An interview with Minister for Education Kirsty Williams

Minister for Education in Wales, Kirsty Williams
Welsh Minister for Education Kirsty Williams sat down with Gair Rhydd to discuss the next steps for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: The Welsh Government Press Office
Welsh Minister for Education Kirsty Williams sat down with Gair Rhydd to discuss the next steps for students during the COVID-19 pandemic and addressed the GCSE and A-Level decisions over the summer.

By Tirion Davies | Editor-in-Chief and Morgan Perry | Political Editor

Summer 2020 was filled with uncertainty. There were concerns regarding the new grading system for GCSEs and A-Levels – although, decisions by Governments across the UK later overturned the new system – and a transition to online learning for many university students across the country.    

As Welsh Government guidelines continue to change, schools and universities across Wales have had to adapt. For many students, the change in guidelines, and the ever-changing plans made by universities have left many uncertain as to what kind of education they will receive this year.

Gair Rhydd sat down with the Welsh Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams, to discuss the changes which will be introduced in Welsh universities over the coming weeks, the mental health concerns raised by many students, in addition to what the future may hold for students sitting their A-Levels and GCSEs.


Online teaching

Cardiff University made the transition to online teaching in early March, following recommendations by the Welsh Government, and just days before the introduction of the nation-wide lockdown.

Although students had to adapt quickly to online learning, there was an underlying belief that university would be ‘back to normal’ by the time students would return en masse in September. 

Students beginning the Autumn semester have found adapting to online learning difficult; some don’t have the appropriate tools to complete their learning, and others find the lack of face-to-face teaching hard to transition to.

Gair Rhydd asked the Welsh Minister for Education whether online learning would be the sole expectation for many, or if a combination of learning styles might be implemented.   

The Minister noted that “All of our universities are committed to a blended learning approach, and of course that needs to be kept under review; we need to be mindful of all the public health sections. 

“It’s fantastic that you only need to look at social media to see the wide variety of face-to-face opportunities that are going ahead at the moment.”

When asked whether further measures might be introduced to support university students through the transition into blended learning, the Minister stated that: “It’s important that universities ensure students are equipped to cope.

“Whether that’s making sure they have the connectivity to do that online learning or making sure there are mental health support measures in place.

Student mental health

Mental health, of course, is important for everyone during the lockdown period. Students moving away from home for the first time also face additional stresses and anxieties.

Earlier this summer, Cardiff University Students’ Union suspended its student advice services for nearly two months after “unprecedented demand”.  

Gair Rhydd asked the Minister to confirm where additional support would be provided for universities to support students and their mental health. 

The Minister confirmed that: “We will be asking the Higher Education Funding Council to monitor the situations with individual universities.

“I continue to meet regularly with Vice-Chancellors, and we will be asking Vice-Chancellors to explain exactly the steps they are putting in place to support students.”

Williams confirmed that she will also be meeting “regularly” with the National Union of Students (NUS) Wales, to ensure a range of student perspectives are heard throughout the pandemic.

“The ability to make additional resources available… hopefully gives universities the opportunity to be supported financially to ensure those services are there”. 

“We’ve made available an additional £27 million to the Higher Education Funding Council, and in the remit letter we submitted with that funding, issues around mental health and wellbeing were particularly important. 

“Student hardship was also incredibly important. Recognising that students supplement their income by part-time jobs which some might not have been able to get a hold of this summer, or on your return to Cardiff those opportunities may not be available. 

“Our expectation is that some of that money will be there to support students in the wider sense, to be able to have a safe, secure experience at university, whether that be in Cardiff, or indeed anywhere else in Wales.”

Tuition refunding

At Wednesday afternoon’s press conference, the minister implied, in response to a question from Gair Rhydd, that, as it stands, students should not expect a refund for tuition fees.

“Many students are engaged in very meaningful and positive blended learning experiences”, the minister said, adding that many courses are beginning to take place in person, including courses at Cardiff University. 

“I don’t believe, at this stage, that there is a case to be made for full refunds,” confirmed Williams.

The decision to avoid offering a refund for tuition fees has been seen as controversial, especially with the temporary suspension of in-person teaching at Aberystwyth University earlier this week.

In the Senedd, the Welsh Conservatives recently led a debate to reduce tuition fees for students in Wales as a result of the move to online – or “blended” – learning. 

To help allay concerns about the quality of teaching, the Minister said that “the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) for Wales regulates the quality of HE and will be reporting regularly” to the minister herself on the quality of teaching provision. 

In the first instance, however, dissatisfied students should “raise [their concerns] with individual institutions”, though there are external appeal mechanisms, such as the HEFC. 

When asked about the repercussions of low-quality teaching, the minister did not outline the steps that would be taken against those institutions found to be repeatedly underdelivering. 

When asked what kind of support graduating students could receive from the Welsh Government this year, the Minister noted that Wales has the “most progressive support system for masters programmes” for Welsh domiciled students, and ensured the Welsh Government is attempting to “ensure a range of economic development programmes across Wales”. 

Williams also expressed: “We’re very aware that many people, whether that be students coming out of higher education or young people in general, are at risk of bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. 

“We’re working on a range of economic development opportunities to support young people at a variety level of education successfully into the job market.”

Travel restrictions and studying abroad

For students studying languages or having an opportunity to study abroad, the travel restrictions have meant that many have had to take an impromptu gap year, as many university courses require a gap year before returning to the third year.  

Whilst this is understandable under the current circumstances and with COVID-19 still in full force, questions have arisen to the Welsh Government as to whether curriculum changes will be introduced to offer alternative solutions if the travel restrictions persist well into next year.

In response, Williams expressed: “We’ll need to work with individual institutions to see how their curriculum can adapt under these circumstances. We remain hopeful, of course. The best scientific brains in the world are working on vaccines – Cardiff University itself is going to be part of that moon-shot project.

“We’re hopeful that resource will bear fruit. But clearly, we need to have discussions with individual institutions as to whether curriculum changes need to be introduced if the circumstances that we are currently experiencing are going to be with us for even longer.”

Of course, for many courses at Cardiff, exams have – like last semester – been replaced with alternative assessments. The same was not true for GCSE and A-level students both in Wales and elsewhere, where teacher-assessed and predicted grades were used.

Concerns over the methodology used to calculate grades resulted in the scrapping of a controversial algorithm that had been employed by the Government. 

When asked about how next summer’s exams may look for GCSE and A-level students in Wales, the Minister confirmed that the preferable option would be for exams to go ahead in person.

With the ongoing disruption likely into next summer, however, the Welsh Government is exploring “alternative methods of assessment for both GCSE and A-level students”. Any options will be implemented with “certainty and clarity”, and most importantly “fairness”, said the minister. 

An independent review of the handling of the summer grades debacle will be led by the head of the Open University Wales. Initial findings are expected to be published in October.

Students all over Wales have been eager to gain some kind of insight into what the next year brings.

Although there are many matters which are still under debate and will likely change as COVID-19 restrictions adapt, a little guidance is all Welsh students might need to make the coming year easier.

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