The Long Goodbye: leaving the federal University of Wales (1988 – 2007)

by Lynn Williams[1]


The 2006-07 academic year has witnessed developments that have led to Swansea University gaining its independence from the University of Wales.  In June 2007, Her Majesty, The Queen, approved the grant of a new Supplemental Charter, which established Swansea as an independent University.

(Swansea University, Annual Review, 2006/7)

The University of Wales (Prifysgol Cymru) was founded on 30 November 1893, as a federal university.  By 1989, what was then Wales’s only university had six Constituent Colleges: the University College of Wales, in Aberystwyth; the University College of North Wales, in Bangor; the University of Wales College of Cardiff; the University College of Swansea (at whose Department of History I studied during the 1970s); and two relatively-recently admitted members, Saint David’s University College, Lampeter, and the University of Wales College of Medicine (in Cardiff).  The federal body’s administrative headquarters were located in the University Registry in Cathays Park, Cardiff.

The Colleges were responsible for teaching but, before enrolling, their students had first to matriculate into the University of Wales (that is, to fulfil its entrance requirements) and they graduated with degrees of the University.  As well as those relating specifically to its role as the degree-awarding authority, the University had a wide range of other powers that affected the way in which the Colleges conducted their academic functions.  These powers could be seen as intrusive and unnecessarily bureaucratic and could cause relationships to become strained.

Indeed, tension had characterised relationships almost from the outset.  In 1905, just twelve years after the University’s establishment, proposals to centralize authority under a “Working Head” briefly raised the spectre of secession by the Colleges.  The University again survived calls for its dissolution in 1918, when the Haldane Commission rejected the case for the Colleges to become unitary universities.  Arguments for the University to be dissolved re-surfaced again during the early 1960s when a Commission charged with investigating and reporting on the issue was established.  Although a majority of the Commission’s members (including Swansea’s Principal, Professor J H Parry) subscribed to a Report in Favour of the Creation of Four Unitary Universities, the University Court came out in favour of the minority Report in Favour of the University of Wales, which therefore continued as one federal, national university.

The Daniel Report, the JPRC and the Rosser Report, 1988 – 1993

There were to be no further major constitutional crises for some twenty-five years but the tensions inherent in the federal arrangements remained unresolved.  At the end of the 1980s, relationships became severely strained by the University’s decision to adopt the Report and recommendations of the Powers and Functions Group that had been established in 1987 under the chairmanship of former Aberystwyth Principal, Sir Goronwy Daniel, following a financial crisis at Cardiff.  The Group concluded that, in order to ensure the academic and financial viability of the Colleges, the federal machinery should be strengthened, with a range of powers and functions transferred from the Colleges to the federal centre.  A new body, the Joint Planning and Resources Committee (JPRC), was established.  Its responsibilities included preparing a Federal Plan for the whole University and determining the level of funding to be allocated to each College from the grant provided to the University by the Universities Funding Council.  The JPRC was Chaired by a new Officer, the Deputy Pro-Chancellor, with the distinguished scientist, Professor (from June 1991, Sir) John Meurig Thomas, being appointed to that office in 1990.  The new office of Treasurer was filled by Peter Davies (who was to become Chair of Council at Swansea in 1996 and who, with admirable agility, was to hold both offices for several years).  David Allen (now Chair of HEFCW) was appointed to be JPRC Secretary.

Had the Colleges been willing to buy into them and had external circumstance been different, the Daniel reforms might have been made to work.  But the Colleges were in general hostile; and developments at UK level strengthened the position of the critics of reform.  The Further and Higher Education Act of March 1992 would radically alter the Welsh higher education landscape and the University’s position within it.  In particular, the Act established a separate Funding Council for Wales and abolished the binary line between the established universities and the higher education colleges and polytechnics.  The latter were encouraged to seek university status and the Polytechnic of Wales was re-designated as the University of Glamorgan in September 1992.  The establishment in Wales of a second university would encourage the Colleges of the University of Wales in their ambitions for independence.  These developments obliged the University to consider abandoning many of the changes introduced by Daniel almost as soon as they had been introduced.

