University of Wales 'should close if other plans fail'

Education minister Leighton Andrews Education Minister Leighton Andrews says the University of Wales has to change

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The University of Wales should be wound down and closed if other plans for its future fail, a report has concluded.

The review, commissioned by the Welsh Assembly Government, said the institution should "change radically".

It said the university had become dependent on income from validating courses in colleges overseas.

It comes after it emerged the higher education standards watchdog was investigating the university's links to a business school in Singapore.

The review was commissioned by the assembly government and chaired by John McCormick.

The review of higher education governance said it would be "unsustainable" for the University of Wales (UoW) to continue in its current form.

Analysis by Ciaran Jenkins, BBC Wales education correspondent

The only other offer on the table would see the University of Wales completely transformed from a degree-awarding body to a national higher education advisory council.

The university won't fancy that one bit.

As such, it has already tabled proposals to come together with three other univerisites in South Wales.

But it is by no means certain it will get its way.

For a start, calling the new institution the "University of Wales" will do nothing to address the present confusion about what the university actually does.

Only half the universities in Wales remain active members and the university makes most of its money these days by awarding its degrees to students in more than 30 countries around the world.

The McCormick review said it does so at its peril, with considerable reputational risk involved.

When BBC Wales revealed a pop star with two bogus degrees was running a college offering University of Wales degree courses, the education minister Leighton Andrews said it was bringing the country into "ridicule and disrepute".

The university can afford no more headlines like that if it is to survive.

So news that it is under investigation by the higher education watchdog, after a number of complaints about a college offering its degree courses in Singapore, is a major blow.

The institution has a long, proud history.

It was founded by the people of Wales who paid subscriptions to make one of the world's first national universities a reality.

Within a few months it will either be revived or shut down.

It added that the university had become dependent on income from validating courses in overseas colleges. There are 15,000 students taking its degrees in 25 disciplines in 30 countries.

The higher education watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), has launched an investigation into the university over standards at the Turning Point Business School in Singapore following a number of complaints from students.

The UoW's overseas partnerships were the subject of a BBC Wales investigation which found a college in Malaysia run by a pop star with two bogus degrees was offering courses leading to the university's degrees.

'No accountability'

Tuesday's review said the UoW "represents a division in Welsh higher education rather than its unity".

Established in 1893, it receives very little public funding.

"However, it is an institution that is deploying a national asset - the all-Wales brand - and yet has no national accountability," the review said.

In recent years the universities of Bangor, Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Swansea have pulled back and opted to award their own degrees.

The university is now the main degree awarding body at Glyndwr University, Uwic, Swansea Metropolitan University, the University of Wales Newport and Trinity Saint David.

The review also raises questions about plans revealed by BBC Wales in February for a merger between Uwic, Trinity Saint David and Swansea Metropolitan University under the banner of the University of Wales.

If the merger does not work, consideration should be given to slimming down the university into a service provider for the rest of the higher education sector, the review said.

The final option offered by the review is to close UoW and disperse its remaining activities.

REVIEW POINTS

  • Higher education needs a new model of governance if the sector is to fulfil its potential.
  • If universities are to "rise to the challenge of the future" there needs to be a new arm's length regulatory and funding body with new powers called Universities Wales.
  • Its 12-member board would be led by "a strong, high profile independent chair".
  • The new body would formally incorporate the sector and link it to delivering national strategies.
  • Its powers should give it the authority to ensure the delivery of Wales' national objectives and strategic priorities for higher education.
  • It would have powers to intervene directly in the event of governance failures.
  • It would also be responsible for managing and delivering recurrent, strategic and student fee funding.

Source: John McCormick review of higher education governance

In a statement to AMs, Education Minister Leighton Andrews said the review "identified a failing in the higher education sector's continued collective lack of commitment to address Welsh strategic priorities".

"The opportunity for governing bodies to be a force for dynamism, innovation and change is being missed," he said.

On the UoW, he said: "There is no doubt that the University of Wales has to change. Such change has to address the issues of quality that have beleaguered it."

Civil servants will evaluate the university's proposals for the merger.

Earlier, the university responded to the QAA investigation and said it was happy to speak to Mr Andrews.

It said: "As regards making public statements, we will not do so until we have seen and properly considered the relevant reports from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency.

"In the meantime, we can assure all our stakeholders that the University of Wales is pursuing its academic responsibilities with the utmost diligence, working with its merger partners to deliver an exciting new higher education institution for Wales and collaborating with overseas institutions to fulfil its global mission, including currently hosting in Wales leading academics from some of the world's foremost universities."

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