Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg - Y Bumed Senedd
Children, Young People and Education Committee - Fifth Senedd11/03/2021
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Dawn Bowden MS|
|Hefin David MS|
|Laura Anne Jones MS|
|Lynne Neagle MS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Paul Davies MS|
|Sian Gwenllian MS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Amanda Wilkinson||Cyfarwyddwr Prifysgolion Cymru|
|Director of Universities Wales|
|Bethan Owen||Dirprwy Brif Weithredwr, Cyngor Cyllido Addysg Uwch Cymru|
|Deputy Chief Executive, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales|
|Denver Davies||Pennaeth Monitro a Chydymffurfiaeth, Cymwysterau Cymru|
|Head of Monitoring and Compliance, Qualifications Wales|
|Dr Barry Walters||Pennaeth Coleg Sir Benfro|
|Principal of Pembrokeshire College|
|Dr Ben Calvert||Cadeirydd Rhwydwaith Dysgu ac Addysgu Prifysgolion Cymru a Dirprwy Is-Ganghellor Prifysgol De Cymru|
|Chair of Universities Wales Learning & Teaching Network and Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of South Wales|
|Dr David Blaney||Prif Weithredwr, Cyngor Cyllido Addysg Uwch Cymru|
|Chief Executive, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales|
|Karen Phillips||Pennaeth Coleg y Cymoedd|
|Principal of Coleg y Cymoedd|
|Kieron Rees||Pennaeth Polisi a Materion Allanol, Prifysgolion Cymru|
|Head of Policy and External Affairs, Universities Wales|
|Philip Blaker||Prif Weithredwr, Cymwysterau Cymru|
|Chief Executive, Qualifications Wales|
|Yana Williams||Prif Weithredwr, Coleg Cambria|
|Chief Executive, Coleg Cambria|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Yan Thomas||Dirprwy Glerc|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:15.
The committee met by video-conference.
The meeting began at 09:15.
Good morning, everyone. Can I welcome Members to this virtual meeting of the Children, Young People and Education Committee? In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I've determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for the meeting published on Monday. As usual, though, the meeting is being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference, and a Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to remote proceedings, all other Standing Order requirements of committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. If we become aware that there's an issue with the translation, I'll ask you to pause for a moment while our meeting technicians reset the system. We've received apologies for absence from Suzy Davies MS, and I'd like to welcome Paul Davies MS, who is substituting for Suzy this morning. Can I ask if there are any declarations of interest from Members, please? No. Okay. I also remind everyone that if I drop out for any reason, it's been agreed that Dawn Bowden MS will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin.
Item 2, then, is an evidence session with representatives from the higher education sector on COVID-19. Just to remind Members, as you know, throughout January and February, the committee undertook a number of focus groups with students to understand what life has been like for those currently studying in further and higher education. The majority of participants, 90 per cent, were students studying in Wales, and the remaining participants were from Wales but studying over the border. The summary note, which is on page 12 of today's papers, has been used to inform today's evidence session.
I'm very pleased to welcome our witnesses this morning: Dr Ben Calvert, chair of Universities Wales learning and teaching network and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales; Amanda Wilkinson, director of Universities Wales; Kieron Rees, head of policy and external affairs at Universities Wales; Dr David Blaney, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales; and Bethan Owen, deputy chief executive, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. Thank you all for joining us this morning. We're very much looking forward to hearing what you've got to say. We're going to go straight to questions from Dawn Bowden.
Thank you, Chair, and good morning, everyone. Can I start by asking you about the impact of the pandemic on students from under-represented groups? I'm particularly interested in your views on the challenges and the barriers that they've particularly faced and how HEFCW and institutions are now supporting them. Perhaps if I just give you a quote from one of the students that came to the sessions with us as an illustration of the kind of things that were said to us. This student said:
'I have both a mental and physical disability, so I've been trying to put things in place that I had in school. I found it really difficult and I couldn't understand why they couldn’t replicate what I received in the school.'
What are your thoughts on that? How well do you think that your institutions have responded to students in this situation?
Who'd like to start?
Shall I start off with just a couple of comments about where HEFCW has been in respect of this? Clearly, I think it's worth saying that where there's any individual student who has had an experience that's less than ideal, it's an issue for all of us, and we would obviously wish to avoid those circumstances arising. We clearly can't comment on the individual cases that you have identified; we can only really look at how it's working at a system level. And, of course, with 120,000 students in the Welsh HE system, there are going to be instances where things haven't quite worked.
But I think our perspective from HEFCW is that the sector has worked fantastically hard, actually, to try to respond to the COVID crisis, and that there has been really very substantial effort on the part of the institutions—and across the whole of the institutions, not just the senior team; the people like Ben who we've got here today, but academic staff teaching, also technical staff making sure that the remote systems are working, student support services staff, which is relevant to this particular question, and even the people who keep campuses safe and clean. So, right across the board, there's been a tremendous effort, from my perspective.
We published a circular early on, in August, in fact, specifically looking at issues to do with equality, diversity and inclusion, and really the purpose of that circular was just to remind institutions about the importance of attending to the needs of all students and all student populations. And we have also, during this year, been able to allocate additional funding to support student hardship of all sorts, and students with disabilities would have been included in the eligibility criteria for that. So, at a kind of system level, if you like, we've been reminding institutions, but also providing funding to help institutions support facilities for all students, particularly those with greater needs than others. It's probably better for me to stop talking now and hand over to Ben, who will be able to talk about the detail from the institutional perspective.
Thank you, David.
Thank you very much. Firstly, I think I would say that transition from one circumstance to another, from school to higher education, is a daunting thing anyway. We know that. And one of the things that I often say at USW is that one of our jobs is to try to make a big place seem small. We've got 23,000 students across three campuses, so how do we do that? We have ways, we hope, of capturing conversations with our students—and I think that is really important, making them feel that they're known to us—through our academic teams, where we have personal academic coaches, who work with our students on a coaching model to talk about that transition, to understand how they're feeling. That's true for all students, not just students who've got particular needs. But we also have, of course, well-being teams that have been very active in this time. Last November and December, our well-being teams were providing mentoring for students with mental health issues, where we had, I think, 790-odd hours of time, the equivalent of 17 weeks of full-time activity, where we were providing that support for students.
What we try to do, and I think this is probably true of most institutions, is recognise that there will always be situations where individual students have particular circumstances, and we might miss things, in that scale of 23,000. We do try to really track other things that give signals about whether students are having challenges. For example, most institutions in Wales are working with data quite differently, I think, to the way that we used to. So, we're all involved in a joint Wales project on learner analytics. That means that, at institution level, we're able to see whether our students are engaging even in a remote way, even in blended learning, with the activities that we've set—are they logging on to our virtual learning environment, are they watching our lectures, are they engaging with the library. And we have reports go directly to our course teams on a regular basis if we see that lack of engagement happening.
I think there are things that we've got better at as a sector generally that have actually been very useful for us at this moment in time. I do think, however, there is a challenge, and it's perhaps a more general point, which is how do we connect up the journey of students from school to the journey of students into higher education. Because of course students have to come through to us and report, again, the issues that they have in order that they can access services. So, it's certainly not as seamless as we would like it to be and there's maybe more that—
Sorry to interrupt you, Ben. I was just going to ask that, actually. So, when a student arrives—. This question was specifically around how your institutions have adapted to the needs of students during the pandemic, but even before then—. The point I'm interested in there is how much do you actually know about the students' needs when they arrive on campus. Or is that something that you're kind of starting from scratch as soon as they arrive?
I think by and large it is, because when they arrive to us, they're adults. They declare what they wish to declare to us. When they enrol, they let us know whether they have any particular needs, so it is a little bit of a fresh start in that regard. I think there is some thinking maybe for all of us in that regard about how we make that journey more seamless. Because at the moment, their data is their data, so once they reach us at 18 years old, they're into, in a sense, a different system. So, there is a little bit of a cliff edge. We do all we can to make sure that students are aware of what we do for them and to encourage them to engage. I think in general terms, we don't have that as an issue, and we can see engagement with our well-being services exponentially increasing as we get better at this. But I do think there is an issue there.
Going back to what David said, however, I wouldn't want colleagues not to be aware of the amount of effort it has taken for us to pivot services. Actually, going from one modus operandi to another in the space of a week is not an easy thing to do. We've tried in the transition of our learning as well to make sure that even there, social contact is a really significant feature of it. So, don't just lecture at them for an hour over a screen; use that time to ignite conversations with students, to get dialogue going, to build social contact, to keep things going that we would ordinarily try to do on a site. It's not been easy, but it's certainly what we've endeavoured to do. And if we look at it at a very aggregate level, the results across the sector around—. We're not picking up significant issues around withdrawal rates being significantly different to previous years. In fact, certainly for ourselves, last year, our retention was better; this year, it's looking better again. So, there are signals that we're keeping students. I mean, our main focus is keeping them safe, and that includes their well-being, keeping learning going, and they're certainly keeping going with their learning.
Thank you. Amanda, did you have any—? Oh, Kieron wants to come in.
I'll let Amanda go first, and then I can pick up anything else.
I was just going to say, in relation to that transition point, which I think we're very focused on at the moment, we have a project that was initiated a couple of months ago with the Welsh Government looking at year 13 and how we support year 13 students wishing to transition to university. We're hoping that that project will certainly help young people in Wales particularly, but it could be relevant for other ages too to transition into higher education, be it to Welsh universities or elsewhere. Certainly if we look at what Welsh universities are doing, this is very high up the agenda, because we are aware that young people coming to us will have obviously had some difficult experiences. So, we are actively working in this area.
Thank you. Dawn, are you—? Oh, Kieron.
Kieron, I think, yes.
I was just going to pick up a few specific points. As well as what Amanda mentioned in terms of the year 13 transition project, in terms of what Ben said about relying on students identifying themselves if they belong to under-represented groups, the sector has done a lot in the past five years to encourage people to come forward, and a really good example is those who have unpaid caring responsibilities for friends and family members. This is something that until a few years ago wasn't even asked on the UCAS application, but that's there now, and by helping encourage students to disclose that to us, we have a better idea of what support is needed.
In terms of the pandemic and this year specifically, institutions are currently in the process of delivering the COVID student support fund that's going to target groups likely to be experiencing hardship, including those with disabilities. All the universities, I think I can say confidently, have topped up their financial hardship funds and put greater investment into counselling services. Every university will have mitigating circumstances processes, so where people are struggling, whether it be to balance childcare or other issues, they can ask for extensions or other adaptations to support them. I think a good example of the support for under-represented groups—. It was quite interesting this Christmas; we had a much greater number of students staying on or near campus than we normally would. Now, those will be groups such as care leavers, estranged students or students who, for whatever reason, were unable to travel home, if their family members were vulnerable and they didn't feel comfortable mixing in that way. I think all the universities put a lot of effort into how you support those students—so, delivery of home-cooked meals, regular calls to check their well-being, provision of Christmas hampers and things like that. I think it's another example of where staff have really gone above and beyond to just make sure their students' well-being is protected and sustained.
