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Wed 5 Oct: Guardian HE Network – First or Fail: UK Science & University of Wales October 6, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education.
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Aaron Porter’s first or fail: UK science and the University of Wales

This week, Aaron Porter examines the announcement of additional investment in UK science and the University of Wales’ decision to stop validating degrees from other institutions


Nobel winners Andre Geim and Dr Konstantin Novoselov

£50m is to be invested in a ‘graphene hub’ at the University of Manchester, which builds on the work of Nobel prize-winners Andre Geim (left) and Dr Konstantin Novoselov. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

Heading for a first … UK science

Aside from a new round of bin collections, the Conservative party conference was light on policy announcements this week, and even lighter on ideas to stimulate economic growth. However, in amongst the doom and gloom, and George Osborne’s desperate attempts to convince us “we’re (still) all in this together”, there was one significant piece of good news, as the chancellor announced £200m of additional investment in UK science.

Of that money, £50m has been designated for a “graphene hub”, which builds on the Nobel prize-winning work of academics from the University of Manchester who secured the physics prize in 2010. The higher education community in the UK has long argued that it has the capacity and potential to deliver the research and innovation to ensure the UK can remain internationally competitive.

Successive governments have recognised that our best chance of remaining competitive lies in high-level skills and research, rather than a desperate race to the bottom, but it needs to be backed up with funding. And so this announcement, although not Earth-shattering in size, is a welcome start because of the message it sends to the science community that there is a recognition that it can still play a significant role in boosting the UK economy in the long term.

But although welcome, a one-off announcement is hardly a coherent strategy, nor will it be enough to sustain the UK research and science base in an increasingly competitive environment. So as question marks about the coalition’s economic growth strategy, or perhaps more pertinently lack of one, continue to become more and more important, our research community would be well served to strengthen its case for investment and the resultant contribution it can make to kick start our faltering economy.

Heading for a fail … University of Wales/HE in Wales

It was only a few weeks ago that concerns became public about the nature and quality of the University of Wales’ partnership arrangements with other institutions, both in Wales and further afield. The press were critical, the education minister in Wales gave them a public dressing down, and the QAA appeared to be marshalling their evidence to report back a pretty dismal account of what was going on.

So as the storm clouds started to circle around the University of Wales, it seemed obvious that a drastic response would be required, but few predicted what would happen next. This week, the University of Wales announced that it would sever ties as an accrediting body for other universities in Wales. Although they recognised they have a “duty of care” to existing students on programmes, it is clearly a less than satisfactory denouement for students who will probably be left wondering who will accredit their degrees, and if they are accredited what value they will have anyway.

In a more disturbing twist it came to light that the institutions with which the University of Wales had, up until now been validating programmes, were not warned about the decision from the University of Wales. So while recognition should be given to the university for all but conceding there is legitimacy to the accusations that have been levelled at the quality of their external degrees, it now opens up a series of important questions about the status of the students currently enrolled on their programmes. This concerns their future relationship with institutions in Wales and further afield and given the direction of recent developments, ultimately whether the university itself has any future.