Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Welsh Grand Committee

13th December 2006

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I should first like to draw the Committee's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests, especially in relation to the Bevan Foundation and the fact that I am a vice-president of Carers UK.

We come to the debate recognising that Wales faces many global challenges. The most immediate for us are the twin challenges of climate change and education, both of which are addressed in the Queen's Speech. How we tackle these challenges will determine whether we prosper or decline. I suggest that we should characterise our approach as embracing a global Wales rather than a fortress Wales strategy. It is to the credit of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, that we subscribe very firmly to a global Wales strategy. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) for initiating that expansive outward-looking, visionary approach.

The Committee's first major report of this Parliament was on energy in Wales. I believe that our report was balanced and challenging and that it anticipated much of the Stern report on climate change. Indeed, it highlighted the potential of the diversity of renewable energy resources in Wales and commended the pioneering work of the centre for alternative technology in Machynlleth.

The Queen's Speech and the pre-Budget report are moving towards recognising the twin challenges of climate change and education and skills. For that reason, I warmly welcome and commend the Government's approach to these matters. I intend to concentrate on the other global challenge for Wales, education and skills, which are highlighted in the Leitch report. That challenge will form a key element in the Welsh Affairs Committee's forthcoming major inquiry on globalisation and its impact on Wales. We will begin that inquiry next month by examining employment and the crucial skills that will be required to ensure that employment prospects in Wales are good. The visionary yet realistic approach of the Labour Government parallels, maybe even follows, the global approach of the Welsh Affairs Committee. It has become a truism to say that we should all think global and act local. The Chancellor certainly believes that, which was why he said last week in his pre-Budget report:

"Economies like ours have no choice but to out-innovate and out-perform competitors by the excellence of our science and education, the quality of infrastructure and environment, the flexibility of our economy, and our levels of creativity and entrepreneurship." [Official Report, 6 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 306.]

He also emphasised:

"The single most important investment that we can make is in education". [Official Report, 6 December 2006; Vol. 454,c. 313.]

All the imperatives reaffirm the critical need for greater lifelong learning opportunities. The voice of British higher education, Universities UK, recently identified the country's long-term economic challenges as productivity, an ageing work force and global competitiveness. It recognised that the ageing work force needs personalised, flexible part-time study and increased continuing professional development.

I was recently struck by the similarities in the approach to education policy between Wales and South Africa. I had the privilege of meeting Theuns Eloff, the vice-chancellor of the new North-West University in South Africa, who was a key player in the peaceful transition of his country from apartheid to democracy. The university is based on four campuses, has 40,000 students and is dedicated to the same values that we embrace in Wales—regeneration, widening access and equality.

However, do we in Wales and the UK recognise in the new global economy in which 4 million Chinese people graduate every year that, in the words of the Leitch report,

"A radical step-change is necessary"?

The Welsh Assembly Government certainly have the vision. Their document "The Learning Country 2: Delivering The Promise", throws down a challenge to all Welsh higher education institutions, stating that

"HEIs will be expected to put in place strong outreach activities to widen access. The focus once again should be on the 20 per cent. who are the most disadvantaged and hence the least likely to attend higher education."

The Welsh Assembly Government, along with leading educationalists such as Professor David Reynolds, recognise that, for historical reasons, Wales has generally lagged behind England in all-round educational performance. It is specifically recognised that further education is a Cinderella sector, that work-based learning could and should be far better developed and that there is still a proportionately lower spend on higher education than in England, largely from the days of the LG factor. It is important to know whether the Chancellor's good news on capital budgets for schools and colleges will be translated to Wales in real terms, and I look forward to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary's comments on that.

Recognising everything that I have mentioned is commendable, but the Welsh Assembly Government know that Wales needs a major step change, as envisaged in the Leitch report, which states that "where skills were once a key driver of prosperity and fairness, they are now the key driver. Achieving world class skills is the key to achieving economic success and social justice in the new global economy."

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and we all appreciate the contribution that he has made to education and higher education. Does he share my concern that there are few people in the permanent inspection teams in the Welsh education inspections set-up who are trained in or who have taught science? Does he have concerns about that part of the process of improving education in Wales?