Thank you. Are you all right with that, Dawn?
That's absolutely fine, yes. I was trying to get a sense of the process, really. Perhaps if I could have just one quick follow-up, then, Lynne. Just so that I'm clear, in the application process, there is an option at that point for students to identify what their needs will be before they arrive at campus. So, if it's identified before they arrive, then your expectation will be that that support will be in place for them. Yes? Okay.
But it is important, I think, to recognise that, particularly with mental health issues, some students don't want to, because they see going to university as a fresh start. So, they don't want to put it on there. Ben.
I was just going to say, on that point, I think the related element here is making sure that you have a culture in which people feel that they're able to present, because some people don't want to do that. Even our student union, for example, play a really strong role in that. They ran a campaign this year called Look After Your Mate, which was very much about trying to make sure that, in these circumstances, people were looking out for one another. We have a support group for our students who've got spectrum disorders, who are engaged in social activity together, having Netflix nights and quiz nights and various things. So, you've got to have a culture, you've got to talk about it, and you've got to be seen to be talking about it as well. You can't just rely on the form; I think that's what I'm saying.
No, and I think that was the point, really, wasn't it? There were different stages as we've been going through the pandemic and you've now been having to try to manage this remotely rather than with students on campus. I think that's the difference that this last year has thrown up, isn't it, which I think was what prompted the question, really.
We've also provided funding for a variety of projects, some of which had started before the pandemic. Those projects include a Swansea-led project that is called the Connect project, where the staff and students are trained to be connectors for students, and have training for mental health first aid. We have a variety of projects across Wales. There's a Wrexham Glyndŵr-led social prescribing project, and we've provided funding this year for supporting revision of all universities' well-being and health strategies, and we'll be reviewing those. So, we're providing funding as well to support the development of processes that need strengthening.
Thank you. We're going to probe the issue of mental health a bit more now with some questions from Paul Davies.
Thank you, Chair. Yes, I just want to touch on mental health and the impact of the pandemic on students in HE settings. Now, we know that this pandemic has had a huge mental health impact on many people in our communities, including students. Data we've seen from the Higher Education Statistics Agency has shown that in 2014-15 around 33,500 HE students declared a mental health condition, and by 2019-20 this figure had risen to 96,000. So, can you tell us a bit more about some of the steps that you as providers have taken to support learners during the pandemic who have been struggling with mental health?
Who would like to start? Kieron.
I think we've touched on this, and Bethan has just outlined some of the interventions for mental health in terms of the Connect project and the other funded projects. I think on the issues around mental health, and the prevalence of mental health issues over the past 10 years, our experience does reflect the figures you just quoted. I think an Institute for Public Policy Research report found that, in the past 10 years, students disclosing a mental health condition upon arrival at university—so, at the very first moment—had increased fivefold in 10 years. This is, obviously—. There's a societal issue. There's a particular higher education dimension in terms of how we support those students.
On a sector level, we are looking at what we can do with Government and others to improve and join up support. One of the big challenges we have is linkages with health services. Around half of our undergraduates don't come from Wales, so there'll be at GP services with their medical history elsewhere and, actually, joining up some of those services can be challenging. All the universities—I'm sure Ben can talk about this—will have that significant investment into counselling, coaching services and other provision to help support student well-being. It's almost—. It's something that I think we're looking to address about how we actually join up with existing health services, and make sure that we're not running, in effect, a parallel health service. Ben.
Yes. Just picking up that point from Kieron, that relationship to other care services is important, and there is some work going on in that space. So, the three Cardiff universities are working together really at the crisis end of mental health to see how connectivity into the health services in Cardiff can work better. And given that our primary function is learning, again, I want to restate that, yes, if you walked into an university now compared to 10 years ago, it'd be unrecognisable in terms of the individual support we provide—the level of the counselling services, the mental health advisers, the range of services that we provide, the mentoring schemes that we have. So, in terms of service level and in terms of, I think, responsiveness of service, we're all getting much better at that.
So, we have a digital tracking system for students who are making enquiries into our well-being services, so we can see on a daily basis whether or not their enquiry has been picked up and handled. But as well as that, there is actually a big opportunity for us to be thinking about mental health in the way that we run our courses. So, I go back to the point about making people feel known. We do a lot of work to try and build a sense of a learning community, and a tolerant and inclusive learning community as well. So, making sure that our students don't come on to courses where one minute they're with one group of people, the next minute they're with another, and they never get to know anybody. We have a really strong sense of how you build a learning community through a programme.
And also, even how we make sure we have an assessment pattern for our students that does not give them unnecessary stress points, actually. So, we've talked about our assessment in that regard, too. So, there are tools that aren't the obvious ones of, 'We have a well-being service, a counselling service and other services'; it's also making sure that we have a run rate of our courses that allows students to be effectively engaging, where we know who they are, that we pick up their issues. And often, of course, if students are not attending a class or they're not engaging in a seminar, or whatever it might be, or they're not presenting there, that's a signal for something else and we can then get into that discussion.
What I would say, Paul, is that I think we're not really going to know what the impacts of this are because we're still in it, and we're finding things out here as we go. Some of this is anecdotal, so I wouldn't want to put too much on it, but in some of our provisions we are getting some feedback that students perhaps who've got autism or have got those spectrum disorders actually find it easier to engage in a remote way because they're not feeling peer pressure and other things happening. We're finding some of those students have been more active in a remote space than they perhaps were in an on-campus environment. We've also had in our degree outcomes last year some evidence that performance for our BAME communities was slightly stronger. That might have something to do with the nature of the way that we calibrate our assessment. I think we'll know and we'll be learning about this as we go, and it will probably be in 12, 18 months' time when we get a fix on what the reality of the outcomes has been. And they're not always obvious is what I'm saying.
Kieron and then David.
Just a very quick point that I forgot to mention. All the Welsh universities have also signed up to adopting Universities UK's 'Stepchange: mentally healthy universities' framework, which provides a framework for a whole-university approach to tackling well-being and mental health issues.
Thank you. David.
In addition, all the institutions have also signed up to the Student Space programme, which is between England and Wales, so there's sharing of resources and approaches across England and Wales there. It's also important for us to remember that some students will find it a lot easier to engage with these resources through the medium of Welsh, and so we're also funding provision led by Bangor, which is developing Welsh-medium, web-based well-being resources.
Okay, thank you. Paul.
Now, as we know, all students have been working remotely for a long time now, and some students have commented that virtual support such as talking on software like Teams isn't effective. For example, one student has told the committee, and I quote,
'I need somebody to talk to but I wouldn't feel comfortable talking over Teams. Talking to a screen is like talking to yourself.'
So, can you tell us what further action you're taking to ensure that the support that is available is actually making a difference and delivering the kind of support that students who are struggling with mental health issues need?
Thank you. Shall I bring you in first, Amanda?
I wasn't going to address that point. I was going to make the point that this is not an issue that's going to go away; this is something that is with us. We're very aware of that. It's been the main focus of our cross-party group meetings this year, and we think that the partnerships that we can develop through those sorts of structure are going to be very important to us, particularly as we head into the autumn. So, there's still a lot to do, I feel, in this area.
Hi, Paul. Yes. I think, firstly, the appetite to understand these issues is very high in Wales. I would say that. So, all Welsh institutions are engaging in a project that we're doing collaboratively on the experiences of digital learning. We all have our own data and evidence on that, and we're all collecting that regularly, so I think we're on survey 0.3 at USW now, in terms of understanding how students are, and as I say, also monitoring their engagement and monitoring their assessments. But all Welsh institutions are engaged in a project of learning together. We don't see this as a competitive space at all; we see this as a space that we really need to collaborate in. That's going to involve all institutions working with Jisc on a digital experiences survey. We're also working with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education on best practice that they've got in the sector around digital and blended learning, and our educational development teams are all being enhanced there to try and build an understanding and to continue to develop that good practice, because our suspicion is the way of doing learning has changed. It's not going to go back to a previous way of doing things. It has changed. And there will be things that students have benefited from, in terms of being able to access learning, actually, in more flexible ways, that we want to make sure that we preserve. So, what I would say is, genuinely, this is a learning sector that wants to collaborate on this and work together, and we've got great funding from Government and projects set up to do that. Individual institutions, we would of course expect to be making sure they are monitoring the experience of their students on their programmes in real time.
I don't know if anybody is in a position to comment on—. I suppose the substance of Paul's question was: is it possible to get face-to-face support if you really need it? We know this has been a problem across mental health services. Ben.
Yes. We do offer that. So, we haven't—. At all times, our campuses have been open, so our students, if they have circumstances at home that make life difficult for them in terms of study, can come in and they can access our libraries. They can do that on a bookable basis. It's socially distanced. It's COVID secure. If we get to a situation where there is a need for one-to-one support for students, then we can arrange that as well. Many of those things are virtual, but we can do that. And of course, before Christmas, Wales was pretty resilient in offering on-campus activity for quite a lot of students. So, we did have a position, even through the firebreak, where we managed to maintain a position that on-campus learning was important, not just for meeting their learning outcomes, but for their well-being. We wanted that social interaction. Sadly, we haven't been able to sustain that since January, but we hope to be able to go back to something of that nature after Easter.
Can I just ask one final question on—
Thank you. David?
I've got David first, sorry.
Just to follow up on that, one of the characteristics that I think has been very impressive during this whole pandemic period has been the way in which the Welsh Government has worked with the sector to construct the guidance and advice for how to operate within higher education within the pandemic, and recognising that there are circumstances where students will need access to these on-campus resources.
So, I think that the process of developing that guidance has been really very, very impressive, and we are involved on the margins of it, so I am not talking myself up. Really, the way in which this has been handled by the Welsh Government has been really very good, I think. Co-created guidance, but also recognising the realities of student life and student needs, and building into that guidance and into the regulatory position sufficient flexibility to be able to meet those needs as best as is possible in a pandemic. It's been very impressive, and it's allowed the flexibility for institutions to be able to meet some of these student needs in ways that haven't been possible elsewhere in the UK.
Thank you. Paul.
Yes. Just one final question from me. On that point, David, I know that the Welsh Government has provided you as institutions with some £900,000 to support students with their well-being. Do you believe that's been sufficient from your perspective, and how well do you feel that you as institutions have used that financial support to support students?
