Mad Hatter in Wales

DAFYDD GLYN JONES

What if all the Oxford colleges broke away from the University and started awarding their own degrees? What if it were announced that the remaining shell of the University had been simultaneously (a) abolished, and (b) taken over by a new university made up of a former Anglican seminary and a former teachers’ training college, to which a former polytechnic was soon to be added? What would the graduates say? But what if, in addition, they could say nothing, because Convocation had been abolished on the recommendation of an internal commission?
This bizarre scenario is not a caricature, but a summary of what is happening at another federal university, – the University of Wales. The parallel cannot be sustained any further, and the case may not engage the attention of the Council for the Defence of British Universities (Oxford Magazine, 329). But for some of us, graduates of the University of Wales, it is a sobering case of what can go wrong, and calls for action which, even at this very late stage, should fend off the final humiliation.
Unlike Oxford, the federal University of Wales has never been a teaching institution. Founded under charter in 1893, its functions were: (a) to award degrees to students of the constituent colleges (Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff); (b) to ensure a common standard through external examination; (c) to provide essential services to scholarship in Wales, most especially in the fields of language, literature and history. Swansea joined the University in 1920, and the Welsh National School of Medicine became a fifth constituent in 1931.
In 1964 the University Court rejected a call for de-federalization, and over a period of some 30 years it might appear that the federal University was consolidating, as training colleges and polytechnics, beginning with validation of their courses, came under its banner. At the height of this process, in the 1990s, it was a body with ten constituent entities. But all the while other pressures were growing, as the increase in student numbers made it ever more difficult to maintain the element of common examination. In 2001 the Education Committee of the Welsh government recommended that all the university colleges should award their own degrees, and by 2007 they had all left the federation.
The University now had to consider the related questions of (a) its function, and (b) its finance. To answer the first question should have provided no difficulty, as there was no other organization which could maintain what had come to be regarded as the four essential “University services”: The University of Wales Press, the University of Wales Dictionary, The University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, and the conference centre Gregynog. The newly independent universities, the former colleges, accepted no responsibility for the four services, and the Welsh Funding Council (HEFCW) wanted to distance itself from non-teaching activities.
The answer came, as to many of the older universities, in “the validation racket”. For a few years this appeared to be highly successful, a lifeline for the services which the former colleges had casually, not to say callously, abandoned. But, as in several other cases which have not suffered the same devastating effect, this led to involvement with some shady characters and with non-existent “universities”. Two exposés by BBC Wales during 2011 brought matters to a head. There were several calls for the University to be given “a decent burial”: from the Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews; from Lord Elis-Thomas, former President of the Welsh Assembly; and from Dr. John Hughes, Vice-Chancellor of Bangor, newly arrived from Ireland and speaking for a group of five former university colleges.
It is for historians to characterize the ensuing action of the University Council. Blind panic? Or the resolution of a scheme laid in preparation? Or something of both?
In mid-October 2011 the University issued a statement that it had done nothing wrong in the matter of validation; but withdrew the statement within days. Immediately prior to this, the University Council had created a new post, that of President, hitherto unheard of in the 118-year history of the University. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Marc Clement, was transferred to this post. The ensuing vacancy was filled by Professor Medwin Hughes, a member of the Council, representing the HE sector as Vice-Chancellor of The University of Wales: Trinity Saint David’s (UW: TSD), – designated thus, with a colon. The “Trinity” was Trinity College, Carmarthen, a teachers’ training college; the “St. David’s” was St. David’s College, Lampeter, founded in 1828, an Anglican seminary teaching a selection of the Humanities, which had joined the University of Wales in 1971 after much soul-searching on both sides, whether an Anglican institution could become part of a national, non-denominational university. The new entity, it has been explained, was no longer part of the University of Wales, any more than were the former university colleges of Cardiff, Aberystwyth &c; but its name still included the words “University of Wales”! It was, we must accept, another University of Wales, then planning to take in yet another institution, Swansea Metropolitan University, itself an amalgam of a technical college, a college of education and a college of art..
21 October 2011 saw the emulation in Cardiff of a world-renowned Oxford institution, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The University Council met. The Chairman was not present, but sent in his resignation. Rather than investigate what went wrong in two specific cases, which would have meant the acceptance of either personal or collective responsibility, it was resolved to scrap the whole of the validation business. The members, we are now coolly told, considered dissolving the University, but resolved instead that it should be amalgamated with UW: TSD, whose composition I have tried to outline, and whose Vice-Chancellor it had very recently adopted as its own. News bulletins that evening, and papers the following morning, reported both that the University had been abolished and that it had been amalgamated! The Council and the University Registry were very slow to tell us which was true. Perhaps they did not know.