Dr. Francis: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and telling point. Everyone recognises the importance of science, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer constantly reminds us of it, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I am confident that the Leitch message arrived in Wales even before the report was published. The Welsh Assembly Government commissioned the Graham report into part-time higher education and study—Dr. Heather Graham is the leading figure in the Open University in Wales. The report emphasised our ageing population and declining birth rate, and the growing need for part-time, flexible learning and work-based learning for adults.

I welcome the fact that Jane Davidson, the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, commissioned Sir Adrian Webb, formerly vice-chancellor at the University of Glamorgan, to undertake a particular, specific study of how the Leitch report will apply to Wales. I also welcome the fact that the adult learning body, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education for Wales, NIACE Dysgu Cymru, is holding a major conference next month on skills, demography and the Welsh economy, which will look specifically at the Leitch report. It is heartening that the conference will address the wider policy implications resulting from the level of change necessary from both a Welsh and global perspective.

The Welsh Assembly Government were urged by the Bevan Foundation in a recent publication titled, "Setting the Agenda", to adopt the target of an 80 per cent. employment rate, mirroring the aspirations of the Department for Work and Pensions. That can only be achieved by addressing all the barriers to learning, whether they are to do with family, finance, or culture. As many hon. Members will know, many of the barriers apply specifically to the 350,000 carers in Wales who wish to return to education, learning or work.

"Setting the Agenda", the Bevan Foundation's document, which was launched at the Welsh Assembly last month, stated that

"improving the skills of the least well qualified young people should be a top priority within public policy for the next term."

I had some professional experience of addressing the issue of widening access to education over the past three decades, particularly at Swansea University and in the development of the Community University of the Valleys. I am gratified that that work is progressing. It is being led by my former colleagues at the department of adult continuing education. I am also gratified at the progress of Swansea university's Burton centre, and that the vision of a Richard Burton youth theatre at Port Talbot is being developed by the local authority and the university.

If ever there were a global vision delivered locally, it was by the iconic inspiration of the late Richard Burton. The recently unveiled memorial described him as, "Seren Cymru, seren y byd", meaning, "a star of Wales and a star of the world". He was a locally nurtured talent and he strode the world stage. He never forgot the deep local roots that nurtured him. Those talents are still there, and we need to nurture them.

Jane Davidson, in the document "Learning Country", eloquently stated that

"high quality lifelong learning liberates talent, extends opportunities, empowers communities, provides better jobs and skills to enable people to prosper in the new economy and creates a sustainable future for our country."

Nearly a decade ago I visited the University of Wisconsin, an old, radical, land grant University in the mid-west of the United States. Its ethos was not unlike that of the university of Wales: "prifysgol y werin—the people's university". It had, and still has a strong commitment to widening access. I believe that we need to reaffirm those organic links in the new global Wales that is already with us. Perhaps we need a new university of south-west Wales with four campuses, just like the inspirational four campuses in the north-west of South Africa, with a brand new university campus in Pembrokeshire, which for so long has deserved and been denied that opportunity.

Mr. Llwyd: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech. What is his view on a federal college, or university, teaching through the medium of Welsh, which is increasingly being debated, or hoped for, in some circles?

Dr. Francis: It is a worthy proposal. One would need to measure the demand for it, and I suspect that, once established, the demand would be met. There needs to be a debate on such a proposal in the Welsh Assembly Government and perhaps here in the Welsh Grand Committee.

When we look at the global skills challenge for Wales, the issue is not the narrow institutional advantage, but the wider community advantage. There is an old 19th century saying from the days of the great radical Henry Richard: "Trech gwlad nac arglwydd - the land is mightier than the lord". Like all good Welsh sayings, it has many layers of meaning. Universities would do well to reflect on its significance and apply it to their relationship not only to the world, but to the community on their doorstep.

I understand that the Secretary of State for Wales will be visiting my old university, Swansea, next month. I hope that he will consider some of the issues that I have raised this afternoon in relation to the Leitch report, and that he will convey our good wishes, and mine in particular, to my former colleagues and students, especially those in the Community University in Banwen.

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