Indeed, the University became mired in controversy over the Daniel reforms even before the Act was passed.  Anti-federal sentiment was most pronounced in Cardiff but Swansea was not far behind.  Although some leading lay figures at Swansea, including the President, Lord Callaghan, and the Chair of Council, Dr Emrys Evans, were strongly pro-federalist, the opponents of reform, led by the Principal, Professor Brian Clarkson, and the Treasurer, P A G Mullens, carried the day.  In November 1991, six months after publication of the White Paper, Higher Education: A New Framework, upon which the Act was to be based, Professor Clarkson, with four of the five other College heads (the exception being Lampeter’s Professor Keith Robbins) wrote to the Secretary of State for Wales, David Hunt.  The Principals argued that the creation of the Welsh Funding Council proposed in the White Paper rendered superfluous a highly centralized planning function for the University of Wales, which should “remain in being primarily as a degree awarding body”.  Swansea’s Council later endorsed the “spirit of the letter”, whilst “rejecting any move to defederalise the University of Wales”.

These were the circumstances in which I joined the University as Assistant JPRC Secretary on St David’s Day in 1992 – an auspicious date, one might think, on which to join an institution that had been part of the fabric of Welsh society and of national consciousness for very nearly one hundred years.  My role in the JPRC Secretariat gave me a ring-side seat for the increasingly fractious discussions that were to take place over the next two years or so.  JPR Committee meetings were a study in discord and obstructionism, with the Principals aligned on one side and Sir John Meurig Thomas and his lay-member allies on the other.  I have memories of the Principals sweeping into meetings en bloc, at the last minute, evidently having prepared for their assault on the day’s agenda over a lunch hosted by Cardiff’s Principal, Sir Aubrey Trotman-Dickenson.  Amongst the most contentious issues were the Federal Plan and proposals for the enlargement of the University through the admission of the Welsh higher education institutions (HEIs) that were not at that time part of the federal structure – an issue that was once again to cause difficulties during the early 2000s.

Sir John was a passionate and energetic advocate for the federal project and a committed proponent of the view that collaboration and the planned co-ordination of the College’s academic activities would enable the University to amount to significantly more than the sum of its parts.  His critics in the Colleges saw things differently: academic collaboration was something to be fostered at grass roots level, not imposed top-down from the federal centre.  Brian Clarkson was later to write: “I cannot stress too strongly … that the general view at Swansea is for a reversal of the centralising policy at present being pursued and a progression towards a much more devolved University system in Wales.  The creation of the Joint Planning & Resources Committee, under the chairmanship of a new Deputy Pro-Chancellor, has led to more friction between the Colleges and the Centre than has existed for many years.  Wales will be served best by a group of thriving, autonomous universities …. which are collaborating for their own good and that of the Principality within a loose confederation.”

By mid-1992, the forceful expression of sentiments such as these had led the University to commission a further review, under the chairmanship of Aberystwyth’s President, Sir Melvyn Rosser.  The Final Report of the Rosser Working Party was adopted in July 1993.  Its recommendations were founded in the concept of mutually beneficial and voluntary partnerships between the University and the institutions.  The latter, it argued, should be at the heart of the University’s statutory and managerial framework.  The new arrangements that were put in place included: the phasing out of the JPRC and its Secretariat and of the office of Deputy Pro-Chancellor; the renaming of the Colleges under the formula, “University of Wales, [name of place]” and their re-designation as Constituent Institutions of the University; the re-designation of the Principals as Vice-Chancellors and the creation of the new office of Senior Vice-Chancellor (the University’s chief academic and executive officer), who would be elected from amongst the Vice-Chancellors; the establishment of a new and influential body, the Vice-Chancellors’ Board (VCB); and the replacement of the office of Registrar by that of Secretary General (the University’s chief administrative officer).  The adoption of the Rosser Report meant that tensions were significantly reduced.  Relationships were also improved by the departure from the scene of some of the main antagonists: Sir Aubrey retired in September 1993, Sir John left the University in early 1994, and Professor Clarkson retired in September 1994.

Steps towards autonomy, 1994 – 2003

Following the dissolution of the JPRC Secretariat, at the beginning of 1995 I was appointed to be VCB Secretary, a role in which I continued even after I was appointed to be the University’s Secretary General in 2000. I serviced all but the first few of more than seventy VCB meetings that were held between 1995 and 2007 and, for that key period in its history, was at the heart of developments within the University. The role also enabled me to get to know the Vice Chancellors well. Even though their aims and aspirations were often very different from those of the University and its staff, and even though we sometimes disagreed profoundly, with rare exceptions they proved to be fair-minded and congenial colleagues. This was certainly true of Swansea’s Robin Williams and Richard Davies. (It was also true of many other officers, academics and administrators at Swansea with whom I dealt over the years.) The VCB, which was Chaired between 1995 and 2001 by Lampeter’s Professor Keith Robbins, the University’s first Senior Vice-Chancellor, proved to be an excellent forum for debate and decision-making. Its meetings were certainly much more collegial and constructive than had been those of the JPRC.

