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Education

Student finance ‘discriminates against women and mature students’

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Very friendly and supportive: Neil Hamilton

A WEST Wales mature student has alleged that Student Finance Wales discriminates against mature female students who have changed their name through marriage or divorce.

Tricia (not her real name) contacted The Herald after she experienced protracted delays in receiving student finance to which she was entitled having been made ‘to jump through hoops’ to prove she was who she said she was.

She encountered difficulties after applying for a one year top up from a HND to a BA.

The situation was rendered all the more frustrating as, Student Finance Wales had all of Tricia’s proof of identity from the previous year, when she completed her HND, access to all of the information submitted in connection with that award, and repeatedly told her that there was no information required from her before telling her on a number of occasions, and only when she rang to query the continuing delay, that further information was needed.

Tricia applied for student finance on June 14 and supporting information for her financial status was provided immediately to Student Finance Wales. Tricia had the same customer reference number, same email, same telephone contact number that she had used for her previous application.

Tricia was particularly exasperated as she had been through precisely the same rigmarole in proving her identity in her initial application two years before.

She told us: “Despite the fact that I applied early for student finance, after that earlier bad experience, I kept on being pushed from pillar to post. Even though ALL of my information was already held by Student Finance and they were writing to me at my home address, which I had already provided and proved, it was not until mid-August that Student Finance Wales asked for proof that I actually lived in Wales.

“Having sent that proof, I rang up to check everything was okay and was told that Student Finance Wales had all the information they needed to process my application.”

She continued: “Having waited for a few weeks and with the start of term already near, I rang to find out what was happening. I was then told that before my application could proceed that they wanted information for an application for a childcare grant, which I have never sought and had not asked for. I had to write a letter telling them this – unbelievably six weeks after acknowledging they had received that letter, the information is still shown as required.

“Anyway, I confirmed again that they now had all the material they needed. And was told they did. A few weeks passed and I had heard nothing. I rang again. This time they wanted me to provide both my birth certificate and a form signed by a third party confirming that I was me!

“I raised an immediate complaint and was told I would be sent a copy of that for my own information.”

On October 26, Tricia rang to confirm that all information had been received and make sure that nothing else was needed.

Tricia’s experience then entered the realms of the surreal. A friend verified her identity. The same person had verified her partner’s identity for their application for student finance and been accepted.

The proof of identity was rejected and during the phone call a claim was made that a letter to that effect had been sent out on October 20, which was remarkable in itself as the identity form had only been posted on October 19. Not only was there no sign of that letter’s arrival, there was no sign of it in the record of correspondence.

Tricia then raised the question of her previous complaint, only to be told there was no record of it. She was then told by a manager at Student Finance Wales that she was not entitled to see the content of any complaint raised by the company on her behalf, although that manager told her that she would now raise a complaint for her and notify her it had been raised.

After waiting a few days, and with no sign of a complaint being made, Tricia emailed a full complaint to Student Finance Wales and copied her constituency and regional AMs in along with Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams and the Assembly parties’ education spokespersons.

Response was swift. First to respond was Labour’s Joyce Watson who promised to raise the matter with the Cabinet Secretary. That was followed by responses from Paul Davies – who helped resolve Tricia’s previous complaint – Simon Thomas, and UKIP’s Neil Hamilton who provided a very full and sympathetic response to Tricia’s plight; then, the Welsh Government contacted Tricia and asked for her permission to deal with Student Finance Wales on her behalf.

Finally, a day or so later, Tricia was emailed by Student Finance Wales to say that they were now acting on her complaint.

Mysteriously, the letter telling her that her identity proof was unacceptable arrived postmarked October 31, the same day as her complaint.

Within seven days of contacting her local AMs, Tricia was told that her student finance had been approved and that payments would be made shortly. She does not think that is a coincidence.

Tricia is, however, still frustrated by the whole experience.

“The situation had become ridiculous. I was being discriminated against for being an older woman, who had been married before. They not only had all my information already, they told me they could see it on the computer system and yet still said they needed it again. It’s bureaucracy for the sake of it. And as for not allowing customers to see complaints raised on their behalf, I bet their complaints clear up rate is stellar.

