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3. Topical Questions

October 25, 2017

17 speeches by…

  • Ann Jones
  • Mark Isherwood
  • Carl Sargeant
  • Darren Millar
  • Alun Davies
  • Hefin David
  • Llyr Huws Gruffydd

Ann Jones

Item 3, then, is topical questions. And the first topical question is to the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, and Mark Isherwood.

Mark Isherwood

Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Targeted Regeneration Investment Programme, following its launch on 20 October 2017? (TAQ0056)

Carl Sargeant

Last Friday, Llywydd, I announced a new targeted regeneration investment programme for Wales. The aim of the programme is to support projects that promote economic development, with activities focused at individuals and areas most in need, whilst serving the aims of wider sustainable development.

Mark Isherwood

Well, as your written statement said, regeneration investment has a crucial part to play in driving prosperity and building resilient communities, and there’s no disagreement there. It also says that you’re inviting bids from local authorities, along with partner organisations. How will you ensure that the programmes that are delivered through this do things with people rather than to or for them, where we now have years of hard evidence showing what works and what doesn’t, and that those schemes that are simply delivered top down don’t have long-term sustainable benefits, whereas those schemes that break down the barrier between service providers and service users—and I’ve given you many examples over the last many months—actually have quantifiable, measurable and evidenced improvements?

Carl Sargeant

The guidance issued to local authorities and partners is very clear about the working together of the principles developed under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The issue of partnership agencies working alongside local authorities is one that will gain support by the team who will be assessing the bids that come in through the programme. They will gain more points for working with partner agencies as opposed to working in isolation.

Ann Jones

Thank you very much. And the second topical question is for the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language. Darren Millar.

Darren Millar

Will the Cabinet Secretary respond to data which shows that Welsh students accounted for just 2 per cent of last year’s Oxbridge intake? (TAQ0057)

Alun Davies

Welsh students deserve equitable access based on merit to places at Oxbridge. While the Seren network in Wales is helping to equip and prepare our academically brightest young people for top universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, those universities must now show that they are challenging the biases in their own admission processes.

Darren Millar

Thank you for responding to this question today, Minister, in the absence of the Cabinet Secretary. I hope you’re getting a proportion of her pay. The number of Welsh students studying at the UK’s top universities fell by almost 10 per cent in the three years to 2016. On top of that, we’ve had figures published just very recently showing that just 2 per cent of last year’s Oxbridge intake were Welsh students. We know from the information that’s being fed back to us in our constituencies that the 100 per cent pupil uptake target for the advanced Welsh baccalaureate is contributing to this problem. It’s leading to some schools strong-arming students into doing a qualification that is loading them with extra work, which is then preventing them and placing obstacles in their way from them being able to achieve the three As that they need to get into our elite universities around the UK, and putting them at a significant disadvantage. On top of that, we know that many of those Russell Group universities don’t recognise the Welsh baccalaureate as being equivalent to a traditional A-level qualification. And, of course, this isn’t me alone that’s raising these concerns. These concerns are being raised by headteachers, by students and their parents. Indeed, Paul Murphy, the former Secretary of State for Wales—Lord Murphy—has raised concerns, saying that he heard repeated concerns from teachers saying that the Welsh bac does not currently meet the requirements of academically more able and talented students and takes up valuable space in their timetable. Given these concerns, and I accept what you say about the work of the Seren network, but given these concerns, what consideration will the Welsh Government give to abandoning the 100 per cent take-up target that has been set in respect of the advanced Welsh baccalaureate, and what will you do to review the work of the Seren network to ensure that it actually does work at getting more Welsh students into these top universities rather than the reduction that we’ve seen in recent years?

Alun Davies

Given that question, I would say, based on your homework, Darren, I don’t think you’d get close to getting into any one of these universities. I think you need to understand both the context of what is happening here and also what the Welsh Government is doing. And you need to look not just at a few figures, but you need to read the rest of the page, and then turn the page and understand the whole picture, and you’re not doing that. Let me say this: it is absolutely the case that both Oxford and Cambridge are working well with the Seren network, and I pay tribute to both of those universities for the work they’ve done with the Seren network over the last few years. I particularly welcome the work of Jesus College Oxford, who took a group of Welsh students to—[Interruption.] If you don’t want me to answer the question, I’ll sit down.

