will eventually be delivered when we next go to the polls.

For now I'll pick out just one set of statistics.

1500 people in Wales were asked, in the days after the General Election, how they thought things had been going since 2005. Did they think things had got better or worse as far as the NHS, education, law and order and their standard of living were concerned? The picture, in general, is this.

Most thought the NHS had improved. And guess what? Most put that down to the Assembly government, not the UK government. Satisfied smiles in Assembly government corridors.

What about education? Not such a glowing picture. Around a quarter thought it had got better but just a few less thought it had got worse and just over a quarter had seen no change at all. Again just over a quarter didn't know - a far higher proportion than in any of the other policy areas studied.

But get this. Of those who thought it had got better, the credit went to the Assembly government. Those who thought it had got worse were more likely to blame the UK government. Wryly satisfied we-got-away-with-it smiles in Assembly government corridors?

No. At least not on the Education Minister's face.

Leighton Andrews has been threatening for some time, to - as I put it back in March - put a bit of stick about:

"See also Leighton Andrews, rewarded with the plum job of education and in the words of Francis Urquhart, not afraid to put a bit of stick about. He's started a few things. Let's see where they are in two, or three hundred days' time".

Last night he took that stick and waved it in the faces of leading figures in the Welsh Higher Education sector. In fact as I came back from London last night my Blackberry - yes, yes, they've relented and given me my very own "hand-held device" - started bleeping frantically with evidence of some serious stick-waving.

By the end of the evening in Cardiff University I imagine some of those in the audience - administrators and head honchos in particular - had almost felt the air move as the stick came slashing down right in front of their noses. They may even have been tempted to hold out their hands, palms upwards.

Here's just some of what he had to say:

"I will be blunt and I will be candid. In the first six months I have been in this post, I have begun to wonder whether the Higher Education sector in Wales actually wants the Assembly Government to have a higher education strategy, or whether it even believes that there is such a thing as a Welsh higher education sector ..."

"Indeed, I am not clear - eleven years after the National Assembly was created, and thirteen years after our historic referendum vote - that the higher education sector in Wales welcomes devolution or democratic accountability at all. Since our education agenda in Wales is based on the principle of democratisation, that is problematic."

On he went.

"We have had more higher education institutions per head in Wales than any other part of the UK but have failed to break free from the bottom end of the UK growth and prosperity table. Our HE institutions are small compared with those just over the border. For all the achievements of higher education institutions, they have had only a very limited transformative impact on our economy, and on our global presence and reputation · We are not having a high enough impact in terms of the quality and quantity of our research · For too many in Wales, higher education remains a distant, and irrelevant activity, clouded in mystery.

So change is afoot.

"If we are to make the changes needed; we also have to be willing to question what may not be needed. We do not want governing bodies that act simply as a bunch of cheer-leaders for university management.

"I was interested to learn recently that some members of university governing bodies have been appointed on the basis of a phone call. Who you know not what you know. It appears that HE governance in post devolution Wales has become the last resting place of the crachach".

How did the audience take it, I asked? Some mouths gaped. Some fought back. Others pointed out that one man's democratisation is another man's eternal "bog standard" service. What about excellence? Doesn't that mean shutting doors, as well as opening them?

As I said back in March, Leighton Andrews has "started a few things" - and this debate is another that in Welsh terms, is just starting.

But a clue, on page 54 of his speech, for those who wonder where the Education Minister is coming from.

"Academics are grasping the nettle. It is time for university administrations to follow them. It might perhaps be timely to remind that audience of how we came to have a university sector in Wales in the first place.

It was a determined political act, resulting from the campaigning of a political movement".

Make no mistake. This Education Minister has every intention of repeating history. His take on the sector is, says last night's speech, is to be a determinedly political one.

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