Our Universities: Wales’ Bridge to the World

First Minister’s Speech at Bangor University

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Prynhawn da a croeso i chi gyd.

Hoffwn dechrau gan ddiolch y Brifysgol am y gwahoddiad i siarad heddiw.

Mae’n bleser i fod yn ôl yma ym Mangor a hoffwn ddiolch i bawb sydd wedi gwneud yr ymdrech i fod yn bresennol heddiw.

Can I begin my speech today by expressing my appreciation to the University for this very kind invitation to speak.

It is always a genuine pleasure to be back here in Bangor and my thanks go to everyone who has made the effort to attend.

We gather here at an important moment for Wales.

The European Referendum on 23rd June and the decision of the British people to leave the European Union will have a profound impact on the politics, the economy and the communities of Wales over the coming years.

And it is therefore important that I start my contribution with a very clear and unambiguous statement.

I fully accept the referendum result.

The work has already begun carrying out the clear instruction that we have been given by the people of Wales.

We will not work against the result of the referendum

But, we are preparing for what comes next.

Working with our` communities, our businesses and our national institutions our role – and our duty - as a Welsh Government is to now get the best possible exit terms for Wales.

The decisions and the positions we take in the coming two and a half years will shape our economic and political landscape for a generation and more.

That landscape will have a profound impact on Higher Education in Wales.

In making that case for the best terms I will be very clear as First Minister that we want a future relationship with the EU that enables a world class Higher Education system in Wales and that will support strong and successful universities within it.

One that allows institutions to continue to collaborate freely and to work together across Europe and the globe.

One that allows our students to travel and study in other countries.

One that similarly ensures Wales continues to be a welcoming place for those from aboard to learn and to work.

The stakes are high and what we do next needs to be right not just for our economy, our universities and for our young people, but for the very idea and profile of Wales itself.

The Wales we want to project to the world over the coming years.

It is fitting that that my speech today is taking place here in the new Pontio building at Bangor University.

More than a hundred years after the wonderful Prichard-Jones Hall was funded through the contributions of local workers and business people, a wonderful new facility for the twenty first century has been constructed through another partnership,

This time it is the Welsh Government, Bangor University and EU funding.

As you will all know the word Pontio is from the Welsh word “to bridge”.

And that is a theme I want to play on today.

This facility, the university in which it has a home and the wider town have a long and proud record in acting as a ‘bridge’ for young people.

Through the higher learning that it provides thousands of young people locally and across the world have been supported to succeed in their lives.

The question now is how can we – working together – build a new bridge to our future outside of the EU which allows our universities to thrive, our young people to succeed and our economy to prosper?

How can we – working together – build both a north Wales and a nation that is more prosperous and secure; healthy and active; united and connected; and most importantly ambitious and constantly learning?

Recently we have had a major debate about the way in which Article 50 is triggered.

I have always been very clear that there is an unanswerable case for the UK Government to involve Parliament in triggering the exit process and as we progress, involving all four Parliaments across the UK in ratifying any final agreement.

We have been clear as a Welsh Government that we want that agreement to enable full and unfettered access to the EU Single Market for goods and services.

However, there is a lack of clarity at present from the UK Government about the aims of the BREXIT negotiations.

We have been very clear that we want the UK Government to set out their position in a clear and coherent way.

I am keen to reduce the uncertainty associated with the BREXIT negotiations, to demonstrate that Wales is very much open for business.

And while we know that BREXIT does not mean Breakfast, it often feels like we are all sitting in a restaurant staring at a menu with a bewildering range of choices which include the Canadian, Korean, Norwegian, Swiss, Turkish or World Trade Organisation options.

On this trade negotiations menu, I want us to make the right choices for Welsh education – for our schools, our colleges and our universities.

We have to avoid Brexit becoming a dogs Breakfast.

Now, some have said that the referendum result indicates that Wales isn’t the country we think it is.

That the vote unmasked a less tolerant and a less charitable nation than we had told ourselves we were.

