The UK goes to the polls on May 5th in the biggest set of elections outside a General Election in some time. As well as local council elections in England, Mayor of London election, London Assembly and the police and crime commissioner elections, the polls will also open for the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly.
In a series of three opinion pieces, the directors of each of our OU national centres – The Open University in Wales, The Open University in Scotland and The Open University in Northern Ireland – share their views on next week’s voting and the possible implications for part-time education.
From the OU in Wales...
Rob Humphreys, Director of The Open University in Wales, says next week’s elections to the National Assembly present a number of unknowns but is ready to help the next government increase access to education to all those who need it…
In Wales, next week’s elections to the National Assembly present us with a number of unknowns, not least on turnout. Almost all politicians and commentators in Wales warned that the proximity of the EU referendum would distract from and even distort an election that ought to be solely about issues for which the Welsh Government is responsible. Thus far, these kinds of fears appear to be borne out.
The latest opinion polls indicate no party will gain the 31 seats or more required to form a majority government. A minority government or coalition therefore seem the most likely outcomes. The Welsh electorate is used to both; the outgoing government was a Labour minority government and there has been a Labour-Lib Dem and a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition at different times. Welsh Labour have won most seats - by some distance – at every election since the establishment of the Assembly and have been in government continuously. They are again likely to win most seats but may not be able to form a majority government; however both they and their most likely coalition partner Plaid Cymru are playing their cards close to their chest as regards any future joint working.
The continuity of Labour dominance and the relative stability in the Assembly since 1999 mask undercurrents of change. Labour’s poll ratings are well below those they have achieved in the past and for the first time there are six parties ‘in play’ in the election, with the Green Party and UKIP joining the four so-called 'main’ parties (Welsh Labour, Welsh Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats).
The polls suggest that UKIP may win five to eight Assembly seats. In a small legislature of 60 that is the equivalent of UKIP having between 50 and 70 MPs at Westminster. A new ‘bloc’ of this scale will involve at least one other party making significant losses.
At least as important will be a major shift to a new generation of Assembly Members, regardless of the eventual party make-up of the new Assembly. After 17 years of devolution many AMs who have served since 1999, including some who have been in the Cabinet over that whole period, are standing down. Across all the parties some ‘big hitters’ will be making way for new faces.
Finally, a ‘known unknown’ is the consequence of Education Minister Huw Lewis – a firm advocate of adult education and an OU graduate – stepping down as an AM. Whatever the colour (or rainbow) of the new government, Wales will have a new Education Minister in the coming months. In recent years there have been occasional tensions between Government and the HE sector, and it will be interesting to see if both sides can engineer a more productive relationship. An early test will be how the Hazelkorn report on reform of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) will be handled. Welsh Labour is committed to a joint funding body of some kind for FE and HE; the other parties appear to be more cautious.
Challenges facing part-time higher education
One of the first things to land on the desk of Wales’ new Education Minister will be the final recommendations of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Support, a review led by Prof Sir Ian Diamond (of which I am a member). The review’s initial findings, published in October last year, set out evidence that some have interpreted as the current system for funding HE in Wales being unsustainable due to the high cost of the generous system of fee grant support for full-time undergraduates. Party manifestos include a raft of different ideas to change this, some considering the needs of part-time learners more than others, but one thing we do know is that a change is coming. The crisis around steel-making is hugely serious for Wales and, whatever manifestos say, there yet may be pressures to redirect public investment from HE towards government support for steel.
Upskill and reskill
The first post-election challenge for the OU in Wales will be building positive relationships with our new politicians and making them fully aware of the challenges facing part-time higher education in Wales as well as its positive role in the economy and society. Part-time student numbers in Wales have declined by 11 per cent since 2009/10 and fewer courses are being offered by institutions. The OU has bucked this trend and, as a result of different funding and policy decisions being taken by the Welsh Government, Wales has not seen the decline suffered in England. Nonetheless we cannot and must not be complacent in the more fluid context of a new government.
We will of course continue to work to ensure that the Welsh Government, and AMs across all parties understand the role that part-time higher education plays in improving skills, and promoting social mobility. In particular we will be working to ensure that the Government prioritises part-time higher education in order to avoid sleepwalking towards the severe decline that has occurred in England. The Welsh economy requires that we upskill and reskill our existing workforce and the broad social-democratic centre of gravity in Welsh politics means that any new government is also likely to want to continue to widen access to HE. Part-time learning is, of course, essential to both of those objectives.
The OU in Wales has put forward a series of ideas to help the next Welsh Government meet the challenges of widening access, skills development and opening up higher education to all who can benefit from it. We do not yet know who will be responding to that challenge after 5th May but there is much to be done and we look forward to working with them.