There's never enough money. Let's just say that first of all. But, actually, I think that the Welsh Government has performed very well in terms of making additional resources available to the HE sector during the last year, and again has been leading the way in the UK in terms of providing additional support. Much of that support has been focused on addressing student hardship in various forms, including enhancing services for students with particular needs. So, I think that's been extremely welcome.
As the funding council, we distribute that funding, and we monitor how it's being spent. It's slightly early days. We are still in this process, and the money is still being spent. So, it's a bit early to do a retrospective on that, but our sense is that it's making a difference. My colleagues from the institutions will probably be better placed to either confirm or deny that.
Anybody else want to come in on that?
Just to confirm, I think it has made a real difference. Also, in being distributed, it has created an opportunity for those collaborative conversations that have informed a range of cross-institutional, collaborative projects around mental health. So, it has been very welcome. As chair of the group that David referred to, which has done the HE guidance, I have to say that I have been hugely impressed by the people in Welsh Government and their interaction with the sector. I think it has been exemplary if we compare it to other nations in the UK. We have had that flexibility. They have respected the autonomy of institutions to make the right decisions for their students, based on their demographics, their profiles. Our institutions are very different. Some of our institutions are largely commuting students, and some of our institutions are residential. There are different challenges there, and we have been able to tailor our response for individuals and for groups on the basis of that guidance. It has been hugely impressive, and I would thank people from Welsh Government who have been leading that with us because they have created a consensus in Wales around how we keep learning going.
Okay, thank you. We do need to move on, now, to some questions from Hefin David, who is here but has got his camera off because of broadband issues.
Yes, as usual. As chair of the cross-party group on universities—Chair, you have attended one of those—I have to say that universities have taken very seriously the mental health demands. I have seen first hand how they have engaged with the NUS and with other stakeholders—with Mind and the Samaritans. It has been very clear that they are taking these issues very seriously, so I just wanted to add that.
I'd like to move on to the learning experiences of students. In my time as a university lecturer, I found that lectures were a very small part of what we did as part of our teaching. The most valuable stuff I found was engagement and discussion, for example, taking a series of journal papers, taking them apart in groups and applying them to various different scenarios and cases, and then bringing them back together at the end of the session. I just can't see how this virtual experience can offer that quality of learning that you can offer in discussion, face to face. So, can I ask: how are you addressing that challenge in institutions, because I can't imagine that it be will anywhere near that same experience as face to face?
Who'd like to start on this? Ben.
Hi, Hefin. I think it's fair to say that we had those concerns at the start of the process. So, when we designed—. We had to very, very quickly design a framework for blended learning, so, at USW, we have something called a 'digitally enabled active learning framework'. We endeavoured to make sure that it was congruent with the approach to learning and teaching that we wanted to take anyway, that we weren't pivoting to something else. So, as a consequence, the principles it's built on are those about building social interaction, about building learning communities, are about using time where the tutor is present with you to ignite conversation and discussion, not spending time listening to a—. The activities that you've described are actually activities that I think are going on, and they're going on in technically facilitated ways, with breakout rooms on Teams, and various other things.
So, I'm not sure that I can say that the experience is the same, and, of course, there are opportunities for students to learn in a slower pace because they can also access resources that are now reusable for them over a period of time, and that suits some learners too. Whether or not the cut and thrust of debate that you've described is quite the same, I don't know. My direct experience of that, funnily enough, is my son. My son is studying at a university in Wales—I won't say which one—and I'm often interrupted on Teams meetings by him having another row with another student about some item of politics on his programme that he's studying or whatever. I'm not sensing that that desire to get into conversation, debate and dialogue is, in any way, being lost. So, he's pretty talkative, as are the people I'm hearing him engage with. So—
Can I just say there, Ben, just with regard to what you're saying there, one of the things that a lecturer in a classroom has to do is ensure that students are engaging with the material in the right way; how to read a journal paper, for example, which part you should look at first, and how to apply it to the context? And, to do that, you really need to be moving between groups of people, watching them do it, and I just can't see how that very important activity can be done virtually.
So, I couldn't tell you exactly, in every circumstance, how that's happened, but it's our expectation that we do have that level of criticality, and that level of critical engagement when we are spending time with our students. So, that time spent with students should be, for those sorts of purposes, not information-giving. And, actually, what we've got is a digital hinterland of resources that students can use, and then in those sessions, it's the critical evaluation, it's the dialogue, it's the discussion. It might not be the same, Hefin, but I'm sure that there are creative ways.
We're also picking up feedback from our students—as I say, we're on our third survey point—about their ability to engage with their learning resources and learning materials, and, so far, it's demonstrating quite positive outcomes. Now, that, I'm treating cautiously. We are still running the national student survey in Wales; we'll know more about that at the end of the year, in terms of whether or not the sort of learning that we want has been achieved, but our early indicators are showing that critical engagement has not been an issue.
Okay, thank you. David wanted to come in.
Yes. Hi, Hefin. Ben is describing what's going on in USW, and we've been engaging with the sector at a sector level too, to just test what our institutions are doing in terms of adapting the learning and teaching experience. And, in particular, we've been concerned to test the extent to which it's still a good-quality experience. And, so, as part of our processes, we've obviously been engaging with the National Union of Students Wales, and we have increased our engagement with individual student unions across the sector as well.
In a way, as a means of providing a lightning rod, if there are issues that have not been addressed or provisions have not been delivered adequately. We want to know about it, not because we want to be a regulator and become interventionist, but because, actually, sometimes, it's easier for student bodies to talk to us than it is, necessarily, always to get some of the messages through in the institutions. And particularly, we want to be able to see whether there are any system-wide issues that are developing in terms of the students' view of the quality of the experience. And so far, it's been very positive—I'm really pleased to say—and far more positive than I might have feared, if I'm honest with you. So, we have more work to do on this and we will continue to engage with the sector and with—
David, can I ask, as a regulator, from a regulatory point of view, my experience is that QAA doesn't generally take much interest in what's going on in the classroom. So, do you think that this might be a gap whereby there's limited oversight of what actually happens with regard to teaching, because it's generally a peer-review kind of approach, isn't it, at universities? So, do you think there might be a regulatory gap here?
So you're right, the QAA process doesn't do classroom inspection in higher education. But one of the things that we are interested in is making sure that there are proper mechanisms for students—to be clear to the institution where there are deficiencies in that learning experience in the classroom. So, the QAA does test that and we are testing that separately and additionally during this pandemic period.
We have a round-table set up later on this month between ourselves, the Government and the sector and the NUS Wales, again, just to provide an opportunity to test whether the stuff that's going on at the chalkface is meeting the expectations of students, and if it's not, we will engage with the sector to try to address those issues. My view of this, Hefin, is that, actually, most students don't want to complain in order to make a fuss or to get their money back or anything like that—if there's something not right, they just want it sorted. And the quickest way of doing that is to raise issues with the course team. But if there are things that are going wrong across the piece, then there would be a role for us to engage. At the moment, we're just not seeing that; the feedback we're getting is very positive. There will be individual instances, across 120,000 students, where it hasn't quite worked, but at a systemic level, it looks like the sector has managed to adapt to these circumstances extraordinarily well actually—I'm really very impressed.
I'm just conscious of time, Chair, so I'll move on to franchise courses in FE. Are they subject to the same oversight and are you confident that those students studying HE in FE will also have a similar experience that you're trying to address in the university itself?
If I kick off in terms of the formal position, yes, where it's franchised, the responsibility still sits with the franchising university and we're very clear that that expectation remains the case. And where we have been able to put additional funding out to support students, those students who are franchised students being taught in FE institutions but franchised from a university, are included in the eligible numbers of students there. So, they're all part of that system. And then, there are one or two areas where there's HE delivered in FE, which is not franchised; it's directly funded and directly regulated by us, and we are engaging with those institutions and with the students as well. And we have visits to those FE colleges lined up, from us as a council, to have conversations around that sort of experience and how they're coping.
Can I ask one more, Chair?
It'll have to be really quick, Hefin.
No, that's fine. If you don't want me to, I won't.
Okay. We do need to move on to some questions now from Laura Jones.
Thank you, Chair. I just want to start my questioning by talking about the overall experience and the significant impact on students due to the reduced opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities and societies. Obviously, all of these are an integral part of the higher education experience, particularly for the under-represented groups, considering the contribution that this makes to their wider life skills. And one of the quotes we had about that was just this:
'I'm worried more so about my future. Is the only experience I'm ever going to get virtual? And how will that affect my long term future career prospects?'
These are legitimate concerns. I'm just wondering what your response to these concerns would be, please. Thank you.
Who'd like to start on this? Any takers? Ben, and then Keiron.
I'll kick off if that's okay. I do need to leave after the meeting. We would share that concern and of course, we've tried as much as we can to pivot activity for students in that space into remote as well. So, we have a lot of students who are on virtual placements. We have an awful lot of activity through our careers team. In fact, actually, we're finding that we've had more this year through our careers service than in normal years, and I'm guessing that that reflects some of the concerns that you've raised around students' worries about entering into a job market.
Of course, we would like to do more. Our student union are running all of their social activities and their societies virtually; we had a virtual freshers' fair at the beginning of the year where several thousand students participated in that. But what we're all looking forward to, being honest, is things loosening a bit, and I think, actually, as they do, we will be as concerned about that activity, the value-adding activity that builds social capital, that builds collaboration between students, that builds social activity, we're as concerned about that as we are, actually, about learning coming up to the summer. So, we're rather hoping that, as we move forward, that will be the set of activities that we will prioritise as much as our learning after Easter, if we can do. But, of course, we are following Welsh Government advice; we're currently at level 4, which prevents us doing an awful lot of that activity. But it's very much a focus for us as we move forward.
Okay. Keiron, did you want to come in?
Just to emphasise Ben's comments. Obviously, institutions would like to do more in terms of both placements and extracurricular activities, but there are restrictions, as we're at level 4, in what it is possible to be doing. Just to reflect some of the activity in the autumn, I think a lot of universities found very creative ways, with both extracurricular and social activities work, within the restrictions at the time. We saw a lot of universities put together outdoor, socially distanced spaces for socialising and other activities. Organised sports were able to go ahead in that period as well. I think we're all looking forward, if the—[Inaudible.]—and the current direction of things in Wales continues to be the case, then I think we're all hoping that, after Easter, we'll be able to bring some of these activities back.
On placements and other sorts of activities, a lot of placements have still been able to go ahead. So, for example, school placements were, for the most part, taking place before Christmas, and we'd expect, where possible, that there'd be a return to some of that after Easter.