Whilst I think the result did show up very clearly an underlying discontent with the way our economy currently works and the fairness of the rewards within it, I make no apology for wanting to shape the Wales I want to see for the future.

A nation I want my own children to grow up and live in.

A fairer, stronger and more united country, open to the modern world.

Nowhere is this more important than in Higher Education and in our economy.

Wales has much to offer the World and much to gain in return from cooperating with, trading with and working with people from other countries in Europe and further afield.

The Welsh Government is responsible for the implementation of at least twenty distinct and discrete areas of EU regulation in the laws and policy of Wales.

One of those vital twenty areas of devolved responsibility is higher education and much of the funding and organisation of research activity.

As part of the work that I am leading through the EU Advisory Group we are looking carefully at all the possible options to ensure that our economy, our institutions and our communities have that solid bridge to a post-BREXIT World.

I am pleased to say that our EU Advisory Group includes two current Vice Chancellors and a chair of a university council, as well as the Principal of one of our leading further education colleges.

Managing the process of leaving the EU will be difficult, of that there is no doubt.

However we have to move forward together in a way that respects the democratic will of the Welsh people at the same time as making a robust case for a better, fairer future for all of us.

So let me say this on some specifics in relation to the HE sector.

The last UK Government made a terrible mistake in its approach to student visas. Overseas students became a soft target in the quest to meet an impossible immigration promise.

Sadly, rather than re-visit this approach – the new Government and the new Home Secretary seem ready to double down on the approach, and are even considering adding doctors and nurses to the banned list and they even proposed drawing up lists of foreign workers. Well, not in my name.

The effect of this attitude, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s recent visit to India, is to cut the numbers of overseas students applying to study in the UK. Not just because of new restrictive laws, but because of the damaging perception that this is not a welcoming environment any longer.

Let me make it very clear on behalf of the Welsh Government, [and Universities Wales] there is a welcome for overseas students here. Those already studying in Wales, and those thinking about studying in Wales. You need to know that our approach is different. The political values at the heart of the Welsh Government are different.

Our position then is that we want the UK Government to take international students out of net immigration targets - and we want an end to any changes that would attract world-leading researchers and teachers. We will continue to press this case.

And these are just the thoughts and beliefs of my Government – they aren’t a last gasp from the Remain campaign – no this is the firm opinion of the public too.

According to a recent poll, 75% of people in the UK believe that we should keep the current number – or increase the number – of overseas students in our universities. A figure that goes up to 87% once people are told about the economic benefits our overseas students bring.

The public support is obvious, because the educational and economic arguments couldn’t be more obvious.

A fundamental part of our vision for the Welsh economy depends on the future success of our universities and colleges. And a significant element of this will be achieved through the maintenance and expansion of their international activities.

This will happen through the recruitment of students from overseas, through study exchange programmes that enable UK students to spend time in universities abroad and through collaboration between academics in research, innovation and wider community projects around the World.

In 2015 there were 24,230 international students studying at Welsh universities.

This figure included 5,425 students from the EU and 18,805 from other countries overseas.

Those students studying in Wales come from a variety of EU and non-EU countries.

In 2014, the last year for which full and comparable statistics are available, the top ten countries from which these students travelled were:
1. China
2. India
3. Nigeria
4. Malaysia
5. The United States
6. Hong Kong
7. Germany
8. France
9. Ireland; and
10. Greece

Foreign students have helped Welsh universities and other organisations to generate significant additional revenue.

In 2014, international students and their visitors generated £530 million of export earnings for the Welsh economy.

4% of the total of all export earnings.

In addition to the direct financial contribution of overseas students to the Welsh economy, links with EU have provided other sources of funding for Welsh universities.

The Horizon 2020 scheme operated by the European Union has been an important source of research funding for Welsh academics.

In the first year of the new scheme from 2015 to 2016 Welsh university staff have already secured over £25m in funding for research projects over the next four years.

These funds are in addition to over £43m obtained annually from the European Social Fund and European Regional Development Fund which will pay for projects to help young people to gain work experience and their first job; help support businesses to grow and promote research and innovation.