Alun Davies

I’ll say this to the Member: Jesus College Oxford took a group of Welsh students to Oxford in the summer, to a summer school, and spent considerable time talking with them. Over 2,000 people are now a part of the Seren network and are benefiting from all the advantages that that has given to them. It enables them to understand the processes needed to apply for and to gain a place in one of these colleges. And let me say this as well: both Oxford and Cambridge are participating well in that, and none of the issues that have been raised by the Member this afternoon have been raised by those universities in terms of their engagement. However, there is a context to this. It is clear that if you are white, if you are middle-class, if you are privately educated and from the south-east of England, then you have a better opportunity to study at these universities. And that is unfair and it is wrong. It is due to the biases in admission and processes within the system, and that needs to change. It is no accident, Deputy Presiding Officer, that, in 2015, 10 Oxford colleges did not admit a single British black student—not one—whereas in Harvard over half their intake today is non-white.

Hefin David

Darren Millar’s main question is quite timely for me. I have a constituent who is in the sixth form. He is 18 years old and his dream is to go to Oxford and all he wants to do is sit the admissions test. Not only is his conceptual knowledge excellent, he also predicted Trump, he predicted Brexit, he predicted the Corbyn surge and he can give detailed demographic explanations for why these things happened. Sadly, due to an administrative mix-up, he is being denied the chance to take the test. When I rang Oxford, they told me that they have to treat everybody equitably, which I found utterly absurd, given that he is a state school student, and I think, in this case, they should relax the bureaucracy to allow him to study. So, will the Minister agree that Oxbridge colleges need to become more flexible and accommodating, particularly with state school students, in order to increase their intake of students like the constituent that I’ve mentioned today?

Alun Davies

I’d certainly be happy, Deputy Presiding Officer, to take up the case of the constituent that the Member has referred to and perhaps that’s something we can discuss following this question today. But on the wider issue, I’m not convinced that the universities need to be more accommodating; they simply need to be fair. They simply need to be fair, and they need to ensure that the way in which they recruit students from across the whole of the United Kingdom and elsewhere is done on the basis of fairness and ability, and not on the basis of a prejudice that appears to be working against the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom. The admission figures are well known. The analysis of those figures is well understood. It is consistent, it happens year-on-year-on-year; it is not an accident. It is a consequence of the way in which these matters operate. It must and has to change.

Llyr Huws Gruffydd

Do you know, I feel sometimes we really need to get beyond this obsessing with Oxbridge as well? There are other excellent institutions—the Russell Group and others as well—that we really should be encouraging our young people to aspire to, and not just within the UK as well. We need to look beyond that in terms of broadening our young people’s horizons and look at Harvard, Yale, the Sorbonne and others. Why shouldn’t we? It was a recommendation actually in the Diamond review that the Welsh Government extends the student support package beyond the UK. It was actually in the Plaid Cymru manifesto as well. Are you going to cheer that too? Well, never mind. [Laughter.] Certainly, that’s something we should be encouraging. The Government, in fairness, said that they accepted that recommendation and that they would be developing a pilot. So, I’m just wondering whether the Minister’s in a position to give us an update as to where you are with developing such a pilot.

Alun Davies

I hope the Member isn’t criticising me for attempting to answer the question that was asked on this occasion. But I accept that he might see it as a very rare event. I accept the point that he makes and I don’t dismiss it. I think it’s a perfectly valid and fair point. In terms of what we’re seeking to do at the moment, our work is being tunnelled through the Seren network. I’d be quite happy to write to Members on all sides of the Chamber actually outlining what is happening with Seren at the moment. I think it’s been a great success. I’ve spoken at a number of Seren events, including their national conference last year, and I have to say that I have rarely spoken to such a large group of enthusiastic and motivated young people who are all anxious to receive the help and support that Seren provides, and then to succeed in whatever their chosen field or chosen approach is. I will say to the Member that a number of students I have spoken to have not simply been concerned with going to the Oxbridge colleges, but a number of them have applied to—and I know at least two have succeeded in winning places—the Ivy League universities as well.