A year later they both seem to be completely confused as to what they have actually done. If we Google “University of Wales” its coat of arms comes up, and beside it a quotation from Wikipedia: “The University of Wales is a confederal university founded in 1893, and merged with Swansea Metropolitan University and Trinity Saint David’s in 2012”. The “confederal” is incorrect; the description should be: “a formerly federal university, now part of the confederal body Higher Education Wales”. More seriously, 2012 having come and gone, the merger has not yet happened. Allowing for the proverbial inaccuracy of Wikipedia, is it my suspicious mind that detects here something else? That someone has forgotten to amend a statement written a year ago on the assumption that the merger would take place quietly in the early part of the year?
In the Westminster Gazette and in the Public and Legal Notices column of The Western Mail, with the date 28.11.11, there appeared a notice of a draft parliamentary bill. It provided for the rights, properties and responsibilities of the University of Wales to be transferred to The University of Wales: Trinity Saint David’s, and contained a clause precluding the use of the designation “University of Wales” except by UW: TSD. Suddenly in January 2012, the bill was withdrawn from Westminster, with view to its introduction in the Welsh Assembly. Hitherto it has not docked in Cardiff Bay. Attempts, under some pressure, to explain these manoeuvres, have been confused. For nearly a year afterwards no mention was made of the bill, on the websites of either the UW or UW: TSD, or in the UW publication Campus, or in any interviews given by the new Vice-Chancellor. We should probably have been more alert in our reading of The Western Mail, but few of us in Wales seem to have been aware of the bill until the newspaper Y Cymro drew attention to it in the final week of 2011.
The date for amalgamation was to be 1 October 2012, – when Swansea Metropolitan did join UW: TSD. Now the website tells us it will take some years, because of obligations to students, world-wide, still working for University of Wales degrees. The merger, we are now advised, “should be regarded as a process rather than a single event”. (Since the single event planned for 2012, we are tempted to add, did not materialize.) The end of the process is defined: “on the actual date of merger the current University of Wales charter would be revoked and presented back to Her Majesty the Queen”.
The University of Wales would then “merge into” (these are the words) UW: TSD under a formula that is fundamentally ambiguous. We are always told that the merger would take place under “the 1828 charter of UW: TSD” which is described as the oldest academic charter in England and Wales after those of Oxford and Cambridge. But is there such a charter? The 1828 charter was that of Saint David’s College only, an Anglican theological college. The charter of the present institution, UW: TSD, is only two years old; in justification it will be argued that this is still the 1828 charter, amended down the years by several supplements. The reasoning may be questioned. Should the day ever come when HM the Queen receives back the charter of the University of Wales, graduates of the University would find themselves either (a) without degrees, because the degree-awarding body no longer existed, or (b) holding their degrees “in” or “from” (whichever be the correct formula) either (i) an Anglican seminary (1828) or (ii) a brand new amalgam of the same theological college, a teachers’ training college and a polytechnic. They should all ask, was it for this that they worked? What would Oxford graduates say if placed in the same predicament?
Advocates of the merger say that they are complying with the recommendations of the McCormick Report (2011) on the structure of Welsh HE, and with the policy of HEFCW and of the Welsh government, which has set a limit of six universities in Wales – and which needs always to be reminded of a time, not so long ago, when there was one. In all their deliberations they have managed to leave out the only body of people which, under the Charter, they are constitutionally or statutorily obliged to consult, namely the graduates, who make up the overwhelming majority of the University’s members. A package of extremely ill-judged reforms which came into effect in 2007 swept away the University Court, which had been a forum ensuring a degree of democratic accountability, and abolished also the Guild of Graduates, designed to bring the views of graduates to bear on issues in Wales. At the same time there began a practice of referring to the graduates as alumni or old students, which we are not. In Wales we graduated from our colleges and into the University, becoming life-members from the moment we shook hands with the Pro-Chancellor or his representative. The Guild, for reasons totally unexplained, either has been or is to be (the account varies, even within the same document) replaced by an Alumni Association. Of such quality are the garbled explanations, the lame excuses and the empty disclaimers issuing from the new regime, when pressed, and between long North Korean silences.
It is also of some significance that the legal notice of 28.11.11 was issued by and on behalf of UW: TSD; it can therefore not be considered part of the required consultation between UW and its members.
It has just been announced (10 December 2012) by the still functioning University Council that provision is to be made for the maintenance of the “four services” through a series of trusts. This comes close to what some of us have been advocating over the past year, but the sum available (£6.8 m.) is very small and will need to be supplemented by a regular income. The Funding Council and the former university colleges must come to accept their share of responsibility, and the creation of an Arts and Humanities Research Council for Wales would seem to be a necessary step.
The whole idea of the merger remains highly unacceptable. In September 2012, 350 graduates, responding to a Welsh government White Paper on Education, made known their opposition. Other measures are being considered. The University of Wales was, and still is, a unique organization, and readers of this magazine may feel that there are no lessons here which can be applied anywhere else. But Oxford Magazine has consistently warned against what it perceives as attacks on the universities, and readers may find here the attack to end all attacks, the betrayal and ruin of an institution which, though not without its faults, has served Wales for over a century in a way that no other institution could have done. In this scandalous history, several things have worked together: a singularly inept form of managerialism, coupled with chicanery and cheek. There is an immense task of reconstruction, which should take place under the University of Wales charter. The day should never come when the Crown receives the charter back.

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