At the onset of a tumultuous academic year, Seren spoke to Welsh Minister of Education Kirsty Williams, to find out more about the ramifications of COVID-19 on higher education in Wales. From the budget cuts in Bangor, to the tuition refund petitions across the UK, we discussed the challenges created by the pandemic, and addressed what plans the Welsh government has prepared to mitigate them.
Question: There have been several petitions across the UK expressing student dissatisfaction with the quality of their university education due to online teaching. Several of the most prominent, now debated in the UK parliament, go so far as to demand tuition refunds. What effect do you believe COVID-19 has had on the quality of higher education in Wales?
Minister Williams: Well undoubtedly, when the lockdown came, and universities essentially closed face-to-face teaching back in the spring, universities had to do [so]in an awful hurry. But I believe that universities strived very hard to make a purposeful and a fulfilling alternative curriculum. And indeed, there are some surveys that suggest that Welsh-based students thought that their institutions had responded really well. Now clearly, as we approach a new academic year, and as learning begins again in a mixture of blended and face-to-face provision, quality of that experience is key to us. And our higher education funding council has a legal responsibility to monitor the quality of higher education.
Bangor University announced this month that they are facing a £13m gap in their budget this year due to COVID-19, and will have to lay off up to 200 staff. What kind of aid should the University expect from the Welsh Government?
The Welsh Government acted in July, making available an additional £27m recognising the challenges that COVID-19 has presented to the higher education sector. That is there to recognise the immediate impact that COVID has had; and indeed, going back to your first question, to maintain high standards at universities at this time, in terms of teaching and research. Fundamentally, we know our university sector is strong in Wales, but undoubtedly COVID-19 has led to universities taking a financial hit. That’s why the Welsh Government has stepped in with that additional funding to support universities through this time
On the 3rd September, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Economic Minister, Helen Mary Jones, called for a scheme guaranteeing work opportunities to 18-24 year-olds in Wales. Across the UK, the Office for National Statistics has identified 16-24 year-olds in employment as decreasing by 100,000 from April to June, a significant jump which has largely been attributed to COVID-19. What is your take on the plight of students graduating into unemployment, and what measures are or will be in place to help with this?
You’re right, I think the potential for young people to bear the brunt of the economic crisis is significant. And that’s why we’re working across government to ensure that we support young people [going]into ongoing educational opportunities; Welsh-domicile students have access to the most generous package of support for masters programs anywhere in the United Kingdom, especially if they have a lower household income. Masters opportunities are a great way to gain more skills and improve your prospects, and the Welsh Government are here to support that.
We are also continuing to fund a graduate placement program, which has been very successful in the past in incentivizing companies that perhaps would benefit from the skills of a graduate employee, but perhaps need some additional help from the Government to make that job opportunity a possibility. And we will continue to support that and to ensure that everything is done to find either further educational training or work opportunities for those that will find themselves graduating at the end of this academic year.
The economy in Wales, prior to COVID-19: employment rates were strong and were growing. Covid has brought us challenges, but that’s a result of a very specific challenge to the economy at the moment. I believe the fundamentals of the Welsh economy continue to be strong, and we need to support businesses, so that when the public health emergency comes to an end, they are able to redouble their efforts and get back on track and have exciting career opportunities for young people.
To move onto a very recent development here: yesterday (29/09/20), Bangor University announced its first COVID-19 case in student halls. Do you believe transmission risk is being effectively controlled on university campuses in Wales?
These are early days, and clearly cases on campus are not unexpected. What’s really important is that universities follow their Covid Security Plans, all of which were submitted to the Welsh Government and to our NHS. They were reviewed and signed off, so we are confident that universities indeed have plans in place. The execution of those plans now is absolutely crucial, so that we can minimise the destruction to individuals, and we can contain any cases and stop them from spreading more widely throughout the student population.
Important to that, is the ability to get students tested as quickly as possible if they’re showing symptoms. And we’re looking to roll out easy access to testing around our university campuses, so that students have access to testing should they need it. And then [we’re] making sure that universities are in a position to support those students who may unfortunately either contract the virus, or have to isolate as a result of being in close contact.
Going back to what you said earlier, you identified COVID-19 as very much a compartmentalised effect, at least when it comes to the economy- something that will happen, pass, and then go back to normal. What long-term effects do you believe the pandemic will have on higher education in Wales?
I think, first of all, we’re discovering new ways of working, new pedagogical approaches, and there are new collaborations between universities working together to ensure that the student experience is a strong one. So, even in these dark days, there are examples of new, innovative practice that I hope we won’t jettison when this crisis finally comes to an end. Clearly, there will be much that we want to go back to, in terms of ‘normal.’ But I hope that some of the learning that we’ve had, and some of the different ways that we’ve been able to deliver education at this time- I hope the best of that innovation we can keep with us, and take with us as we go forward. Undoubtedly, there are challenging days ahead, but I’m confident that with our government, institutions, students, and communities working together, we can overcome them and we can make the academic year a successful one.