I think the only other thing I wanted to add was just some of the creative ways students have been finding to keep volunteering and keep making a positive impact on their community. I saw there was a Cardiff Met student who was the only student in the UK to get one of the census hero packs yesterday, for making home-cooked meals for people during the first lockdown. We'll happily share it with the committee, but we've got a large collection of similar stories where students have, because they can't do what they were hoping to do, they've found other ways to contribute and support people in their communities, which I think is really valuable.
There is a broader point on employability. Just like all young people, graduates will be going into a very difficult economic situation, and there is something for all of us to think about in terms of what we do in terms of jobs and opportunities in Wales, which I think maybe we can reflect on later on in the session. I believe we're going to talk a little bit about the recovery then.
Thank you. Laura.
Thank you. I wanted to talk to you about the employability of graduates as well, because, obviously, there's a massive impact, particularly on practical subjects. One of the quotes we had says,
'My placements have been cancelled for the third time now. How do you do a nursing degree online?'
That's a legitimate concern. You've said that people are looking at elsewhere, using voluntary means, to try and get some practical experience. But, obviously, there are going to be some vital parts of their courses that they're missing out on, those practical experiences, particularly in areas like that. I'm reluctant to use the words 'catch-up', but how do you think that you'll go about trying to ensure that the students will get a sort of catch-up and don't miss out on these experiences before the end of their course? Thank you.
So, certainly some institutions are looking at catch-up, where that's necessary. The absolute focus of universities is on ensuring that people can complete their studies and can do that successfully. In some cases, we've had to be quite creative about the way we've looked at placement, and those placement experiences won't have been quite the same. Nevertheless, we're absolutely focused on ensuring that individuals, particularly those on professional body courses, will satisfy the conditions of those professional bodies and will complete their courses. And where there needs to be catch-up, universities are looking at that. But I think we are very, very focused on ensuring that study can be completed.
Okay, thank you. We do need to move on now, because we want to talk about some of the issues around student value for money, with some questions from Siân Gwenllian.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Beth ydy'ch ymateb chi i'r canfyddiad nad ydy myfyrwyr yn cael gwerth am arian am eu cyrsiau oherwydd y pandemig? Dyma ddywedodd un myfyriwr wrthym ni:
Thank you, Chair. What is your response to the perception that students aren't receiving value for money for their courses because of the pandemic? This is what one student told us:
'In terms of value for money for teaching, I'd say the university has done the best that they can with what they have, but I don't necessarily think that it's worth £9k this year.'
Who'd like to start? Amanda and then David.
So, I think—. Through this session, we've heard an awful lot about the investment that universities have made and the quality of what universities are providing. So, no-one's suggesting it's the same, it's the same experience, as students would've had in previous years, but I don't think what we're suggesting is that the educational investment is of poorer quality. So, I don't think particularly what we've heard here today would indicate that that's the case. Universities are working very hard, staff are working very hard, to ensure that students successfully complete their learning outcomes.
Well, I would endorse that. The value-for-money question is interesting. What they're paying for is the learning opportunities and the assessment, and I think the universities have worked exceptionally hard to make sure that they are as high a quality as is possible, given the kind of legal constraints that apply during COVID. That doesn't mean to say that some of the extracurricular stuff that students would have been expecting to be able to engage in has all been provided in the same way, because it clearly hasn't, because there are some things that, just legally, you're not allowed to do at the moment. But most of those extracurricular things—engagement in societies, sport and so on—are extra to the fees as well. They pay extra for those. So, the core tuition fee pays for the learning opportunity.
And, as I say, at a systemic level, we can't comment about individuals, but, systemically, it looks like the view of students is that the experience has been—the learning experience has been—pretty good, actually. It's held up pretty well. So, I think it's quite difficult, actually, if you have in your head, as a student, a sort of total experience of being a full-time undergraduate student in your mind; they're clearly not getting the same as they would have expected. But I think, in terms of the specific quality of the tuition and the learning opportunities that they're getting, they probably are getting good value for money. And as Amanda indicates, that has required institutions to invest more in some of the machinery of delivering in a blended way than they would otherwise normally have had to invest. So, I think they are getting value for money, but we are constantly, as I mentioned earlier, testing that as best as we can.
But surely there will be inconsistencies depending on the subject as well, even on the core learning experience—that surely can't be the same during a pandemic in all subjects? I'm sure you can't be confident that the core learning experience is exactly the same as any normal year in all subject areas.
I think you're right; it can't be exactly the same. So, the question is: is it equivalent and is it an appropriately equivalent experience, given the price that's being for it? We've already heard from Ben in this meeting about some of the adaptations that institutions have put in to do remote placement and so on. I know of chemistry students who have had chemicals and equipment sent to them at home so they can do some of their lab work at home, and that's required, obviously, technicians and other people to work out how on earth to do that. So, it's not just academics, it's the whole institutions that have had to work quite hard to find ways of establishing an equivalent, an appropriately equivalent, experience, even though, actually, the detail of it will be different.
And, of course, you have to argue that standpoint in public, because you may well be challenged by students who feel that they haven't had the best value out of their money.
Well, if I were in an institution, you might be able to level that one at me, but I'm a regulator, and part of our regulatory responsibility is to ensure a good-quality experience for students. So, if we were picking up problems—and we're not—if we were picking up problems we would have to intervene, and it would be potentially more damaging to HEFCW in our role to be asserting that things are fine if they're not, because our regulatory responsibility is to find that out and to deal with it if we can.
So, I just wanted to emphasise that we do have complaints mechanisms within universities, and, if students are not satisfied with their courses, then, of course, we have both internal but also external mechanisms through the UK-operated Office of the Independent Adjudicator. So, we do have independent mechanisms for student complaints if students aren't satisfied with courses. Both in these circumstances and, of course, prior to these circumstances we had those robust mechanisms in place.
Okay. Siân, do you want to move on to talk about accommodation?
Ie. Mae yna nifer, wrth gwrs, yn teimlo nad ydyn nhw ddim wedi cael eu trin yn deg o ran eu bod nhw wedi bod yn talu am lety a dydyn nhw ddim wedi bod yn gallu mynd i ddefnyddio'r llety yna. Ac, wrth gwrs, oherwydd nad oes gyda nhw ddim cyfle i gael gwaith ychwanegol i helpu i dalu am hwnnw, mae'n creu caledi ariannol, wrth gwrs, onid ydy? Dwi'n gwybod ei bod hi'n anodd i'r prifysgolion o ran y llety preifat, ond oes yna unrhyw beth rydych chi'n gallu ei wneud? Gwnaf i ddyfynnu—dyma a ddywedodd un myfyriwr wrthym ni:
Yes. A number, of course, feel that they haven't been treated fairly in terms of the fact that they've been paying for accommodation and haven't been able to use that accommodation. And, of course, because they don't have an opportunity to seek additional employment to help pay for that accommodation, that creates hardship financially for them. And I do know that it's difficult for the universities in terms of the private accommodation, but is there anything that you can do? I'll quote—this is what one student told us:
'It just seems unfair that only those in halls are able to access refunds in most cases.'
Who'd like to start on this? Because we're obviously conscious that universities have been given some additional money to try and help with this. Kieron.
So, all universities have made refund arrangements for their university-owned accommodation since we went into level 4—since the announcement in January—and, although specifics will differ between institutions, all institutions have made those refunds. There are, of course, limits to what universities can do in terms of rent in the private sector. Universities can only make decisions on the accommodation they own and run. But we have the refund made available to universities to put in place the COVID student support fund, so, although this isn't a rent refund, where students are experiencing hardship as a result of their circumstances, they will both have recourse to the COVID student support fund, as well as, if it's particularly acute hardship, the university's existing financial hardship funds, which—we know universities are still in a position to support students through those funds, as they've all made greater investment into them this year.
Diolch. Roeddwn i eisiau gofyn ynglŷn â'r cronfeydd ariannol a gwybod tipyn bach mwy ynglŷn â sut maen nhw'n cael eu gweithredu—dwi'n gwybod yn rhai llefydd yr undebau myfyrwyr sydd yn gyfrifol am ran o'r gwaith—a sut ydych chi wedyn yn gallu bod yn siŵr bod yr arian yn cyrraedd pawb sydd wir angen y gefnogaeth?
Thank you. I wanted to ask about those funds and to know a bit more about how they're being administered—I know that in some settings, it's the students unions that are responsible for part of the administrative work—and then how can you be sure that the funding does reach everyone who genuinely needs that support.
I don't know, Chair, if you want me to quote—
So, specific hardship arrangements will differ by institution. The what we'd call the usual hardship funds would be through an application process, and there'd be a level of means testing of that application before an award was made. I think, in most institutions, there may well be a role for students unions in that process. The approach taken around the COVID student support fund is twofold, and it involves awards to people who are assessed to be in categories likely to be in need of hardship support. So, for example, I think all universities are considering disabled students in that category, care leavers and estranged students and so on, and then there's a further strand of that that enables people to self-certify hardship with the institution if their circumstances are such that they feel that's appropriate.
For that first strand of categories likely to be in hardship, that will be largely universities identifying students and getting in touch with those students to make those awards. So, there's no initial requirement for that student to come forward, which actually helps people who may be reluctant to talk about their situation. Beyond that, I know universities have been putting a lot of effort into promoting their hardship funds. It is an age-old issue about how you make sure funds reach the people who really need them when, often, those people, if they're in particularly difficult circumstances, either don't feel comfortable or don't feel capable of putting themselves forward. I know all the universities will be using their student support services and various communication functions to try and reach out to those students, but there will always be limitations to ensuring everyone who needs that help gets it.
Yes, that's what we heard from one student. She said
'I don't want to apply for a hardship fund as I know there are students in much worse conditions than me',
although she's lost her summer work and doesn't have any furlough, obviously. So, there will be students falling through the cracks. Is there enough money to go round?
Firstly, to that student, I think every university would say, 'Don't worry about whether your specific circumstances are worthy. Talk to your institution.' There won't be any judgment; these people are trained to handle these situations.
In terms of whether there's enough money, I think I'll reflect David's comment earlier: there's never enough money, or there are always benefits to more money. For the moment, we are not picking up, I think it's fair to say, huge concerns about the level of investment institutions have in hardship funds, but I would say it's still relatively early days. I think David or Amanda might be better placed to comment on this.
We do need to move on, actually. So, we're going to move on to the next section of questions, which are going to be asked by Paul Davies, who hopefully will be able to wrap those up and mainly talk about priorities for the sector, going forward.