You need only look at some of the current round of EU funded projects supported here at Bangor University which amongst others has provided £21m for the M-Sparc, Flexis and SEACAMs projects to support low carbon energy technologies or the KESS 2 project which has been awarded £26m to support research and innovation skills in small and medium sized companies.

These projects are in addition to pan-Wales projects which provide vital funding for apprenticeships, traineeships and a wide range of research and innovation projects.

Importantly, these schemes are not just funded by Europe; they also encourage joint working and collaboration between academics and students in different EU member states and further afield.

Through these connections many talented scientists and other highly skilled workers have been attracted to work in Wales.

According to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) there were 1,355 academic and non-academic staff from EU countries outside the UK working in Welsh universities in December 2014.

With other Europeans from the wider European Economic Area these individuals represented close to 10% of the total university workforce in Wales.

A hugely significant and dynamic part of our institutions.

And a hugely welcome part of our institutions and communities.

But, this isn’t just about finance.

Students from the countries I just listed brought with them valuable experiences which have enriched the learning of their class mates and tutors.

As Senator Fulbright remarked:
Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.

And have we ever needed that more than now?

We live in difficult and potentially dangerous times.

The civil war in Syria, the recent annexation of parts of the Ukraine by Russia, as well as continued terrorist attacks in Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the USA, demonstrate the challenges of war and civil unrest when political processes breakdown.

As we marked Remembrance Day today and will again on Sunday in ceremonies across Wales, we need to remember the many European wars in the recent past and the important role that international institutions like NATO, the United Nations and the EU have played in keeping and brokering peace.

However, it is not just these institutions that have helped maintain stability, foster links between countries, promote trade and encourage understanding.

Universities and other educational institutions have also been played a pivotal role in connecting people with their pasts, with their national cultures and with people from across the globe.

They have done this while focusing on their principal tasks of developing people for jobs as well as helping wider economies and communities to thrive.

In that post-BREXIT World we should renew and redouble our efforts to support our young people.

Beginning in school through our new curriculum and through college and university we should equip them not just with the skills and attitude to learning that our businesses and communities need but support them to look outwards to the world and take up their roles as tolerant and constructive contributors to a better future.

We also need to ensure that the many smaller and medium sized businesses have access to the skills and people they will need to thrive and expand.

As we focus on the needs of the economy now and in the future, we need to strike a balance between educating people for jobs, developing their skills for several possible careers, and equipping them for wider changes in their home lives and communities.

All this means working with businesses and our public sector colleagues to increase our investment in research and innovation as well as in established industries and new ideas.

Whether that be the hydraulics and computer systems that can support the new Nuclear Power Station at Wylfa, the next generation of composite wings produced at Airbus in Broughton, new engines at Toyota in Deeside, or the latest technology in steel coatings at Tata in Shotton.

With greater global business competition and continued economic concerns, we must focus our efforts on helping people in Wales to get and retain good jobs, close to their homes and in parts of the economy that can grow and prosper in the future. And fundamental to that will be the continuation of our internationalist approach.

Here in the north of Wales I have been impressed by the work of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, the Mersey Dee Alliance and the North Wales Business Council in helping to plan for that future including via the north Wales Growth Deal.

The work the Regional Skills Partnership has done with business and local government in planning for future skills needs through the Regional Employment and Skills Plan has been very positive.

They acknowledge the need to bridge the border economy, recognising that the labour market of North Wales is inextricably linked to those of Cheshire, the Wirral, the North West of England and further afield.

From Holyhead to Halifax, from Bangor to Beijing and from Wrexham to the wider world and all points in between, the plan recognises five current and future challenges: -

1. The importance of succession planning for local businesses.
2. The need to retain young people in sustainable employment in the region.
3. The importance of increasing the uptake of STEM subjects and skills.
4. Planning to meet the skills needs of major infrastructure projects.
5. The importance of advice and guidance for young people and others looking for good jobs.