Robin Williams took office as Principal of Swansea on 1 October 1994 and assumed the title, Vice-Chancellor, in January 1995. He had previously served as Professor of Physics and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff. The circumstances of his accession illustrate the frustration that could be caused by aspects of the relationship between the University and the institutions. The University’s Charter gave it powers relating to Professorships and Readerships in the Colleges. Robin Williams’s Chair at Cardiff was an established Chair of the University of Wales and, as such, was not portable. The usual practice in such cases was for the College to ask the University to confer a personal Chair upon its Principal-elect. In this case, though, the necessary recommendation was not submitted until after Robin had taken office. Until mid-November 1994, when the University’s Academic Board approved Swansea’s recommendation “that the title of professor in a personal capacity be conferred on the Principal, Dr R H Williams …”, he had therefore temporarily to relinquish his Professor’s title and revert to the title of Doctor.

A key feature of Robin Williams’s tenure as Principal / Vice-Chancellor was the work that he did to secure increased autonomy and indicators of university status for Swansea and to redefine its relationship with the University – without, initially at least, aiming for full independence.

The Academic Framework

He recognised that securing the devolution of various of the University’s academic administrative functions would not only enhance Swansea’s reputation and status, it would also speed up decision-making and remove frustrations. Early in 1996, together with the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff, Professor (from 1999, Sir) Brian Smith, he submitted to the VCB a paper outlining the principles for the devolution of functions to the Constituent Institutions. The “Smith / Williams paper” was to form the basis for the University of Wales Academic Framework which set out detailed proposals for devolution. The Framework, which was intended to “enhance efficiency of academic administration and remove frustrations for the system”, gave the institutions considerable autonomy. The document also set out the respective responsibilities of the institutions and the University in relation to the University of Wales degree: the former were responsible for the quality of the educational process (teaching), while the latter exercised primary responsibility for academic standards.

The implementation of the Academic Framework in 1997 had serious resource implications for both the University and the Constituent Institutions and it is not surprising that the latter expected to be compensated for taking on substantial additional duties. Subscriptions payable to the University by the institutions were cut markedly, resulting in major restructuring and redundancy for about a third of my colleagues at the Registry – a painful experience. (As we shall see, in the longer term, the Framework was to have even more damaging consequences for the University.)

What’s in a name?

Another way of enhancing an institution’s status was to make formal and informal changes to its name. The Principals had argued in their letter to the Secretary of State in November 1991 that the “College” designation implied “a status which [did] not correspond with reality”; it was a “real handicap”, especially for student recruitment. This was indeed a serious problem for an institution like Swansea that was competing with unitary institutions across the UK that were called the University of XX or XX University. Although the Rosser reforms had ended the “College” designation, with Swansea being re-named as “the University of Wales Swansea”, many people wanted to go still further, and to operate (albeit at this stage, still within the University of Wales) under a title, such as “Swansea University”, that implied full university status.

If that title was not at that point an option, might it at least be possible to substitute the word “University” for the word “College” in Swansea’s Charter and Statutes? This was the approach adopted by Swansea’s officers when they drafted the amendments needed to implement the Rosser changes in late 1994. However, Swansea was not (yet) a university in its own right and the Privy Council declined to accept the proposed amendments, concluding that, since it was “to remain a Constituent Institution of the University of Wales, it would be inappropriate for it to be described in its governing instruments as ‘the University’ (unqualified). This would misleadingly imply that the university was a university within a university.” Swansea’s name should therefore be spelled out in full, as “the University of Wales Swansea”. As we shall see, the “university within a university” issue was to become a very important one.

But there was more than one way to skin this particular cat. For example, prospectuses and other publications could be used to suggest the status and title to which Swansea aspired. The front cover of the undergraduate prospectus for admission in 1973 (the year in which I enrolled at Swansea) names the institution as “University College of Swansea” and gives a prominent place to the words, “University of Wales”. The inside pages include a list of the Chief Officers of the University and the shorthand term used for Swansea throughout is “the College”. The situation was not very different in the 1988 prospectus.