“Again, it was only when I complained and copied in AMs that there was any movement at all. That is not right and just makes me wonder how many students who have not contacted their own AMs have been forced out of higher education by Student Finance Wales incompetence.”

She concluded: “When I initially raised issues about the process way back in August I was told that I should blame the Welsh Government! To make matters worse, it had been suggested to me that I could get my parents to confirm my name change. I could, I suppose, have got a shovel or Ouija board, but neither of those options was very appealing!”

Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education Llyr Gruffydd said: “Plaid Cymru believes education is a right not a privilege so we want to make sure there is fair play when it comes to Student Finance Wales regardless of age or gender.”

Mid and West AM Simon Thomas added: “A constituent has informed me of a formal complaint they have made regarding the way in which their application for student finance has been handled by Student Finance Wales. Their application for student finance has still not been processed – almost five months after the initial application was made.

“My constituent feels that Student Finance Wales indirectly discriminate on the grounds of age and gender.”

Simon Thomas has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Education requesting the following information.

  • An outline of Student Finance Wales’ complaints procedure
  • The number of complaints received by Student Finance Wales each year in the last five years
  • A breakdown of the nature of the complaints received
  • An outline of the evidence of income and identity Student Finance Wales asks for in order to process a student’s application for student finance

Tricia’s constituency AM, Paul Davies told The Herald: “The experiences that Kathy has had with Student Finance Wales are deeply disappointing and caused her unnecessary distress, at a time when she should be focusing on her studies. It’s clear that there are failings in the system, which continue to be unaddressed and the Welsh Government should now commit to seriously reviewing Student Finance Wales’ operations.

“Sadly, this is not the first worrying experience that Kathy has faced throughout her studies and it’s simply unacceptable. Lessons clearly haven’t been learnt from previous occasions and therefore it’s important that the Welsh Government urgently addresses these problems to ensure that other students are not faced with similar problems in the future.”

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Business

University to host industry summit online

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SUPPORTING industry’s recovery from the impact of the pandemic is a key priority for the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD).

The University has a track record for working with industry through knowledge transfer, research innovation, workforce development and by providing a ready pipeline of skilled students and graduates, in partnership with employers.

In addition, UWTSD’s MADE Cymru initiative was established to support manufacturing industries in Wales to adapt to the challenges of Industry 4.0.

The initiative, funded by the EU via the Welsh Government, aims to support the economic recovery of manufacturers in Wales by offering part and fully funded training to businesses to upskill staff, as well as research and development that improves processes and products to reduce waste and costs.

In addition, UWTSD and MADE Cymru have organised an Industry Summit to be held online between June 8-10 to inform, engage and inspire businesses during this critical period of post-Covid recovery.

Expert speakers will be sharing their insights including James Davies from Industry Wales, Carol Hall, Regional Investment Manager, Development Bank of Wales, Chris Probert, Innovation Specialist, Welsh Government and Geraint Jones, Knowledge Transfer Adviser at KTN.

The line-up also includes Welsh manufacturers who will be sharing their own experiences, including Tim Hawkins, Managing Director, Markes International, Julia Chesney-Roberts, Commercial Manager, Riversimple, Angus Grahame, Founder of Splosh and Jacques Bonfrer, Co-Founder and Team Lead, Bot-Hive.

There will be guest talks from circular economy expert Eoin Bailey and lean author Daryl Powell and an opportunity to find out about the range of services offered by the University.

Graham Howe, Executive Head of the MADE Cymru project at UWTSD says: “This Industry Summit aims to explore issues and challenges facing manufacturing in Wales so that we can work together with employers to find solutions. 

“We always start with asking a manufacturer what their biggest problem is today and look at how we can help them with it.

“We aim to unravel potentially confusing challenges like these. Our approach begins by looking at what companies need to increase their productivity and competitiveness.

“We aim to lead the businesses we work with through a journey of continuous improvement – a journey that makes the most of Industry 4.0 technologies and their ever-growing digital capabilities to help solve the specific problems faced by each company.