Thank you, Chair, and I just want to ask you as well about the sector's financial resilience. Obviously, it's clearly been a very difficult time for learners and for the sector more generally as the pandemic continues to have a huge impact on services. So, could you perhaps give us a bit more of an understanding of the current financial position of the sector, and tell us your current assessment of any upcoming issues? And I'm asking this question in the context of your comments last year, because last year, as institutions, you predicted that this financial year would result in losses of around £200 million to £400 million, but now you're actually predicting a break-even position.
Thank you for the question, Paul. The early indications, last April, 2020, were that the sector would lose between £80 million and £90 million of income in the financial year that was ending in July 2020. The outcome for 2019-20, which is the year ending in July 2020, was essentially a break-even operating position. But within that, there were significant income losses, mainly research, either lost grants or deferred grants, accommodation and catering fees—significant reductions—and commercial services by the universities. However, all the universities took swift steps to reduce costs, mitigate the income reductions and, as well as cost control, there was significant deferral of capital expenditure in order to conserve cash.
But 2020-21, which is the current year we're in, was always expected to be the greatest challenge, particularly in respect of student recruitment and with most courses, undergraduate courses, being three years, the continuing impact of that reduced recruitment. The recruitment of UK students was not as significantly affected as had originally been feared, with most universities able to reasonably maintain UK student levels, but there were reductions and there have been reductions in the recruitment of international students. So there has been a net reduction in income fee in 2020-21, and in addition to that, universities have provided accommodation rebates to the students living in university accommodation, and the cost of that to the end of the Easter term is about £20 million, which the universities have borne. So, our expectation is—and I'll come back to the additional—that the outcome of 2020-21 is likely to be a deficit position for the sector of about £50 million. You'll appreciate that there's still an awful lot of uncertainty in what the final outcomes will be, but our main focus at the moment is the cash and liquidity of institutions, and overall it's a managed position, though our institutions are very highly borrowed when you compare to the averages across the UK. So, based on the current financial plans that we're seeing, we're not anticipating imminent financial issues, subject to most of the restrictions of the pandemic easing certainly by the start of the next academic year.
I should just reflect on the funding that the sector has had. I mentioned that there has been significant deferral of capital expenditure, that was both in 2019-20 and 2020-21. So, the recent capital investment provided by Welsh Government has been very welcome by the sector and it will make a difference to investing in digital learning infrastructure and enabling institutions to be in a position to support priorities and economy as we move out of the pandemic. We provided £27 million of additional funding in the form of a HE investment and recovery fund. That was divided, and £12 million of that went into individual institutional support during this year, but £15 million of it was for collaborative programmes. Ben mentioned one earlier, which is supporting a blended learning approach across Wales, including Welsh-medium provision, and an across-Wales investment in research capacity, particularly supporting early-career researchers. So, there are significant financial challenges still to manage, but we're trying to manage a balance of investing to manage the current position but continuing to invest for the future.
One issue on the horizon, though, and it's coming closer, is the position of—. A large cost pressure for universities is pay costs and, particularly, pension cost is becoming a significant issue. The recent valuation that was announced last week of the universities superannuation scheme has highlighted that there is a significant deficit in the scheme. The contributions to the scheme at the moment are around 30 per cent of pensionable pay. The recent valuation suggests that those contributions might need to increase from between 42 per cent to an extreme of 56 per cent.
A one per cent increase for the sector costs £4 million, so there are significant future issues to be managed.
We are going to have to bring this to a close now, so if I can just wrap up by asking you whether it's possible maybe just to say really quickly what you think the priorities for the next Government should be for the sector, and I do really need you to be very brief, I'm afraid. Amanda.
Okay, well, we've spoken a lot about well-being and mental health; that remains a huge priority for the sector as we go forward. I think our role in the recovery therefore is going to be both social and economic. We need to look at skills; degree apprenticeship policy will need looking at, we think; we need a very strong position on research. I think, from the sector's point of view, collaboration really matters, not just for what we're doing as a sector, but for our public benefit, while this is about how we collaborate for the benefit of Wales going forward. And I think there is a huge amount that our universities can provide as we move into the future, and should be engaged to provide, so we're sweating assets in the interests of Wales.
Thank you. David, have you got anything very briefly to add in terms of priorities?
Well, I think, just associated with that, positioning the sector to be able to maximise the contribution it can make to Wales, we think probably focusing on completing the implementation of the Diamond and Reid reviews, both of which have been accepted. Diamond is a long way down the track; Reid has got a bit further to go. So, finishing off that job would be good. And there's also going to be a piece—and it really touched on the comment Amanda made about collaboration—about enabling the sector to be positioned to maximise opportunities to get funding into Wales from UK sources, whilst at the same time meeting Welsh Government priorities, and getting that balance right is going to be tricky, I think, as we go forward.
Okay. Well, can I thank you all very much for your time this morning? We've had a really fruitful and wide-ranging discussion, so we do appreciate your attendance, and you will be sent a transcript to check for accuracy as usual. But thank you very much again for attending, and the committee is now going to break until 10:35.
Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you very much.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:28 a 10:35.
The meeting adjourned between 10:28 and 10:35.
Welcome back, everyone, to the Children, Young People and Education Committee. Item 3 this morning is an evidence session with representatives from the further education sector around COVID-19—the impact on young people, and also to talk a bit about recovery. I'd like to welcome Philip Blaker, chief executive of Qualifications Wales; Denver Davies, head of monitoring and compliance at Qualifications Wales; Yana Williams, chief executive, Coleg Cambria; Barry Walters, principal of Pembrokeshire College; and Karen Phillips, principal of Coleg y Cymoedd. David Jones, chair of Qualifications Wales, was going to join us, but offered not to come in order to make what is a big panel a bit more manageable for everyone, so he has sent his apologies.
Thank you all very much for joining us this morning. We've got lots to cover, so we'll go straight to questions from Hefin David.
Okay, I'd like to start with a quote from a student in further education who said:
'Last year the last two months we were in lock down I really struggled with the online learning because if I go to college I’m just a student, if I'm at home, I'm still a Mum. Last year I was 3 per cent off a distinction, and I really felt I was doing well. But I just think the last two modules the teachers weren't computer literate.'
So, these are clear challenges with online learning, and it's a huge move for college staff to move to this method. How have those challenges been met in the sector?
Who'd like to start? Yana.
I think there has been some fantastic support from the Welsh Government to provide digital hardware. At the college, we provide Chromebooks for all our students, who just need to request one. We can take it to the house and deliver that to them, and support them that way. So, all our students have had access to brand new Chromebooks, which they've been using.
The challenge, of course, is childcare arrangements, or care arrangements in general. Along with houses often not being a suitable learning environment for many people in terms of having the facilities, having the space, having the broadband width, which has been a real challenge for some of our students, and actually knowing that, in many households, it's more than one person who needs to use that broadband width, so even if you do have it, it's not always accessible at that time.
So, I think as the year has progressed, as it has almost been a year now, a lot of things have really positively developed, and I think the support, and people's knowledge, has developed. However, I do think the challenge is that nothing beats face-to-face support for many students, and I think while, for many areas of the curriculum we've been able to support them, for some students it's been a real challenge to get maybe the same grades they would have got coming into college, and it shows that while blended learning can be a supportive measure, it doesn't take away, particularly, from our vocational students that real hands-on experience. So, I think, with the Welsh Government's help, we've done a fantastic amount to support students, but I do feel, no matter what we put in place, being back on site's going to be the best thing for them. However, we will spend the next couple of months giving them additional support and additional catch-up classes to help them get to, hopefully, the grade that they were projected to get at the beginning of the year.
I'm glad you said that, because I absolutely agree—I think being on site and being in a classroom, in a physical environment, there's nothing quite like it. So, vocational qualifications in particular—I would say all qualifications—but with regard to vocational qualifications, there's an awful lot you can't do online. How are those challenges being met?
Karen. Just waiting for you to be unmuted.
Okay, thank you. Yes, vocational qualifications do present us with a challenge, particularly when there's a large practical element. And I think what we did this academic year was we started anticipating that there may be another lockdown, or a series of lockdowns. So, before we started this academic year, we asked the teaching staff to look at maybe re-ordering, re-sequencing the way modules were delivered. So, when we were on campus, we did lots of practical elements and whilst we've been in lockdown, doing lots of theory. But I totally agree with Yana: there's nothing that beats being on campus, face to face, using the specialist facilities.
We have been grateful to the Welsh Government for allowing us to bring some of our learners, whilst we've been in lockdown, onto campus to do practical assessments. So, we've kept on top of that. We've also been able to bring in vulnerable learners who were, perhaps, at risk of dropping out if they didn't come onto campus to be supported. So, there's been a little bit of flexibility, but now we are hopeful that term 3 will see lots of learners return to campus so that they can continue the practical elements in our specialist facilities.
Okay. Does anybody else—? Philip.
Yes, I was just going to add one point to Karen's answer, which is around placements. So, some qualifications and courses require placements—things like childcare—and we know that FE colleges have struggled to be able to find placements for learners, because either things aren't open or, in health and social care, there can be a reluctance from care providers to allow additional people into care settings. So, there's been quite a lot of work with other sector bodies like Social Care Wales to try and free up some of those channels, and to try and make those placements available. So, I think the issues that FE learners have faced are all of those points around practical assessment, but I think there is a significant issue with placements as well, which everybody's been working very hard to try and free up. But in the circumstances, there are some very difficult issues to be overcome.
And it's quite interesting the difference in views on blended learning between HE and FE, because the HE evidence seemed to be a lot more in favour of the blended learning approach, which I don't really agree with; I think the panel here today right now I agree more with. Just a last question then, with regard to staff who are moving towards these technologies—enforced move to these technologies—what kind of support is there for staff in institutions with regard to training and support with their home technology?
Who'd like to start on that? Barry, would you like to come in?
Yes, happy to come in on that. Yes, obviously, the move last March on the twenty third, we gave staff about two weeks' notice to actually move to delivering online. But the reality is we've had an online infrastructure in place for the last 10 years; we've been delivering programmes on an international basis, so we had the infrastructure in place. Infrastructure is one thing, but, obviously, getting the staff upskilled is another. We've had an ongoing programme, and I would say over the last 12 months staff have come on in leaps and bounds. We now have staff who are quite comfortable teaching to a camera with half the group accessing learning remotely, whilst the other half are at a 2m social distance spacing in a classroom. It is a bit of journey and we've come on hugely over the last 12 months.
