The body charged with funding Wales’ universities could cut a fifth of its staff despite saving more than £200,000 last year, we can reveal.
The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw), based in Cardiff, received an operating budget of £3.16m from the Welsh Government in 2010-11. Data obtained using the Freedom of Information Act reveals it made a net gain of £233,000 after administrative and staffing costs. But the Western Mail understands that Hefcw has to make savings of around £500,000 – and there are 10 full-time equivalent jobs at risk.
Talks are at an early stage, though Hefcw confirmed a number of workers would be leaving as part of a restructuring process. Staffing levels have remained stable – at 51 – over the past three years, during which the funding council has made £666,000 savings. Its only recent operating loss was in 2007-08, when it was £51,000 over-budget and two jobs were cut.
There is currently 10 staff earning more than £50,000 a year excluding chief executive Philip Gummett, whose salary has remained steady at around £106,000. Hefcw acts as an intermediary body between the Welsh Government and the higher education sector in Wales. It is a publicly-funded organisation which provides advice on the funding needs, aspirations and concerns of Welsh universities.
More recently, Hefcw was charged with scrutinising university fee plans and making sure all 10 of the nation’s campus-based institutions adhered to commitments on widening access and student experience. Plaid Cymru’s education spokesman Simon Thomas has tabled a written Assembly question to see what light Education Minister Leighton Andrews can shed on the situation.
He said: “I am concerned about the capacity of the funding council to be able to properly scrutinize universities on their fee plans and ensure that they widen access to higher education if there is a reduction in their staffing levels. “Managers at Hefcw must make sure there is consultation with staff trade unions if workers are threatened with losing their jobs. Every effort must be made to ensure these redundancies are not compulsory.”
Peter Harris, Wales secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, is seeking urgent talks with Hefcw management. “We see no need for any job losses at Hefcw and oppose cost-cutting measures that can only harm the good work of the organisation,” he said.
“If Hefcw go ahead with these cuts we will however work with them to try and avoid any compulsory redundancies. It will be important to provide redeployment opportunities and access to training and re-skilling to any displaced staff. We expect talks to take place over the coming weeks.”
In what is a testing time for UK higher education, Hefcw saw its core university budget slashed by 8.5% last year. But while universities tackle funding cuts, the council itself looks set to evolve under plans put forward by the McCormick Review. Commissioned by the Welsh Government, the report proposed a new funding and regulatory body to ensure a greater focus on higher education priority areas.
In its January newsletter, Professor Gummett, who will retire later this year, made reference to some of the council’s problems. He paid tribute to staff who had “delivered under intense pressure” but warned that: “The year ahead will be demanding both in policy terms and as, within Hefcw, we address the organizational consequences of our own share of the public spending cuts.
“We are reducing our staffing and engaging in consequential reorganization. We hope to do this with no loss in the quality of engagement with our stakeholders, but it will be a challenge.” Amanda Wilkinson, director of university representative body Higher Education Wales, said: “This development comes at a time of unprecedented transformation for the funding of teaching in Welsh higher education.
“Hefcw has previously indicated its commitment to preparing for considerable change as the sector moves through the transition towards a fees-led teaching funding system. It remains vital that Hefcw continues to be able to fulfill its role effectively in a rapidly evolving environment.”