“All of the feedback we receive from businesses shapes our curriculum – we want to produce employable, digitally literate graduates who can contribute to their workplace from day one”.

Alison Orrells is CEO and Managing Director of Safety Letterbox and has been one of the organisations participating in the MADE Cymru initiative.

She said: “It was important to keep innovating and investing to set us apart and come out stronger. It’s been intense but we had a game plan – now it is all about business future-proofing, being agile, collaborations and being adaptable.”

Covid-19 has affected every part of a business and shifted the focus from production to survival.

UWTSD recently led a round table discussion with Welsh manufacturers about the future of manufacturing in Wales.

That discussion found that their outlook is positive about the future.

Manufacturers accelerated their adoption of new technologies to enhance and optimise production.

With many employees on furlough, managers took the opportunity to rethink and invest in better IT, particularly communications, training and diversified into new product areas. They looked to local colleges and universities to help shift perceptions of jobs in manufacturing and demonstrated the career opportunities and pathways available.

They also loosened their reliance on overseas imports and looked for suppliers in the UK to minimise future risk of disruption.

All sessions of the Industry Summit are free to attend and places can be booked on the UWTSD website: https://uwtsd.ac.uk/made/made-cymru-industry-summit/

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Education

A long road back for education

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EVEN before schools find out what the new normal will be, the pressure is already on the education system to deliver significantly more.

Some talk about a ‘lost generation’ needing to ’catch-up’ amid concerns those comments stigmatise children. However, the reality is that children have missed months of face-to-face teaching, and that has inescapable consequences.

DISADVANTAGED SLIP FURTHER BEHIND

Wales’s learners have been part of the pandemic’s ‘collateral damage.’

Although, for now, there are more questions than answers, solutions to repair that ‘damage’ will need to be carefully considered and delivered during the Welsh Parliament’s sixth term.

Even before the pandemic, Wales already faced an uphill struggle to secure good educational outcomes for all its learners.

The most disadvantaged learners have extra challenges which can prevent them from achieving their full potential.

Even though the previous Welsh Government invested £585 million since 2012 through the Pupil Development Grant (PDG), the attainment gap it was seeking to close, didn’t narrow.

It also typically widens as learners get older.

There’s a stark difference between children eligible for free school meals and their peers at Key Stage 4, the two years where learners usually take GCSEs and other examinations.

Children and young people themselves are well placed to give their verdict.

A 2021 Children’s Commissioner survey of 20,000 children found that 35% didn’t feel confident about their learning, compared to 25% in May 2020. 

63% of 12–18-year-olds were worried about falling behind.

There are countless reports setting out adults’ views about how missing more than half a year of ‘face-to-face’ schooling has affected learners.

One of the major concerns is the variation between what schools have delivered to pupils.

There’s a long list of potential impacts:

·        ‘Lost learning’ meaning pupils could underperform academically and have their long-term prospects affected.

·        A loss of confidence in the examination and assessment system.

·        Long-term reductions in school attendance, a factor known to be key to educational outcomes.

·        Difficult transitions between school years and from primary to secondary.

·        Challenges in re-engaging learners and addressing low motivation.

·        An unhelpful ‘catch up’ narrative about lost learning placing unnecessary psychological pressure on children and young people; and

·        A negative effect on learners’ ability and confidence to communicate in Welsh where they haven’t been able to do so at home.

WIDER EFFECTS

As well as these obvious educational issues, there are wider predicted effects.

Current learners could earn less, with one estimate of up to £40,000 in a lifetime.

The harm to children’s physical health and a higher prevalence of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, are also serious concerns.

 The pandemic’s wider economic impact is also likely to increase the number of children living in low-income families.

Again, it’s the most disadvantaged learners who are predicted to bear the brunt in the longer term.

For example, in March 2021, the Child Poverty Action Group found that 35% of low-income families responding to its UK wide survey were still without essential resources for learning, with laptops and devices most commonly missing.

The Fifth Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee heard that there is “plenty of evidence” that” there are striking differences between families in terms of their ability to support young people in their learning: the resources they have around them, the enthusiasm, the engagement, the commitment”.