In May 1996, Swansea adopted a new corporate identity and, in November of the same year, the Council approved a new design for the Seal. The old Seal had included the inscription, “The Seal of the University College of Swansea”. It was agreed that the new version should not include any wording on the grounds that, “if University of Wales Swansea were to change its name again at some point in the future” it would be helpful not to have an inscription on the Seal. The point here, of course, was that the name might in future change to “the University of Swansea” or “Swansea University”. At the end of 1998, Swansea took steps “as a contingency measure” to register those names as trade marks.

By 1999, although the front cover of the prospectus bore the institution’s official title (University of Wales Swansea), the internal text generally referred to Swansea as “the University” and made no reference to its position as a member of the University of Wales. In December 2003, emulating the approach that had previously been adopted by Cardiff, Swansea’s Council approved “the adoption of the name, ‘Swansea University’ / ‘Prifysgol Abertawe’ as the public name of the University of Wales Swansea”. The front covers of subsequent prospectuses, even during the four years before independence, were to bear only the words “Swansea University”, with the following text included in tiny print on the back cover: “Swansea University is the public name of the University of Wales Swansea, a Constituent Institution of the University of Wales”.

Degree-awarding powers

Any institution that aspired to be a university needed to have its own degree-awarding powers (DAPs). In November 1995, Swansea’s Council received a report that Cardiff had submitted an application for DAPs. These were granted in 1997 but Cardiff agreed at that point not to use them and assured the University that it was not seeking independence. As was often the case, where Cardiff led, Swansea cautiously followed. In July 1997, its Council resolved to approve in principle a recommendation “that the University of Wales Swansea seek degree-awarding powers, and that steps be taken to set the procedure in motion”, subject to “an undertaking to the University of Wales” that, if granted, it would deal with those powers in the same way as Cardiff.

Swansea’s rationale for applying for DAPs was set out in the self-evaluation document (SED) that it submitted to the QAA in late 2000: its size, record of achievement and managerial structure were comparable to those of many leading UK universities; it was highly regarded nationally and internationally; to a large extent, it functioned, and was regarded by others, as an independent institution; and other Welsh institutions, some of which had a very limited research base, had been granted DAPs. These points were very much as might have been expected. Swansea had hitherto always stressed its intention to remain a part of the University but two further statements made in the SED appeared to signal a change of direction. First, the document drew attention to the fact that Swansea “was currently termed a ‘Constituent Institution’ of the federal University of Wales, which formally awarded all of its degrees and most of its other awards” (from which once might infer that Swansea was by now at least considering changing its status as a member of the University). The SED also included the highly significant statement that, “should significant changes occur within the higher education sector in Wales, Swansea would be vulnerable to not having DAPs”.

The last throw of the dice? “One Nation, One University” and the Williams Report

In March 2000, the National Assembly’s Education Committee had initiated a review of higher education in Wales which, it was recognised, could have a major effect on the standing of the University of Wales and on its relationships with its members. In early 2001, in response to the Committee’s call for evidence, the VCB developed a consultation paper setting out a new vision for higher education in Wales, under the banner, “One Nation, One University”. This made the case for the University to expand “to be a truly national federation that includes all thirteen Welsh higher education institutions”, with equal membership status. At that time, it comprised six Constituent Institutions and two Constituent Colleges (the UW Institute Cardiff and the UW College Newport having joined with that status in 1996). Further expansion would mean the inclusion of institutions whose academic profiles and missions were very different, especially from those of the Constituent Institutions. These were the four other Welsh HEIs that already awarded the Wales degree (Swansea Institute of HE [SIHE], Trinity College, Carmarthen [TCC], the North East Wales Institute of HE [NEWI] in Wrexham, and the Welsh College of Music and Drama [WCMD] in Cardiff) and the University of Glamorgan (which was fully independent and awarded its own degrees).

The paper did not enjoy unanimous support in the VCB. It had clear echoes of the proposals for the expansion of the University that had been developed under the auspices of Sir John Meurig Thomas and the JPRC during the early 1990s. The notion that all Welsh HEIs should be regarded as being of equal status was seriously problematic for many in the Constituent Institutions, which were considered (and considered themselves) to be more “mature” and of higher academic standing than other Welsh institutions. Swansea, through its Senate and Council, rejected the model, as did Cardiff, which also gave formal notice to the University of its intention immediately to begin the two-year consultation period necessary for it to be able to use its own DAPs. Swansea’s Senate subsequently concluded that Swansea should also be prepared to use its DAPs, if awarded.