I do think, if I may say, just touching on some of the other questions that have been asked, in terms of blended learning and online learning, higher level students have coped far better than lower level students. So, we've had our challenges with lower level craft students, for example, level 1 construction, so they have been the priority groups [correction: a priority group] we've been targeting to bring back in on social distancing measures. We've also done surveys with students. We found that 40 per cent absolutely were totally comfortable with e-learning; 87 per cent said that it was not their preferred option. They understood why we were doing it, but they preferred face to face. So, as Yana and Karen have said, really, face to face is far better. It's far better for them pedagogically. It's far better for them socially. We're really looking forward now to post Easter, when hopefully we'll be able to open up a bit more and deliver the curriculum as we did at the start of the current academic year.
Okay, thank you. Anybody else want to come in on that? Karen.
Yes. I just wanted to say that whilst of course we all agree that face to face is better, I think we do think we've learnt a lot in the last year, and we would want to keep an element of blended learning, because that in itself is going to help learners with their digital competency, which will help them in their forward steps, whether they're going to university or a job or an apprenticeship. So, I think that we're having a big conversation in FE about how we can keep some elements of blended learning while still having all of that face to face. So, I don't think it's, 'We will just return to campus full time and we'll forget about everything we learnt in the last 12 months', because I think there's a lot of good that's come out of it.
Yana, was that your hand?
Yes. Just to reinforce that as well, I think while we recognise that it's essential students come back on site and are taught face to face for behavioural, social, personal development issues, along with everything else and a place of safety, I think we can use all the blended learning. I think it supports particular groups of students: those who want to upskill or reskill in a chosen profession and would find it difficult to get home, get in the car or get on transport, get into college to do a session and come back. Doing that online becomes a much more achievable thing to do. And I think, also, if we could use blended learning as a catch-up tool or supportive tool for people who are unable to come to college one day, for either care responsibilities or who are ill, it means no-one ever misses a lesson, and that was always a challenge, wasn't it? If somebody was off, how did they catch up? I think if we have the ability to provide blended learning as a catch-up approach and supportive approach, and someone can be at home and still come into a lesson, then I think we're providing a much more rounded service to our students, which means that no matter what challenges are going on in their home life, they potentially could still access a course and complete it on time at the end of a year or two years. So, there are definitely places for it, which is sort of a belt-and-braces approach to coming into college as a whole.
Okay, thank you. Hefin, we're going to move on now, if that's okay, to some questions from Dawn.
Thanks, Lynne. My question is really for Qualifications Wales, but you can all chip in and express your views, of course. I wanted to ask specifically about the three-country approach to vocational qualifications and the practical implications, really, for both institutions and learners. I'm looking for some kind of sense of the support amongst FE institutions for this three-country approach, and trying to explore some of the rationale behind the decision, and what alternatives, maybe, were considered. And then, finally, I think, just about how all this is being communicated to help learners be informed about what's going to be happening. I don't know, Philip, if you want to start.
I'm very happy to make a start. I guess it's worth beginning with just the scale of vocational qualifications. Within the three-country model, we regulate 96 awarding bodies at Qualifications Wales. All of those are also regulated by Ofqual in England. Many of them are also regulated by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment in Northern Ireland. So, there is a huge overlap, and indeed, for us, there is a total overlap with those awarding bodies being regulated in England.
If we think about vocational qualifications as well, the scale is big, so there are 3,600 active vocational qualifications in Wales, and about 1,100 of those are being delivered in FE institutions. So, if we think about the scale of that relative to the scale of general qualifications, where we're looking at, for Wales-only approved qualifications, around 60 qualifications all delivered by one body, there's a big difference in scale.
The other thing we need to think about is the variety in vocational qualifications. There is huge variety within that very large number. They've got different purposes, they've got different structures for the qualifications, and many of them are assessed in different ways. So, some are hands-on qualifications, where people need to be able to demonstrate practical competence. There's probably a more common theme with vocational qualifications as well, in that they tend to be more continuous in their assessments. There tends to be more ongoing assessment and less assessment just at the end of the course.
So, what we have is we have a situation where there is huge overlap with England and, as I say, quite a large overlap with Northern Ireland. We have got to think about: what are the benefits of a three-country approach? The main benefit with a three-country approach is trying to get consistency across the UK nations, so that we are in a position where those qualifications have got the same currency for the learner wherever they are within the UK, which is really important for cross-border flows of learners who may be educated in Wales and then be practising in England. So, what we've got to do is we've got to make sure that there is parity in the approaches across the UK nations, so that that currency can be maintained.
The other thing that we've got to be conscious of, especially in times of COVID, is that we want to be in a position where arrangements are manageable for the awarding bodies, because they're all having to respond to these extraordinary circumstances at the same time. So, whilst we want to be in a position where learners in Wales are protected by the regulations that are being put in place, we also need to make sure that we're thinking about the awarding bodies and the practical manageability for them in implementing different solutions.
The other thing is around sector requirements. The sector requirements are common across the UK nations, largely. There are some differences, like health and social care, where we've got Wales-only qualifications and work very closely with Social Care Wales. So, there's something about efficiency here.
I think that the main drawback is a perception drawback, and the perception drawback is that people often see that vocational qualifications are somehow secondary to general qualifications. That's not the case. What it is is that the scale and the complexity and variety mean that it takes longer to find the way forward with those vocational qualifications.
Candidly, one of the delays is that, where we work with CCEA Regulation and Ofqual to come up with common solutions that work for all learners, Ofqual has a statutory obligation to consult on changes in arrangements. Often, that consultation period, and evaluating the outcomes of those consultations, leads to a delay in implementing—or a perceived delay in implementing—those vocational qualification differences. So, probably the downside is that we lose a bit of time and agility and, as I say, that often gets perceived as vocational qualifications being second best, which simply isn't the case.
Okay, thank you. Does anybody else have anything to add on that? Denver.
Again, just to build on that as well, one of the overriding factors that we consider is around not disadvantaging learners compared to GQ learners. That's one of our foremost considerations. So, often we have to take account of policy decisions taken on general qualifications, and then try and implement them and align on vocational qualifications as well. That, again, can feed into the perception that Philip was referring to in terms of following, where often it's the GQ policy decision that is often taken, and then we're looking to make sure that we can then align across that breadth and range as well.
I just think that, from an operational perspective, in our conversations that we have with our fellow regulators, we are keen and we are fully aligned in terms of our approaches. There is that willingness across all of the three nations to make sure that we do find a solution that works for all of the countries, so that if we do have Wales-specific problems, we can find ways that we can build those into the solutions that we put in place across those nations. So, those conversations are meaningful, they work, they're regular. There have been almost daily meetings for the last few weeks between awarding bodies, between regulators, looking at various aspects of how we are going to implement this process for this coming summer. So, a lot of those conversations have taken place, and the needs of Wales are fed into that.
Okay. And I assume that, partially, this is about trying to avoid the situation that we had last year, where we had lots of students in Wales waiting on vocational qualification results, and so on. So, does this mean that we'll be having common result announcements across the three nations—that will be part of the result of this, yes?
Yes, absolutely. So, the approach that we're trying to take for this summer will ensure that there's as much parity and alignment with General Qualifications on those qualifications that offer similar progression routes, and qualifications that are assessed in similar ways. So, qualifications that are largely taken in schools and colleges, that are assessing knowledge, will have centre-determined grades, and will have their results no later than the equivalent GQ results day.
Okay, that's helpful. And my final question around that was just about how all this is being communicated to students. Presumably, this is all being done through the institutions themselves, and there's going to be a common approach to that, I take it.
Yes. And, again, to feed into what Philip said earlier, there's that perception of a delay. And I think one of the things we picked up last year was around messages, keenness from awarding bodies to convey messages that are often then, a frustration from FE in terms of messages coming out at different times, and maybe some difference in a message. So, building in that consistency—and that work is going on now—to make sure that messages are coming out from awarding bodies at the same time, and are as consistent as possible across the range of qualifications. For us as a regulator, we try and make sure, this year, we're communicating regularly with learners through weekly letters and communicating with centres as well, to set out that high-level position, but making clear that the detail of how that is going to be implemented will come from the awarding body, and signposting when that's likely to come.
That's fine. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Dawn. We're going to go on now to some questions about mental health and well-being support from Paul Davies.
Thank you, Chair. Now, as we all know, many people's mental health has been affected during this pandemic, and it's been a very challenging time for our students. And, as you'd expect, the committee has received many comments from students, and I'll just quote you a comment from a student who has found things very difficult. This is what this student actually told the committee:
'At first I found it really difficult to ask the college for help. I got kicked out of home during October, so we were in lockdown and I honestly had no idea who to go to. I had no laptop or computer to use and I found it really difficult. I talked to my tutor about it.'
Now, that just gives you a flavour of the challenges, I think, faced by students. So, could you tell us about the support that is currently available to FE learners in Wales, and how you've adapted services to support students' well-being in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? And can you also tell us how you have monitored that spend, because I know that you've also received additional funding from the Welsh Government, so I'd also be interested to know you've actually monitored that spend to make sure that those moneys actually reach the students who need that support?
Who'd like to go first on this? Barry?
Oh, still on mute, there we are.
Okay. Yes, absolutely, and we're very conscious that we have vulnerable learners, and it really is important that we identify those. We picked up immediately 174 learners on our at-risk register. We have updates on a weekly basis. The mechanism for the communication—you're quite right, Paul—comes through the tutors, if they're not known to us centrally, and we have weekly updates. We get information on such matters as you raise when learners have left the family home, and we have mechanisms in place through our safeguarding and well-being teams, personal tutors, pastoral coaches, and we've got support mentors. We've got financial support teams as well as learner coaches all supporting these students online.
The other concern, obviously, are independent living skills learners, and again, we have focused support on ensuring that those learners are cared for by their course tutors, the pastoral team, and should anything become serious enough, that comes through then to the safeguarding team. We've expanded the teams in relation to additional support that we've been provided with, and we also are providing things like—for example, we've got 74 learners who are using the food banks, and we provide those with food vouchers; we provide toiletries for certain groups of learners. Now, there are a range of other things in place as well and I'm very grateful, as you mentioned, Paul, for Welsh Government support through the mental health bids. We've taken up the opportunity to access something called, 'Togetherall', an online counselling facility that is available 365 days of the year, 24 hours a day. And we've got 140 of our learners who've signed up for remote therapy through that mechanism. And the kind of issues that have been flagged up here are mental health, anxiety, bereavement, isolation, breakdown in relationships at home, and so on and so forth. So, we are logging it. We are aware of our vulnerable learners and our learners at risk and we're trying to do everything practically possible to make sure that they remain engaged with us.
Okay, thank you. Would anyone else like to—? Karen, then Yana.