REBUILDING TRUST

There must be work to rebuild relationships that have been under significant strain during the past 12 months.

Those between teaching unions and the decision-makers within the education system; between parents/carers and schools; and perhaps, most importantly, re-establishing the relationship between learners and their teachers.

Some of the immediate solutions which are already on the table or up for discussion are: more money, including the ‘Recruit, Recover and Raise Standards funding’; more teachers and learning assistants on the ground; changing term times; and setting up summer schools, holiday clubs and home tuition.

However, the longer-term problems are far harder to solve.

One estimate puts the cost of Wales’s journey back from COVID-19 at £1.4 bn to meet the challenges to the education system alone.

The opportunity exists for major reform and an examination of the whole approach to and aim of education.

Children and young people’s return to the classroom has been heralded as a big chance to put their well-being at the heart of education. As well as having a positive impact on well-being, put, mentally healthy children are much more likely to learn.

Following pressure from the Fifth Senedd’s CYPE Committee and its stakeholders, Wales has already made a significant shift towards establishing a ‘Whole School Approach to Mental Health’. The challenge during the Sixth Senedd will be to deliver it.

PERMANENT CHANGE

The potential sting in the tail is that, at the same time, the education system is getting children back to school, it also contends with major legislative reform.

This is in the form of wholesale changes to both the school curriculum and support for learners with Additional Learning Needs.

Some may argue that there’s been no better time to have such significant changes.

If the education system can successfully implement these three major reforms, arguably Wales will complete significant leg work and be on a firmer footing to meet the challenges presented by Covid-19.

At this stage there may be many more questions than answers for the education system.

The world into which learners will move has changed forever.

Not only has the pandemic interrupted their schooling, but the future journeys they were expected to make into the workplace or further and higher education could be unrecognisable.

The skills and aptitudes needed in the ‘new normal’ are only now beginning to be identified and are likely to be different from those needed before the pandemic began.   

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Education

UWTSD launches new Vocal Performance degree

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UWTSD has launched a new Vocal Performance degree for the next academic year.


Building on the success of the postgraduate programmes at the Wales International Academy of Voice, the newly devised BMus (Hons) Vocal Performance is a specialist industry-focused programme for singers.
The new programme is delivered by expert academics and practitioners of national and international repute within a specialist facility.


Students will be offered extensive 1-to-1 vocal tuition, and masterclasses from world-renowned artists, and of course all of this will be located within our specialist facility in Cardiff.

Modules on the programme examine areas such as vocal technique, performance studies, movement, music theory, technologies of performance and performance projects designed to develop a holistic approach to vocal performance.


Assessment on this programme is by a range of methods offering opportunities to present learning in a variety of different ways throughout the course.


Learning methods include performances, portfolios, technical assessments, recording, electronic testing, arranging, mock auditions, podcasting, essay writing and presentations.


The staff at the Wales International Academy of Voice are looking forward for students to enrol on this newly designed degree.


David Bebbington, Academy Manager and Programme Director said: “Students on the new BMus programme will study voice in a holistic context, enabling them to engage with performance in a variety of settings, and introducing them to the multitude of opportunities available in their future careers.


“Central to the vision of the programme is ‘the industry’, and as such elements of the course will involve aspects of performance, recording, movement, music theory and studio techniques for example.


“At the end of the course, students will move into performance, music creation, teaching or a host of other session music opportunities.”


Barry Liles, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the Wales Institute of Science and Art (WISA) said: “The University is pleased to witness the strategic development of a BMus in Vocal Performance at the Wales International Academy of Voice.


“We believe this programme will provide an exciting opportunity for a significantly greater number of undergraduates to join our prestigious, world-class academy.


“Based on our enviable reputation within this vocal domain, the new programme will provide progression opportunities for our students on to postgraduate study or as practitioners in the sector.”


It is anticipated that graduates of the Vocal Performance programme will commence careers as performers, creators, teachers, recording artists and within various other related disciplines. The BMus (Hons) Vocal Performance may also lead to further postgraduate study.

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