By Lowri Pitcher
Kirsty Williams, AM for Brecon and Radnorshire is currently the Welsh Minister for Education and Skills. She was elected as an AM in 1999 and served as Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats from 2008 until 2016, now she is the only serving Liberal Democrat AM and forms part of the coalition between Welsh Labour, the Liberal Democrats and an Independent AM. Last week Gair Rhydd interviewed Williams to find out more about universities’ finance issues, Brexit and changes to the Welsh education system.
What is the new Welsh Curriculum, what has changed and why have these changes been made?
The curriculum changes are really exciting and form the core of our education reform journey, a journey that is set to raise standards, to close the attainment gap and to ensure that in Wales we have an education system that is a source of national pride and enjoys public confidence. Crucially our new curriculum is designed to give our children and young people the knowledge and skills that they will need to thrive in a globally competitive world.
Why are education standards in Wales currently worse than other regions of the UK?
Well, it depends on which measure you look at, you simply cannot say that education standards in Wales are worse. For instance, if you look at our A Level performance last year in terms of the very highest grades, we outperformed England so it’s simply not the case to say that across the board standards are worse. Clearly there is more to do to ensure that all students in Wales reach their full potential and I’m particularly concerned that we address the gap that exists between our better off students and those from a poorer background.
That’s why we’ve increased the resources via the pupil development grant to support the education of those children. We are not just only changing the curriculum but investing heavily in training our teachers, reforming our initial teacher education programs and also investing significant amounts of money, indeed some £20 million over a number of years which is the largest single investment in the profession since devolution. This is because we recognize that no education system can be better than the individual teachers who stand in front of our children.
Now that Welsh is only going to be taught as a first language, what do you respond to criticism that this move is prioritizing the teaching of Welsh over other subjects?
We want children to study a broad and balanced curriculum and to be able to improve standards for children across all subjects. That’s why we’re investing heavily in our network of excellence for maths, science and teaching and how we’ve made some changes with regard to the number of students who are studying a GCSE in one of the science subjects. I want to see as many children as possible leaving our education system with fantastic skills in English and in Welsh. But we’re certainly not doing that at the expense of other subjects.
Cardiff University is currently dealing with a £21 million deficit, what can the Welsh Government do in order to protect universities from such financial issues?
What’s important to recognize is that universities are independent institutions, a principle that they value very much and a principle that I value very much also. We’re seeing income to our university sector grow so we have introduced the higher education funding reforms over the last two years which will again allow us to support Welsh students with the most progressive system of student support anywhere in the United Kingdom. Via our remit letter we’re looking to challenge universities’ pay structure and we are delighted that since coming into office we’ve been able to convince all Welsh universities to become Living Wage employers. We are the only part of the UK where all universities are committed to ensuring that they pay a living wage and that’s a really important statement of the value we have in the higher education sector.
Some Welsh universities claim that it would help they were allowed to charge the full £9,250 instead of the current £9,000. Is this something that the Welsh Government would consider?
What we have done is maintained fee levels for students at that level in Wales and have provided additional resources to Welsh universities to help them with their funding situation so we’ve addressed that in a way that is fair to both the institutions and the individual students.
Will there be an impact on Welsh education after Brexit? If so, what will this impact be?
I think quite understandably universities and colleges are very concerned about the impact that Brexit potentially has on them. We want to send a very clear message that international students and faculty are very much welcomed in our system, they strengthen our system, it makes our colleges and universities the places that they are, a broad cross-section of individuals that work and study. Clearly, there are real challenges around the future of Erasmus+ programs and research and innovation with Horizon 2020, as well as individual structural funds which Welsh universities have used to great effect to support their research and innovation work. I’ll be meeting once again with my English counterparts to make the case that the Westminster Government promised the people of Wales that if we were to leave the European Union we would not be worse off in any way and they need to make good on those promises they made.
What ‘type’ of Brexit is the Welsh Government looking for?
We’ve said very clearly in Securing Wales’ Future that what we want to see is an arrangement that allows us to take part in a customs union that sees the free trade between our nations. Clearly, that’s not in our hands, it’s up to Westminster. We hope very much that Westminster will be able to overcome its divisions, find a way forward and if that is not possible then the only way to break the deadlock, that is currently dominating the Westminster system, is to allow the people to decide on the way forward.
Are the devolved administrations frustrating the delivery of Brexit?
The Welsh Government has been very clear on its position since its publication of its White Paper, Securing Wales’ Future. We want the Westminster Government to make good on their promises that they made to the people of Wales that we would not be worse off. We want guarantees that the funding given to Wales from Europe will be replaced. What we want is a good opportunity to trade, to continue to see in an educational sense the free movement of international researchers, lecturers, students, to our institutions. What is frustrating it is not the attitude of the Welsh government but the inability of the Westminster Government to make good on their promises.
What do you think is most likely to happen to Brexit?
Oh my goodness me, I don’t think anybody sensible would even begin to predict what may happen next given the chaos we’ve witnessed over the recent months.
In your role as a Liberal Democrat, what does your party need to do in order to win more votes in Wales and do you think that The Independent Group could pose a threat?
Well there’s no indication that The Independent Group will offer those opportunities in Wales. What’s very clear is that as Liberal Democrats we offer an alternative to the failure of what we see in Westminster when it comes to Brexit because we believe that the people should have the final say on the situation and we will continue to work cross-party to achieve that aim.