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All change in Wales as the big five universities break away

In the old days, all Welsh higher education came under one umbrella. Now that unity has been shattered.

On St David's Day this year, the biggest five of the Welsh universities announced that they were forming an alliance that would be strong in research and put Wales on the map.

The announcement was a shock to the other seven remaining higher education institutions left within the University of Wales who were planning to announce their own alliance.

The big five had stolen their thunder. Four of the five – Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea – had ceased to be part of the University of Wales and had made common cause with the fifth, Glamorgan, which was never part of the University of Wales anyway.

All of the big five are universities in their own right and either award their own degrees, or have stated that they intend to do so.

This development marks the end of the University of Wales as we have known it. So, the historic institution, which has a long and glorious history, having been founded in 1893 as a national university to educate the Welsh people, is now a grouping of seven institutions – Glyndwr University, the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, Swansea Metropolitan University, the University of Wales, Newport, Trinity College, Carmarthen, Lampeter, and the University of Wales itself with the five others choosing to go it alone. And its constitution has been changed to make it into a body that awards degrees rather than a membership organisation.

One of the great strengths of the University of Wales is that Prince Charles is still the chancellor. He is able to give the six institutions some of the lustre they may have lost from the declaration of independence by the big five. In March this year, for example, he lent his name to 100 prestigious PhD scholarships – The Prince of Wales Innovation Scholarships – which will be advertised around the world and are designed to make the principality more economically competitive.

Shortly, the seven will be announcing a new alliance of Welsh universities together with the creation of seven professorships under the umbrella of the University of Wales. "We have been working on this for six months," says Professor Marc Clement, vice-chancellor of the University of Wales. "The memorandum of understanding has been agreed and has gone through the governance processes of each institution. We have a very powerful international brand based on a common mission of being vocationally oriented and serving the community."

All the signs are that the two groups of university will be going head to head in competing for who is the best at research, applied work, entrepreneurship and innovation, and academic quality. That is healthy, says Clement. "We have to compete in the global marketplace."

Welsh politicians, however, sound a different note. Jane Hutt, the Welsh education secretary, maintains that the existence of the two groups is not divisive. "It is a development that has emerged in partnership with the University of Wales," she says. "The decision for Bangor, Aberystwyth and Swansea to award their own degrees is not about pulling away from the University of Wales, it's about their moving forward as universities in their own right."

The big five are some of the oldest institutions in Wales. As such they have had longer than the remaining seven to build up their research reputations. Cardiff is a member of the Russell Group. When the five announced their alliance on St David's Day, they said that together they represented more than 70 per cent of all students in Wales and more than 95 per cent of the nation's research activity.

Professor Alan Speight, the pro vice-chancellor for student experience at Swansea, says that his university has been developing at a rapid rate and is confident and ambitious. "We have increased our reputation and we received the largest rise in funding of any Welsh university from the recent research assessment exercise," he says.

The desire of the big five to distinguish themselves from the remaining seven is all about brand and status. According to Professor Jonathan Osmond, pro vice-chancellor for education and students at Cardiff University, it should be seen in the same light as the maturing process that institutions such as Exeter University and Leicester University underwent from offering external London University degrees to becoming universities in their own right.

"Over the course of time the original institutions have matured and grown in size, and in the same way this is part of a maturing process," he says. "We see a better future and better value in being an independent institution."

The University of London has experienced a similar shake-up to the University of Wales. Imperial College has left the nest completely, and now awards its own degrees and is a university in its own right. But UCL and King's, although they award their own degrees, have not left the university.

There were complaints about the University of London – just as there have been complaints about the University of Wales. The older established Welsh universities look a little askance at the University ever since 2004 when the Quality Assurance Agency announced that it had "limited confidence" in the standards of degrees from the University of Wales.