Faced with widespread opposition to the “One Nation, One University” proposals, the University Council decided in June 2001 that external advice should be sought from a person with considerable experience in higher education, who could provide an independent view of how matters might be taken forward. The distinguished constitutional lawyer and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Sir David Williams, was therefore commissioned to carry out a review of the University’s membership, structures and modus operandi. In December 2001, while his review was still in progress, Sir David was appointed to the office of President of the University of Wales, Swansea in December 2001, evidently – and understandably – having impressed senior figures there during the consultation process for his review.

In January 2002, the Education Committee launched its Review report. This was damning in its response to the “One Nation, One University” model, concluding “It seems clear that the University of Wales will cease to exist in its present form …” and recommending that the institutions should apply for, or use, their own DAPs. For its part, the Welsh Assembly Government made clear in Reaching Higher, its strategy for higher education (published in March 2002), that Sir David’s review and the institutions’ response to it would be key factors in determining the University’s future.

Sir David submitted his report to the University in April 2002. In large measure, his recommendations echoed the proposals that had been made in the “One Nation, One University” paper, with the five institutions that were then not members to be invited to join the University and with all members, existing and new, to enjoy parity of membership and of status and esteem. The disquiet to which the “One Nation, One University” proposals had led twelve months previously quickly re-emerged, with Cardiff once again leading the critics. The VCB was given to understand that some at least of Cardiff’s concerns were shared by Swansea, whose future position was “likely to be significantly influenced by whatever decisions Cardiff makes with regard to its own future relationship with the University”. The University did what it could to accommodate the criticisms of the report and modified a number of Sir David’s proposals (but not his central recommendations for expansion). On 8 July 2002, Swansea’s Council resolved “to generally endorse the conclusions” of the report. Although Cardiff remained hostile, the majority of the responses from the other institutions were also broadly supportive and Sir David’s main recommendations were in due course implemented. SIHE, TCC, NEWI and WCMD joined the University in August 2004 (the University of Glamorgan having declined the University’s invitation). The twelve institutions that then made up the University of Wales were re-designated as Member Institutions.

The adoption – albeit grudging in some quarters – of the Sir David Williams report appeared to provide a way forward for the University but, in the event, it was to offer only a temporary breathing space. In 2004, the University suffered two blows – Cardiff’s decision to withdraw from the federation and the publication of a highly critical report on the University by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) – whose combined effect was to bring about the end of the federal arrangement and, with it, independence for Swansea and the other Member Institutions.

Achieving university status and title, 2004 – 2007

Cardiff’s secession and the Wigley Report

Having announced their intention to do so in March 2003, Cardiff and the UW College of Medicine merged under the title, “Cardiff University” on 1 August 2004, at which point the new institution seceded from the federal University. (Even if Cardiff had been minded to continue as a member of the University following merger, its decision to pursue university status and title would have prevented it from doing so.) Formal status as an independent university and a legal change of name came with the grant of a new Charter in December 2004. In 2005, Cardiff began enrolling students onto programmes of study that led to its own degrees, rather than those of the University of Wales.

Where Cardiff led, others, including (perhaps especially) Swansea, were likely to follow. As we have seen, Swansea had adopted the public name, “Swansea University” in December 2003. In October 2004, Vice-Chancellor Richard Davies (who had succeeded Robin Williams twelve months previously) advised his Council that Cardiff’s withdrawal significantly affected “the overall profile of the University”. The implication was that Swansea, as the one remaining truly research-led member at that time, would have to consider its position.

In March 2004, the difficulties with Cardiff had led the University to establish yet another Working Group to advise on reform. The Group was chaired by its Pro-Chancellor, Dafydd Wigley. Its final report, which was approved by the University Council on 24 June 2005, concluded that the University should continue in being but that the way in which it operated and its relationships with the rest of the sector needed to change radically. The Group considered two main options for the University’s future: to continue as a membership organisation; or to cease to be a federal university and to be re-constituted as part of a confederal (non-membership) group. It noted that the first option had “foundered on the rock of the ‘university within a university’ issue”, which meant that neither Cardiff University nor the University of Glamorgan could be members of the University of Wales and that “any existing member … would also be debarred from continuing in membership, should it gain university title at some time in the future”. The Group considered that the second, confederal, option, in which the University would join other Welsh HEIs in a non-hierarchical structure, and have looser relationships with them, would obviate the need to resolve this problem.

