This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

Sir Emyr Jones Parry

President of the Learned Society of Wales

Guest blogger for Giles Lawrence

Part of Global Science and Innovation Network

18th December 2017 Science and Innovation Network

Wales and the World: Higher Education and the Learned Society of Wales

In 1870, Frances Hoggan qualified as a doctor of medicine in Zurich University, the second woman to qualify in Europe. She was born in 1843, the daughter of a curate in Brecon, mid Wales. Wanting to study medicine, she had to go to Zurich because women in Britain were prohibited from sitting professional examinations in medicine. She went on, with her husband, to be a pioneer medical practitioner and social reformer in London.

Wales lacked a university at the time. In response to public demand and financed in part by pennies deducted from the wage packets of miners and slate workers, a university was established in Aberystwyth in 1872. It became a founding college of the University of Wales. There are now eight universities in Wales, four of which are in the World Top 500, and one, Cardiff in the top 100. This is one of the highest concentrations internationally, both in terms of population and GDP per capita.

Wales has a proud history of high quality higher education that is often less well known. Today its universities are cosmopolitan, outward looking, and internationally competitive, while providing a distinctive learning experience for all its students.

Wales has 25,000 international students and recent HESA data show that the proportion of STEM graduates from Welsh universities working abroad (40%) is higher than that for UK STEM graduates (34%).  Students choose Wales because of the quality of the teaching and research, the reputation of its universities, and the particular experience of studying in a small nation. Institutions are rooted in their communities but outward-looking, contributing nationally to Wales and the UK, and engaged internationally. That latter dimension extends to staff, students and research collaboration, all of which is increasingly global.

Despite its small size, Welsh universities produce a disproportionately higher share of the world’s published academic articles, global citations and highly cited articles due in large part to growing their international research collaborations. Wales plays a significant role in the world-leading UK research base, and the level of international collaboration has grown from 25% in 1997-2001 to nearly 46% by 2014. Wales’s share of the top 1% highest cited papers is over twice that expected based on overall publication share.

Committed to ensuring a strong, sustainable, world-class higher education system, the Welsh Government launched an ambitious new science strategy in 2012, with the aim of attracting the brightest and best scientific researchers and their teams from around the world to Wales.  A second phase of Sêr Cymru  project was initially backed by £50 million of public funding and was followed by a second phase of the scheme, worth £57 million, much from European Union Funding. The aim is to grow greater capacity for Wales’s leading university research groups by attracting 160 rising stars (early-mid career scientists) and promising research leaders, and to also support scientists returning after a long absence, in particular women. Competitive fellowships have been awarded to researchers from 28 countries.

The higher education sector makes a vital contribution to the Welsh economy and in particular to strengthening Wales’ future research capacity. Growing a skills base, attracting investment, and fostering innovation are prerequisites for a country on the western edge of Europe, the more so after Brexit. This has been recognised by investments in Wales by major international companies such as Airbus, GE and IQE.

The excellence in education and prominence in research across the disciplines led in 2010 to the founding of Wales’s own national academy of science and letters, the Learned Society of Wales (LSW). It joined the ranks of the Royal Society and British Academy, familiar names, national academies in being for centuries.

Like other national academies throughout the British Isles, the LSW brings together the most successful and talented Fellows, for the shared purpose and common good of advancing and promoting excellence in all scholarly discipline across Wales. The Learned Society recognises excellence in all disciplines, encourages research and researchers, and as a national academy offers expert advice on major issues, thus bringing the skills of its Fellowship to the service of the nation. It awards medals to recognise particular achievements, including the Francis Hoggan medal for outstanding female researchers in STEMM subjects.

Over the past two years, the Learned Society of Wales has underlined the intellectual and innovative profile of Wales in a series of international publications designed to showcase Wales’s research and innovation as well as Welsh culture more generally.

This has included, an open-access article in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science in 2016, and in 2017 a report by the authoritative Kings College London Policy Unit reviewing the impacts of academic research from Welsh universities.

In September 2017, the Society launched ‘Wales and the World’ a dedicated supplement  in the Times Higher Education magazine promoting the impressive international impact and reach of Wales’s academic and research connections.

Since Brexit, the Learned Society of Wales has been working closely with its sister British Isles academies: The Royal Society, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering, Academy of Medical Sciences, Royal Society of Edinburgh and Royal Irish Academy to ensure that the UK’s vibrant research sector can continue to play its essential part in sustaining a successful and prosperous economy.

Looking forward, I believe the emphasis on education and encouragement of investment in research will be fundamental to Wales’ future prosperity.

Sir Emyr Jones Parry, President of the Learned Society of Wales

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