A FACTUAL summary of the evidence collected as part of the ongoing review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales was published last week. The review, which is being carried out by a panel chaired by Sir Ian Diamond, began in April 2014. At that stage it was agreed that Sir Ian would produce a factual summary of the evidence he and the panel had collected in autumn 2015. Education Minister, Huw Lewis said: “Since April 2014 Sir Ian Diamond and his review panel have made good progress in reviewing a wide range of evidence and data relating to the Higher Education sector and to Higher Education funding. “The report identifies the key themes arising from that evidence, however it does not make any judgement about the validity or significance of that evidence.
Nor does it seek to represent the Review panel’s view or provide any recommendations. These will be presented in the final report which will be issued in September 2016.” Remarkably, the Minister’s statement contained no reference to the key evidence referred to in the report and the bald summary of facts it presented; namely that the current system of funding undergraduate higher education as it is currently constituted is unsupportable. Welsh Conservatives were swift to welcome Professor Diamond’s interim finding, which they claim confirm the party’s long-standing criticism of Labour’s ‘unsustainable’ tuition fees policy. The report’s conclusion that ‘many respondents were strongly of the view that, in light of sustainability concerns, there is a need to revisit the tuition fee grant policy’ was also highlighted by a Conservative press release which pointed out that their opinions had been reinforced by those expressed by Universities Wales, the Learned Society of Wales and in a report commissioned by the University and Colleges Union, which also called the policy ‘unsustainable’.
Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Education, Angela Burns AM, said: “We welcome the review’s interim findings, which confirm what we have always said; Labour’s policy is entirely unsustainable. “This blunder has always been a misguided vanity project and the evidence against it continues to pile up. Welsh Conservatives are committed to replacing it with a progressive system of living cost support to enable students from all walks of life to get to university.” Mrs Burns restated Conservative claims that the Welsh Government’s commitment to capping the burden of tuition fee loans on Welsh students in England was resulting in Welsh public money subsidising English universities. UCAS’s response to Professor Diamond was particularly telling on that last point: ‘The 15 January (2015) statistical release shows that application rates for Welsh applicants choosing to study at English institutions have further increased, whilst numbers choosing to study at Welsh institutions have decreased’.
There has been an increase of 20% in Welsh domiciled applicants applying to English HE providers since 2010. William Powell, Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales told The Herald he wanted an alternative system for student finance: “Time and time again we see evidence that the struggle to afford living costs is the number one reason why many people are put off applying to go to university. This is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats would change the system and give students financial support upfront to pay for their living costs. William Powell claimed: “This would be a far better arrangement than giving them money in the form of a loan which they have to pay back over a number of years and simply adds an additional burden of debt.” Simon Thomas, Plaid Cymru Shadow Education Minister, said: “There is a case to be made for the refocusing of student support to students studying in Wales, so that Welsh colleges and universities benefit.”
Simon Thomas was clear on the current system’s shortcomings: “The unintended consequence of the current policy – that English universities benefit by millions a year from Welsh government money – must be addressed.” A Welsh Government statement appeared to concede that point, but said the report ‘highlights that Wales is a net importer of students and that as a result Welsh HE institutions receive more in tuition fees from English and other UK students than they pay out to institutions based over the border’. Current higher education (HE) students conveyed mixed views about whether the level of tuition fees acted as a disincentive to young people considering entering HE. Several contributors argued that the sums involved were so large that potential students had become inured to it.
Indeed the fact that it was not a critical consideration for most prospective HE students would seem to support this claim and prospective HE students seemed to take it for granted that they would either earn enough as a result of gaining a degree to be able to pay their debt off relatively easily or, that they would never have to worry about paying back their debt if they did not earn enough. Similarly, HE students alike did not seem themselves as averse to running up debt which would only be repaid in the long-term once earnings thresholds were exceeded. Generally neither current nor prospective HE students were overly concerned about the wider long-term consequences of accruing debt to fund their studies – although student support representatives in particular worried that they ought to be, given that the potential consequences of such debt on longer term prospects (e.g. borrowing for mortgages) was not yet clear. Employers, who generally did not have such a detailed insight into the tuition fees policy, generally thought that the current policy did not seem to be hindering any individuals from enrolling at HE when considering that there was currently an over-supply of graduates within the workforce.
Neither current nor prospective HE students thought that the full £9,000 tuition fees represented reasonable value for money, with some of the more informed current students noting that the idea of a market in HE with institutions offering varying fees had not been realised. It would appear that few prospective HE students had actually given serious consideration to the balance between the costs incurred in attending HE and any premium they would be likely to earn as a result of gaining a degree qualification. Professor Sir Ian Diamond said: “The commitment of so many people to a healthy and vibrant higher education system in Wales bodes well, not only for Welsh Higher Education but, more broadly, for Wales. It further inspires us for the next stage of our work which will be to build on the principles in the interim report to propose a sustainable system of higher education funding for Wales.”