The plan includes forecasts which provide estimates of where the 40,000 new jobs in North Wales over the next ten years will be located by industry and by type of skill.

It is a vital roadmap for prosperity that will allow us to attract and retain the brightest and the best here in North Wales.

And it because we want the best for our young people, to learn new skills, and have new experiences then we would also like to see the numbers of students from Welsh universities going to study and work abroad increase in future years.

Our vision must be global.

In 2014, 1,290 of the 101,425 students in Welsh higher education institutions spent some part of their course studying or working overseas.

At 1.3% of the total student population this was a little better than the 1.2% recorded by our counterparts in England, but considerably less than our colleagues in Northern Ireland and Scotland, where the figures were 2.2% and 1.7% respectively.

It is also markedly less than the comparable figures in most large mainland EU states and in the fastest growing economies of South East Asia.

While there is doubtless room for improvement in the number of young people at Welsh universities studying, and working overseas, it is heartening that the places that they choose to go to are similar to the top export and trade markets for businesses in Wales and the wider UK.

The top ten destinations are France, the United States, Spain, Germany, Australia, Canada, Italy, China, the Netherlands and Japan.

For many of these students who venture overseas it is the Erasmus+ scheme supported by the EU and organised in the UK by the British Council from its Cardiff offices which provides the funding for this exchange and for the staff mobility that enables it to happen.

It is why I am delighted that the EU Advisory Group includes Hywel Ceri Jones who as a senior official at the European Commission did more than anyone to introduce the Erasmus scheme.

His experience and advice will be critical as we move forward because he understands the power of the friendships and the cultural links that Welsh students make whilst studying overseas.

Just as powerful are the links established by European academics working in Wales and the connections made by teams working on research and innovation projects with universities across the world, quite literally helping to build bridges literally and metaphorically with other parts of the World.

When one looks around Wales one can see the powerful impact of world class collaboration.

At Cardiff University software used for the disposal of nuclear waste developed by the School of Engineering’s Geoenvironmental Research Centre has been praised by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency for the ways in which it is supporting sustainable disposal of nuclear material.

Physicists from Swansea University’s College of Science collaborating with partners at CERN in Switzerland have been at the forefront of research into antimatter and helping us understand the very creation of the universe itself.

In these projects and many more friendships, connections and understandings are forged right across Wales that enhance the trading relationships, the cultural exchanges and the economic benefits that support our communities and our economy.

I am determined for these collaborations to continue.

I am determined to work with universities to make sure that these bridges are maintained and strengthened in years to come.

To begin this task we have been working with University leaders through the Cabinet Secretary for Education’s HE BREXIT Working Group to establish a list of objectives to guide our negotiations with the UK Government and discussions with the EU Commission as well as the wider process of preparing for the World after BREXIT.

Among the objectives we are seeking I believe that seven have emerged as the most important.

First, an insistence on the maintenance of regional development funding levels in Wales by appropriate adjustments to the block grant.

Second, maintenance of engagement in Horizon 2020 and other EU led research schemes.

Third, reciprocal arrangements regarding student tuition fees so that Welsh students studying in the EU pay local student fee levels and EU students studying in Wales are treated as UK students for the purpose of fees and the costs of study.

Fourth, continued participation in the ERASMUS+ scheme of staff and student exchange.

Fifth, guarantees regarding the visa and citizenship status of EU nationals working in UK universities.

Sixth, participation by Welsh universities in the post-study work visa scheme currently being piloted in four English universities.

And finally, active promotion of greater outward mobility by students and staff studying and working in Welsh universities.

I am confident that working together, Government, universities and local communities, that we will be able to make good progress in each of the seven areas listed above over the next two and half years.

Through this joint action I am sure that we will be able to maintain the bridges we have with other parts of the World and that through this work we will be able to build a stronger bridge to our future outside the EU.

For the people of Wales as well as students studying in our universities now and in years to come this is important.

However, for the idea of Wales as a vibrant, tolerant and welcoming place to live and work, it is absolutely critical.

Thank you, Diolch yn fawr.


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