Thank you. Yes, just on the additional funding that we've received from the Welsh Government, which we were very grateful for, there were two strands of it: one was cross-college collaboration, so the six colleges in south-east Wales worked together on a project, looking at performance and resilience interventions, looking at mindfulness and then doing some research and evaluation. And that was all about understanding the broader determinants of health and well-being and promoting strategies to our learners and our staff about capabilities for self-help and self-regulation. And then, we also had individual budgets for mental health work in colleges and we looked in our college at a well-being strategy for staff and learners—the development of online resources. We did something called, 'being a resilient learner' and there was also a learner-led project called, 'Me in Mind', which brought together a group of students who were particularly interested in mental health so that they could form a peer group to help others.
So, I think there's been a lot of work going on in this area and, as Barry's outlined, it's really needed. We've all got welfare officers, learning coaches, skills support, and people have really struggled during these lockdowns, but the support has been there and the funding has been there, and I think that we've done as well as we can, as a country, to support our learners and our staff in this really difficult time.
Thank you, Karen. Yana.
Yes, thank you. I think also, we've carried on trying to do everything that we can online. So, where we've had everything from Duke of Edinburgh, chaplaincy support; we have an active Cambria site; a 'voice' site—all of those things that we would have done physically with our students, we've moved everything online. Now, it's not a perfect solution, but it means that what we've tried to do is keep some of that consistency that students would have been used to, as opposed to where they get their support. So, a lot of our clubs that would have run, which provide support for our students, things like our LGBTQ clubs, are still running online, so people can still access that and get support and talk about the issues that they're dealing with while being isolated, and therefore getting support from particular different groups. And we've got many of those. We've got a Harry Potter group for those who get some support by being part of that group, for example.
I think, in addition to that, it's about reporting; it's about identifying where we've got some students who need help and regularly speaking to them—making sure that we speak to them, and using simple things like our register system, that, as soon as we feel that somebody hasn't been in contact with us regularly, we make a point of getting in contact with them again, and making sure that they're okay. So, I think there are lots of elements of it. And then I think, as we've slowly come out of lockdown, while students haven't been allowed on-site in any numbers, we've still had our main sites open for the most vulnerable students to come on site. They need to sit in a library on their own and they can do that, because we were allowed vulnerable students on-site, and students with both mental health issues or just the inability to work at home in a safe way have been able to come on-site. And we've still kept our whole transport system running to even allow those individual students to come on-site. So, some of that funding has gone to ensure that, where possible, despite lockdown, students who need us have got that access to us in loads and loads of different ways.
Thank you. Paul, are you okay?
Just one final question, if I may, Chair. As far as delivering well-being services are concerned, what lessons do you think you've learned in the last 12 months as providers?
I think one of the things is that people's circumstances can change. So, perhaps a household that wasn't struggling financially before we went into the pandemic suddenly finds that one of the main breadwinners has lost their job, and then maybe our learners who previously didn't need financial support, didn't need free meal support, might now need it. So, it's about making sure that learners know, right the way throughout the academic year, that there is financial support available, and they could and should come and ask for it.
Thank you. Yana. Sorry, carry on—. Okay, Yana.
Mine's just communicate constantly the same thing but in different ways. Picking up from what Karen said, because you never know when someone needs something they didn't need the week before or the week before that. So, constantly communicate, constantly tell people what's on offer to support them, and do it in lots of different ways. So, not only online, but in different ways, because you can't just say, 'Here's the support' and then leave it. We never know when people need the support and sometimes, they don't know they need it until they see it again from us and again from us. So, I think our development of maybe our communication systems virtually have significantly improved, and that will be a real positive thing, moving forward.
Okay, thank you. Thank you, Paul. We've got some questions now from Siân Gwenllian.
Diolch, Gadeirydd. Rydym ni wedi trafod ychydig ynglŷn â'r allgau digidol. Hoffwn i wybod pa mor fawr ydy'r broblem o hyd. Pa mor hyderus ydych chi ein bod ni wedi cyrraedd sefyllfa erbyn hyn pan bod pawb sydd yn y sector—bod ganddyn nhw y cysylltedd a bod ganddyn nhw y cit priodol? Dwi'n cofio darllen ystadegyn rhai misoedd yn ôl oedd yn dweud bod 17 y cant o fyfyrwyr addysg bellach heb laptop. Fedrwch chi roi ffigur i mi beth ydy o erbyn hyn? Neu, o leiaf hyder i mi fod y sefyllfa wedi gwella yn fawr iawn erbyn hyn?
Thank you, Chair. We've talked a little bit about digital exclusion this morning. I'd like to know how big a problem this still is and how confident you are that we have now reached a situation where everyone in the sector has the connectivity that they need and they have the appropriate kit. I remember reading a statistic a few months ago that said that 17 per cent of further education students didn't have a laptop. So, could you give me a figure for what that is now? Or, at least can you give me confidence that the situation has improved a great deal by now?
Okay, who'd like to start? Barry.
Thank you. We were very conscious at the start of this process last March that we did have a number of students who didn't have digital kit. So, we went out straightaway and we bought 400 laptops—we're talking about a total full-time student population of 1,800 here—because we realised that we needed to get out there quickly, because the demand on companies to produce laptops has been significant over the last 12 months, as you can imagine. So, very early on, we were able to distribute about 250 laptops to students. Following that, Welsh Government support came through for digital kit, so, again we're very grateful for that.
We do know, though, as you correctly point out, that it's not all about the kit. We know that it is about the connectivity as well. So, early on, we did say to students, if they had connectivity issues, they could come into college and work in our directed study to access their online learning—obviously, at 2m social distancing, et cetera. We had a small number of learners who chose that option. Others, we've got about 30 students who have kit, but to enable them to access the internet, we've either bought data bundles for them to tether through their mobile phones to their laptops, or we've bought Wi-Fi extenders or data dongles to ensure that they can access their learning. But you're right, connectivity, again, as Paul will well know, in certain parts of the periphery of Wales, is an issue. So, we're very conscious of this, and, as I said, we do have about a dozen learners who do come into college to use the college facilities.
And it's not only connectivity issues. Sometimes, I have had a member of staff come to me and say, 'Well, I'm working from home, my wife is working from home, and I've got two school-aged children trying to do their online schooling from home.' It's competition for resource, access to the internet at certain times, or similar times—those kinds of issues. So, again, we've done everything we can, really, to provide learners with kit, to provide them with data bundles, if they've got connectivity issues, and also to allow them to come in, socially distanced, to use the facilities on the premises. And between those three different mechanisms, I think we've probably enabled students to access their learning.
Thank you. I fully support everything that Barry has said. I think the amount of support the Welsh Government has given in terms of providing ability for us to purchase, upgrade, do everything we need to support students—and staff, by the way—providing them, particularly in one of the harder lockdown periods, with equipment to work at home successfully, has been brilliant. Any student who wants a computer to take home can have that, and we deliver it for them, so it's been brilliant.
I think it was picked up earlier that, while in some cases there's issue with connectivity—and that's because of the volume of people working from home—there is still an issue with our level 1 and level 2 students. Regardless of how much provision we give them, the challenge is to utilise that and be in households that see the need to have that good connectivity or the Wi-Fi, or, actually, the ability to use those computers as well. We assume every 16-year-old picks up a laptop and knows how to use it immediately; they don't. So, we may well be providing some of that provision, but that doesn't mean that all of those students can use it, even when they've got it. And they don't necessarily have people in their households who can help them either. So, I think, actually, there is a requirement for that upskilling of digital ability at an earlier age than we think, because they don't actually know it. So, opening up, logging in, knowing how to use a laptop instead of their phone to write an assignment sometimes, is still something that, actually, this has brought out; while we've got the hardware and the fantastic support for that, we probably need to give much more support in terms of students and how they use it and how households use it as well.
Gaf i droi rŵan, yn sydyn, at y caledi ariannol ymhlith dysgwyr yn y sector yma? Gwnaf i ddyfynnu be ddywedodd un wrthym ni:
May I turn now, briefly, to financial hardship amongst learners in this particular sector? I'll quote what one student told us:
'It took a bit of time for me to get my finances...I was finding it really hard to afford to buy food while we were in college.'
What's your response to that, and how do we get a better situation happening for these people?
I'm going to bring Karen in first, because I think Karen also had a point on the digital stuff as well.
I agreed with everything that Barry and Yana said, but just to give you an idea of the numbers, we've got 4,800 students, and we had to give out 1,200 devices and 250 MiFi devices. So, that's quite an investment, and without that support, we wouldn't have been able to do that.
I think, in terms of the financial support, I did touch on this earlier about financial circumstances changing. Every learner who had already applied for free meals or financial support through the financial contingency fund, whereas they would have got credit for the canteens in college, we changed that to a cash payment every week to their account. So, we made sure that happened. But it was about communicating to other learners that, if their financial circumstances had changed at home, they could make a fresh application. We didn't have a lot of that coming through, but we kept on pushing and trying and saying to tutors, 'If you're a bit concerned about somebody who might be having financial difficulties, please refer them through to learner services.' So, we share your concern, but we tried to put mechanisms in place to let learners know that they could apply at any time.
Yana or Barry, do you want to come in on this point? Yana.
Similar to Karen, I think we made it as easy as possible for students to access that funding. I think the challenge is sometimes for students to be confident to ask for it; some are ashamed to ask for it, actually. And, as Karen said, particularly this year, more people have maybe slid into a position where they need our support but don't naturally see us as the option to get the support. It's that thing I was talking about earlier, about constantly telling people what they can do, what they can access, how we can support them, but also saying to people, 'We're here to help, please use us', whereas some people still muddle on without asking us. I think it's trying to break down that barrier for people who are very proud and don't want to ask us for money yet, proving that actually we can help them out in so many ways. So, I agree with Karen; while we constantly told them they could come and get support from us online, we could provide cash for them in terms of lunch vouchers or money for food, and money for additional support, we didn't have as big a take-up as we thought we would have, knowing some of the challenges we've had locally.
I think Barry wanted to come in as well.
Just to reinforce the points that have been made. We had over 250 students who were having free college meals, and they were then having funding put into their account of the equivalent of their free meal. I think I've already mentioned we've issued 74 food bank vouchers to students. We've actually delivered food parcels ourselves from the college premises. But I think one of the biggest points is—and it comes back to something that Yana mentioned earlier—it's about communication, and it's about getting through to the learners. And one of the things that the mental health bid has done is enabled us to employ pastoral tutors who link directly with learners, and work with them, and get understanding and a feel for their home life and background, as well as their capability to continue with their studies. It's through that mechanism that we've been able to target those learners who are in need, and, I think, relatively successfully. I can't say hand on heart it's a 100 per cent, but we have mechanisms in place to try and target those learners.
And do you think that pastoral care needs to be at that level going forward and in every college? Has it highlighted a particular problem, as COVID has done in other areas?