The Quality Assurance Agency review

If Cardiff’s secession caused serious damage, the outcome of the Institutional Review of the University conducted by the QAA in 2004 was to have devastating consequences. The extensive delegation of duties and the division of responsibilities for quality assurance under the Academic Framework had resulted in important unintended consequences. There was a perceived lack of clarity as to where responsibility actually lay and the University’s capacity to serve as the guarantor of degree standards was called into question. The QAA’s report was officially published in January 2005 but a draft was leaked to the press in early November 2004. It became known then that its review team had concluded that “limited confidence can be placed in the soundness of the University’s present and likely future management of the quality of its programmes and of the academic standards of its awards”. The team was at pains to emphasise that its judgement related specifically to the responsibility of the University of Wales as an awarding body and that there was “no evidence to suggest that any of the awards achieved by students pursuing studies through the Member Institutions are in question”. Even so, Swansea and the other institutions were understandably very concerned that the reputational damage to the University would also tarnish their own good names.

Independence: the final steps

On 29 November 2004, Swansea’s Council considered a position paper entitled The Future of the University of Wales, which set out the position in the starkest terms.  Echoing the conclusion reached by the Assembly’s Education Committee in January 2002, it stated: “The University of Wales cannot continue in its present form.  The need for significant changes has become imperative …”.  The paper outlined three possible ways forward: to accept that the University had no future and to prepare for its dissolution; to hand powers back to the federal centre (that is, to reverse the provisions of the Academic Framework); and to devolve further functions and authority to the individual institutions.  It was too soon to consider breaking up the University and the second option was completely unacceptable.  The only realistic option, therefore, was the third.

We at the University of Wales had already accepted that this was so.  The University of Wales Council had agreed, in response to the QAA’s draft report, that the University should pursue the devolved model, under which “full responsibility for quality and academic standards will in due course be devolved to the institutions”.  Full devolution would be contingent upon an institution’s securing DAPs of its own (with those that did not already have them to be required to follow interim arrangements, in which oversight would be provided by an institution that already had DAPs).  The University would remain the degree-awarding authority and would retain reserve powers in case of future problems.  Swansea and the other Member Institutions agreed to accept the devolved model and it was implemented during 2005.  (This resulted in further large-scale staffing cuts in the University Registry – a difficult process, which it fell to me to administer.)

During its meeting on 29 November 2004, having been advised that the process for securing DAPs was close to being successfully concluded, Swansea’s Council approved amendments to the Charter which would provide for Swansea’s students to follow courses that would lead to degrees either of the University of Wales or of the University of Wales Swansea.  The amendments were confirmed by Swansea’s Court in December 2004.  As the University of Wales’s representative on the Court at that time, I was present for discussion of those amendments.  Although it was reassuring to note that Swansea was committed to a full consultation before it made any decision to implement its own DAPs, the direction of travel was clear.  Swansea’s DAPs were secured during the Spring of 2005 and, in May, its Management Board noted that “a natural corollary to the Wigley proposals and the award of degree-awarding powers would be for the University of Wales Swansea to seek University status as ‘Swansea University’ in the near future”.  The University’s senior management team was asked to draw up a timetable setting out the steps that would be required if Swansea were to consider applying for such status.  Despite protestations to the contrary along the way, from then on, events were to move inexorably towards independence.

By the end of June 2005, Swansea and the other Member Institutions had agreed to endorse the Wigley recommendations.  On 4 July, Swansea’s Council agreed that an application for university status should be submitted to the Privy Council.  The self-analysis document that Swansea subsequently submitted to the QAA included the following rationale for its application:

The University of Wales Swansea now seeks to become an independent University.  Our current position within the University of Wales creates a variety of tensions.  These tensions relate to the responsibility for maintaining quality and standards, and to the admission of a number of smaller institutions to the University of Wales.  The latter, in particular, makes a consensus over decision-making at the federal level problematic, particularly in the light of the disparate missions of the … Institutions.  The situation also causes confusion in external perception: our strategic aim of extending the number of world-class areas in which we operate requires us to compete in the international market for both students and the very best academic staff.  The perception that we do not have the status of a fully independent institution militates against us.  These tensions are fully understood and have been widely discussed in Wales. … We thus … seek to apply for University Title and, if successful, would wish to be called Swansea University.

