On the 20th August Education Minister Huw Lewis announced that he was removing Welsh Government funding for the Financial Contingency Fund. The FCF is a hardship fund that supports students who are on the brink of dropping out of university. It helps student parents to pay for childcare, enabling them to access and remain in higher education and provides assistance to the most financially vulnerable students who are desperate to learn and reach their potential.
The current NUS Wales President Beth Button and students’ union officers across Wales have launched a campaign to #saveFCF and are right to be outraged. They understand the importance of this fund and all know students who would have dropped out of university without it. They are not alone in their frustration and disappointment.
In 2011 Huw Lewis and many other Labour candidates made a promise to me and other student leaders in Wales to protect the Financial Contingency Fund throughout the fourth Assembly. He was one of the many candidates from across a range of parties who signed the NUS Wales ‘Access All Areas’ pledge:
‘We believe that the Welsh Assembly Government has a duty to provide financial assistance to students, and that current levels of student support such as the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the Assembly Learning Grant (ALG) and the Financial Contingency Fund (FCF) should be protected during the next Assembly term.’
Student activists across Wales worked hard to persuade each political party and their candidates that they should sign up to this pledge. We provided case studies and highlighted the importance of EMA, ALG and FCF to the most financially vulnerable students. The day before the election we published a list of the candidates who had promised to protect student support, urging our members and the general public to vote for them.
We had spent several months encouraging students across Wales to register to vote and participate in the Assembly election. People’s faith in politicians had been severely damaged when MPs went back on their promises in 2010 and voted to triple tuition fees. However, we were determined to ensure that students made it to the polling stations on election day.
We are, after all, lucky to live in a country where we have the right to political expression and can vote in local and national elections without the fear of intimidation or violence. Students and youth leaders in other countries, such as Swaziland, are arrested and tortured for their participation in democracy. We believed it was important for students to vote and make their voices heard.
When the Assembly election results were announced we found that 76.7% of the successful candidates had signed the pledge – 100% of Labour AMs, 91% of Plaid Cymru AMs, 40% of Liberal Democrat AMs and 29% of Conservative AMs. We were delighted that every member of the Welsh Government and a clear majority of Assembly Members were committed to maintaining student support levels throughout the upcoming Assembly term. We felt proud that we had played our part in protecting EMA, ALG and FCF for the students who followed us.
Three years on and we are all working in different jobs across education, health and social justice. However, we still remember the 2011 election campaign. We still remember the promises made to us by Labour candidates such as First Minister Carwyn Jones, Education Minister Huw Lewis and Finance Minister Jane Hutt.
The Welsh Government has said that it expects higher education institutions to pick up the bill and finance the FCF locally. Unfortunately, this approach fails to take into account the diverse nature of the sector. The reality is that pre-92 universities tend to have fewer students from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds. In contrast, the modern post-92 institutions usually have a much higher proportion of mature students, student parents and those from less well-off backgrounds – a population that is more likely to depend on the FCF.
By asking institutions to come up with the funding themselves, the Welsh Government is effectively penalising those which are more successful at widening access to students from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds. As a result, it is absolutely crucial that the Welsh Government continues to ring-fence and distribute this funding across Wales in a fair and equitable manner.
I understand the financial challenges facing a Welsh Government which has seen its block grant reduced by the UK Government over the past few years. However, the FCF costs the Welsh Government approximately £2.1million each year. As NUS Wales President Beth Button has pointed out ‘the relative cost of the Financial Contingency Fund within the wider higher education budget is minimal, yet its impact is huge’.
During my time as NUS Wales president the Welsh Government chose to protect Welsh university students from £9,000 tuition fees and retain EMA for the poorest college students. It chose to be different from the government in London. In contrast it is extremely disappointing that this Education Minister is making a decision which could harm the most financially vulnerable students.
Huw Lewis should reverse his decision because this fund is a lifeline to students who are desperate to remain in education. He should ensure that it is distributed fairly to the students and universities that need it the most. He should protect this funding because he and his colleagues pledged to do so in 2011 – and I’m not sure students can take any more broken promises.