I think what we've taken from it is that we will continue with the roles of pastoral care tutors, as well as the other mental health support and so on that's in place. But I think the real challenge here is that people are remote, and if they're coming into college, you've got a much better opportunity to break down barriers and have that communication, that dialogue, with these young people. I think that will help significantly.
Thank you. Siân, are you okay?
Yes, thank you.
Great. Thank you. We'll move on, now, to some questions from Laura Jones.
Thank you, Chair. Firstly, can I just say how very encouraging I've found all your responses so far? As a committee, we have received some concerns, though, about the experiences of students who are studying a higher education course being delivered on behalf of a university by a further education institution. One of the responses from a student regarding the quality of communication between college and university was as follows:
'We've never had any communication from the university, so even though our certificates say the university on them, I've not actually ever had communication from them. It's always just been through the college.'
I just wondered if you could respond to that, please. Thank you.
Who would like to pick this up? Karen.
I imagine that that learner is talking about the previous academic year, so perhaps what happened in the first period of lockdown. I think our experience in terms of—. When we deliver a HE course in the college, it is delivered by our tutors, and although it is a university course—they may go sometimes to the university to use specialist facilities—some of them might do their whole course on college grounds. And although they'll get a university certificate, they've done everything in the college in our specialist facilities. So, maybe that's just a misperception by that student.
Okay. Thank you. Yana, Barry, do you have anything to add on this?
We have about 120 higher education students. Our learners are on a small number of routes—engineering, construction, business, computing. They're typically higher national certificate students, who are people in work. Our attendance rates this year are over 90 per cent on HE, and to be honest, I think the challenges that we have are things like when Valero shuts down and learners go off and don't complete work [correction: don't complete coursework]. We don't have any real concerns coming through about the university providing them with their overall certificate. They know they're working for an HNC in engineering, and we support them through that, very much in the way that Karen has stated.
I think the benefit of HE in FE is it's there for the group of students who aren't traditional HE students. They're often adult returners who need small classes, our support, the FE way of really supporting students who need upskilling in the way they write an assignment through to how they use digital technology. I think that's the real benefit. We sit in communities and we're there to inspire a group of people who never thought a degree was for them to come and get a degree, regardless of if they've got care responsibilities, part-time jobs—regardless, they can get a degree, get promoted, change their lifestyle, change their job, which is brilliant.
In terms of them knowing about the university, we can't do a degree; we get that from a university. It would be no different than a student saying, 'I haven't heard from WJEC at all and here's the qualification.' The university provides us with the ability to give them a degree that really fits their needs. They will, potentially, when they graduate, go to that university, which will be great, but it's about us looking after them, and, where possible, sometimes, if we're really local to a university, getting them involved, but some of our university providers are some distance away. So, hopefully, the student got really positive support from the further education provider, and not to worry too much. We're there to look after them. But hopefully we'd have picked that up in any student survey anyway from them.
I just wanted to say that, actually, some of the HE provision at Coleg y Cymoedd is quite different. We do quite a lot of creative industries HE, which isn't traditional adult learners, it is progression from level 3 into level 4. We have some very specialist facilities and some very specialist staff—so, things like costume construction, prop making for screen and stage. They are traditional HE students, but they're coming to us because we've got a particular expertise, and we've got particular equipment. So, we do have the HNCs and we do have the adult returners, but I think for all of us, HE is a very small part of what we all do.
Thank you. Laura.
Thank you. As Karen has already pointed out, digital competency through blended learning has been one of the positives to come out of this pandemic and how everyone has had to respond. But, generally now, what do you all feel have been the limitations for learners' progression into work or on to additional education, particularly the disadvantaged or more vulnerable learners?
Who'd like to go first? Barry.
I think I only caught half that question, but I think you were referring to progression into work.
What we've done, actually, certainly for our vocational routes, is we've hired facilities offsite. For example, we've hired a large shed, and we've moved all our brickwork facilities up there, and that has released space in the college. We've remodelled that, so we can accommodate a lot of vocational learners at 2m social distancing. The point I'm trying to make is that whilst progression is important, what they have to have is the skills training to enable them to pass an assessment so that they can progress. So, our focus is not only on trying to get them through their qualification by passing their assessment, but ensuring that they actually have that skills training input, so that they are competent to go out into the workplace.
I think you also mentioned ILS and what we're doing there. We've been very, very careful with our ILS students. We've been in constant communication with parents and carers. We haven't brought them in; they are coming in for the first time next week on a one-day-a-week basis. We're very conscious that these learners, in particular, need opportunities, as Phil said earlier, to have some work placement experience, so that they can develop the life skills that they need to get out into the workplace. That is going to be a challenge for us. Without those placements available, those learners are going to be struggling to actually achieve that. So, we're going to be very focused when they return on trying to develop those life skills and build up the time that they're back in college so that they are better equipped, really, at the end of the academic year to make that step that you referred to.
Thank you. Karen, and then Yana.
Yes, just to support what Barry says, we're very focused on making sure that learners who are due to leave us this summer will go out of college with the competencies that they need to go into the workplace. Some of the things we're already doing because we've got some learners back now in phase 1: we've got extended days, so we've got some students in STEM, they're in until 8.30 p.m. So, they're in from 9.30 in the morning until 8.30 in the evening, and they are packing in all of the practical teaching and assessments. And, I guess, in term 3, we will be looking at things like, 'Do we need to open our workshops in the evenings, on weekends?' because we really want to prioritise these young people to make sure that they have everything they need to go on to their next step.
Thank you. Yana.
I think you're quite right to ask the question about progress. I think there are going to be a couple of issues, natural issues, which are that some of our particular vocational students, when they progress on, they often do that as part-time work. So, they might already be doing that at weekends, for example, and therefore when they finish their qualification, have a natural link to move into that, maybe, as a job and progress into it. That's not there at the moment. I think we've talked about the issues of getting that work experience in some of those sectors, which we can't do at the moment. And, again, that work experience would potentially lead to that employer offering roles to those people later on—that natural progress from a course into a job. That's a challenge at the moment. So, some of the natural drop-in points that people progress to from there, particularly from a vocational course into work, are going to be a challenge, and we have to support them.
I support everything Barry and Karen have said, we're doing absolutely everything we can to ensure they get that qualification in the same period of time they always would be, but it's not as natural as it has been that that employment will be there, so we will need to look at supporting them in CV writing and interview training as well. But I think, actually, as a sector, we do need to improve our reporting of progress as well, of students. I think that's in terms of knowing where our students go when they leave us—knowing where they go from school, actually. When they leave school, where do they go—of all levels, all ability levels, where do they progress to, and actually where do they progress when they leave us? I think that's important for us, (a), to show that the money that was spent on training those students up, putting them into a positive progressive area, but also I think it makes sure that we're delivering the right courses to meet the economic and employment needs of our local area as well. So, it ensures that we haven't got NEETs, or we're reducing the amount of NEETs, but also that our courses match the needs of the employers out there. So, the progression, the ability to progress, is there, and the ability to progress locally is there as well. But I think that is something we need to work on, potentially, over the next couple of years as well.
Thank you. Thank you very much. Just before we close, then, can I ask you, because the committee is going to do a report based on our latest evidence sessions, what do you think the priority should be for the next Welsh Government for your sector? Who'd like to start? Karen.
I think that flexibility is going to be key, because building on Yana's point about progression, we may have some learners who are staying with us and they'll be progressing from level 1 to level 2, or level 2 to level 3, and they'll still need to do some things that they didn't cover in the previous level. So, there needs to be a little bit of flexibility around programmes, probably next year and the year after. That flexibility will also enable us to look at learners coming to us from school who might also have things that we need to support them with. But the other thing that's really important is that we've been able to make sure our learners are digitally enabled this year; I think that's something that we should do in post-16 education as a given every year, regardless of COVID, because if they have devices, if they are connected, it just gives them a better opportunity to engage with their education and to progress and flourish. So, I think that's really important.
Okay. Thank you. Barry.
I totally agree with Karen; I think the Digital 2030 strategy, we're rewriting our action plan now, based on what we've learnt over the last 12 months. I think one thing is, with mental health, consider future funding streams, and build on the regional approaches that Karen referred to, and build on community resilience. And I think, again, Karen referred to flexibility in programmes next year. There are going to be learners coming through; we need additional input in literacy and numeracy and we just need that flexibility to be able to do that in their programmes.
And then finally, perhaps touching on ILS again: further support for investment to enhance partnership work, perhaps with local authorities, to increase the number of learners going into employment and staying in county.
Okay, thank you. Yana.
I think I'd like us to be a country that really, really generally, in everything we do—from the funding, from what we talk about, to how we monitor progress and what we find important—treats vocational and academic students equally. Fundamentally, for me, if we got that right, we'd be amazing. The majority of people we meet on a daily basis went through an FE college and did a vocational qualification. They didn't go and do A-levels and they didn't do a degree, the people we meet on a daily basis, and I think we need to reinforce how important vocational education is, and treat it on an equal level, and I think if we did that, I mentioned earlier about reducing the—. We talk about mental health, all of those things; if we lifted people who are leaving school to think, 'Actually, I can just do something I really want to do in my life. It doesn't have to be A-levels. It could be hairdressing, bricklaying, health and social care', then actually, I think a lot of the issues we raise, we would address by just constantly saying these are equal, and at the moment, we're not. We still generally—even in schools and colleges—have that focus maybe on the academic. And I think we're all responsible for that, by the way, and I think if we all work together to really make vocational equal, we would achieve so much across the whole of the educational sector.
Thank you, Yana. Can I ask, Philip, have you got anything that you'd like to make a pitch for?
No, I think I'd like to reinforce what Yana said. As somebody who is a qualified carpenter and joiner, and who then did HE and FE, I fully agree with having parity of esteem, and there are some unhelpful narratives that run. I actually don't like that term, 'parity and esteem', because actually using it automatically sort of makes one different to the other. What I'd like to see is vocational and academic education seen in exactly the same way. I think the other thing I'd like to reinforce is the point around flexibility, because there will be holes in learning that need to be filled. Those need to be filled so that learners can go on to be successful in qualifications further down the road. And also, where we're in the middle of a programme of reform of qualifications, so from next year, we'll be introducing new construction and built environment qualifications, we're looking to be flexible there for colleges in how they can go about that, and we'd like to see that similar level of flexibility in things like funding for programmes.
Okay, thank you very much. And we have come to the end of our time, so can I thank you all for your attendance? It's been a really useful session, and we very much appreciate you giving us your time. As usual, we will send you a transcript to check for accuracy following the meeting. Thank you again to all of you. Diolch yn fawr.