UNIVERSITIES NEED TO BE AT THE HEART OF THE ECONOMIC RENAISSANCE OF THE WELSH ECONOMY


With the majority of us still working from home during a dark and cold January, it may difficult to envisage that in less than one hundred days and barring any postponement from Cardiff Bay, we will be voting in the elections for the Welsh Senedd.

As the political parties start to formulate their manifestos, various organisations, pressure groups and other bodies are putting together a list of their priorities that the next Welsh Government will hopefully enact as part of their programme.

One of the most important of these submissions has come from the Welsh university sector that, during the last five years, has been responsible for developing world class research and innovation, delivered skills to people of all ages and backgrounds, and made a significant contribution to the economic and societal wellbeing of Wales.

As the nation looks to recover from the challenges that we have all faced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education institutions are aiming to continue this role and, more importantly, deliver on its ambitions. 

With Welsh universities making a higher contribution to the economy than other nations or regions across the UK, the need for stable and sustainable funding from the Welsh Government, particularly after the uncertainties of the last 12 months, will be critical in supporting the current activities of higher education and ensuring growing areas of demand, such as part-time students, can be supported. 

Such funding will ensure that the sector can help to meet the challenges for the Welsh economy over the next few years such as responding to a fast changing business landscape where key sectors which are currently important to the Welsh economy, such as retail and hospitality, will be changed irrevocably.

This will lead to an increasing demand for retraining and new skills especially in digitally-intensive industries, and not only will universities be able to develop new knowledge that will lead to new businesses, new jobs and new industries but they will be at the forefront of supporting employment within many existing businesses through flexible learning.

This is where higher education will be vitally important in not only continuing the expansion of the breadth and reach of skills offering through part-time and lifelong learning, but in supporting innovation, collaboration, scaling up activity and the further development of systems of flexible learning that many key sectors will need.

Another area where universities are making a substantial contribution to the Welsh economy is that of research and innovation, both of which are key drivers of productivity which remains a key issue for economic prosperity. However, that will mean improving the funding for these activities and it will be important that the 

Welsh Government remains committed to increases in research money, financial support for innovation and providing a framework that will incentivise institutions to win investment from outside Wales. 

Finally, enabling an economic recovery to succeed will require a globally competitive and outward-looking nation which will not be easy after a pandemic that has seriously impacted on the numbers of international students coming to Wales and undermined the funding which supports many other important areas of work undertaken by higher education. 

Yet this volatile international landscape also presents a major opportunity for Wales to increase its global presence and the Welsh higher education sector should be applauded in calling for support to deliver an international strategy that will increase university exports by 75% to £950 million by 2030.

As we look back over the last ten months, we have seen greater collaboration between the university sector, industry and government with the pinnacle of that partnership approach being the creation, development and production of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.

As a new Welsh Government is formed later this year, there will be distinctive  challenges as we emerge out of a recession and look to create a very different economy that will have been shaped not only by the pandemic but by other factors such as Brexit. 

Given this, the role of universities in supporting the renewal of the Welsh economy will not only remain important but will undoubtedly change because of the imperative for increased innovation and productivity to resurrect a moribund economy. In that respect, not only will universities be required to develop the knowledge for future industries but will also be important in helping business to translate this into new technologies, products and services. 

And as Wales looks to grow its economy again, it is therefore critical that our universities are at the heart of the development of an entrepreneurial renaissance where research, innovation and skills will be driving the future competitiveness of businesses across the nation.