In July 2006, proposals for a full review of the Charter and Statutes were submitted to Swansea’s Council.  The amendments would “articulate clearly the full powers and authority of the University in anticipation of independent status” and “address the changes to the structure of the University of Wales”.  The Council was advised that the University of Wales was itself in the process of amending its constitution to reflect the adoption of the Wigley Report.  It was hoped that the changes to the Charter and Statutes could be made simultaneously with or shortly after those to the University’s Charter and Statutes.  In October, the Council received a report that a wide-ranging consultation about future nomenclature had taken place and that “almost all respondents indicated that they felt the name ‘Swansea University’ / ‘Prifysgol Abertawe’ would be the most appropriate one”.  The Privy Council and the Welsh Assembly had indicated that this title would be acceptable and the name was approved.  Extensive amendments to the Charter and Statutes were approved by the Council, during a special meeting on 22 February 2007, and by the Court on 27 April 2007.  As well as confirming the new name and Swansea’s status as a university, the new Charter would include the power “To provide schemes of study by teaching and research which shall enable students to qualify for Degrees, Diplomas, certificates and other Awards of Swansea University and other universities and bodies”.  The italicised words provided the means through which Swansea could continue, for as long as it wished to do so, to confer awards of the University of Wales.

I was present at the meeting of the Court and provided members with a written briefing on developments in the University’s relationships with its Member Institutions.  My paper concluded: “Federal relationships have evolved throughout the 115 year history of the University of Wales and in recent years the evolution has been particularly rapid and significant.  In many ways the changes that have recently been agreed … can be seen as a logical extension of the evolutionary process of increasing institutional autonomy and of loosening federal ties.  Moreover, the changes are very much in accord with the aspirations of the institutions …”.  If Swansea’s departure can be seen as a bereavement, this was perhaps the final stage of grief for the University and its officers – acceptance.

On 2 July 2007, the Chair of Council, Sir Roger Jones, reported that, on 13 June, the grant of a Supplemental Charter to the University of Wales Swansea, which included a change of title to “Swansea University”, had been approved by HM The Queen.  The amended Charter and Statutes came into effect on 1 September when the President (still Sir David Williams) became the newly-independent University’s first Chancellor.

As we enter the new academic year, our independence from the University of Wales removes any ambiguity in our status and will enhance our external profile with industry, research councils, students and other stakeholders. … We are delighted that this change was negotiated amicably with the University of Wales. … It is our intention to continue to award University of Wales degrees for the foreseeable future.

(Swansea University, Annual Review, 2006/7)


Following independence, Swansea operated for a brief period as an Accredited institution of the University of Wales and offered and awarded the University’s degrees but, in late 2008, it decided to exercise its right to register students to study for its own degrees. This decision took effect for all students who enrolled in 2009 and later, with those who had enrolled in 2007 and 2008 being given the opportunity to choose between being awarded a Swansea degree or a Wales degree. The first Swansea degrees were awarded in July 2010, by which time Swansea had ceased to be an Accredited Institution and had severed its few remaining formal ties with the University.

The University of Wales’s transformation from federal to unitary status with confederal relationships with other institutions was effected in 2007. The offices of Senior Vice-Chancellor and Secretary General were no longer needed. I went on to serve as the University’s Director of Strategic Planning until my retirement from the University in 2010. The office of Senior Vice-Chancellor was replaced by that of Vice-Chancellor, Professor Marc Clement of Swansea University being appointed to the role in October 2007. He served until 2011, when the University suffered a series of scandals in connection with its validation operations. In October 2011, it was announced that the University of Wales would be "effectively abolished" and merged into the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD – which was itself the product of a merger between Trinity College, Carmarthen and the University of Wales, Lampeter). Shortly after that, the confederal experiment came to an end and all of its former members ceased to award University of Wales degrees. Although merger with UWTSD has still not been legally finalised, for all practical purposes, the University of Wales has now ceased to exist.


[1] This essay is based in part on personal recollections from my time as a member of staff at the University of Wales between 1992 and 2010, in part on various published and unpublished primary and secondary sources, and in part on Swansea University’s committee papers. I am indebted to Emily Hewitt and her colleagues in the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University for making available this last source of information. The University of Wales archives are held at the National Library of Wales; the archives for the period under discussion are currently not accessible.

Cardigan-born Lynn Williams studied at undergraduate and doctoral level in the Department of History at Swansea during the 1970s. He enjoyed a long career in university administration, including as Secretary General of the University of Wales, before helping to establish Wales’s national academy, the Learned Society of Wales, as its Founding Secretary and first Chief Executive. He retired in 2014.