Those of us easily distracted, and less embedded in bureaucracy, could be diverted by discovering that the current Review of Higher Education in Wales is being undertaken by a ‘Task and Finish Group’. In what sense, we might wonder, is Higher Education in Wales to be finished?
Web definitions offer no help: such a group is ‘an informal group of Members established by a Scrutiny Committee to examine a specific issue’. But further inspection of the Assembly website reveals the clue that ‘appointments to task and finish groups fall outside the remit of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointment’s Code of Practice on Public Appointments’.
So, Higher Education in Wales is not to be terminated. But in a December report, according to Universities UK (which represents universities’ executives), it is threatened with relative decline. ‘There is concern that higher education in Wales gets funded less favourably than in England….Estimates of [the funding gap] in 2004/05 vary from £40 to £80 million…. If Scotland and Wales maintain their policies on fees their spending on higher education will be disadvantaged.’
Compared with England, Wales has preferred to emphasise subsidies to students rather than to higher education institutions. Although in 2007/08, full-time undergraduates in Wales were required to pay tuition fees up to £3,070, initially covered by a loan to defer payment (as in England), Welsh-domiciled students studying in Wales also received a £1,845 fee grant. Hence the fees they actually paid were a maximum of £1,225. As the full three years of undergraduate courses come to be eligible, the cost of this grant will jump from £22.3 million in 2007/08 to £78 million in 2010/11. The Assembly Government could have chosen to spend this money instead on the universities themselves.
Oddly enough, although many reports are mentioned in the terms of reference of the current review, there is no mention of the 2005 Rees Report on the subject of fees. Rees pointed out the problem of the funding gap. But the recommendations were somewhat hampered by two motions in the National Assembly two days before the independent review was due to report. The first was against variable fees in principle. The second, instructing the Assembly not to introduce top-up fees, was passed by one vote. The flat rate Tuition Fee Grant for Welsh-domiciled students was the compromise.
Consultation is now open on the recommendations of the section of the review concerned with student finance. The core proposal, approved by the education minister, Jane Hutt AM, is that the flat rate Tuition Fee Grant at the current level is inappropriate. Instead resources should be switched to the (means-tested) Assembly Learning maintenance grant, encouraging participation in higher education by students from low income families. The Minister also favours the recommendation of maintaining the deferred fee payment by extending the Tuition Fee Loan arrangement.
By the end of February 2009, the second report of the review – on the mission, purpose and role of higher education in Wales – is expected. This division of the review into two sequential parts separates the quality of what students are participating in from how they will be encouraged to participate. Yet both institutional quality and participation make demands upon the common pot of higher education funding; more for one category means less for the other.
Judging by the Times Higher Education piece at the beginning of the New Year on the Research Assessment Exercise, it is not self-evident that the Assembly Government has the balance right between these two objectives. Three universities were identified that had risen in the ranking between 2001 and 2008- all English, and four universities that had fallen were allowed to put their cases. Two of these four were Welsh; Cardiff slipped from number 8 to number 22 because of the merger with the University of Wales College of Medicine in 2004, and Lampeter fell from 56th to 83rd.
League tables like the Research Assessment Exercise appeal to the public’s sporting instinct but what the tables mean is often opaque. In this case, however, financial indicators increase the likelihood that Welsh Higher Education must be falling behind England. Universities UK point out that UK Research Council funding for Welsh Universities’ research is lower per head than in England and is declining. Revenue from non-EU students is proportionately higher in England and rising relative to Wales. On top of all this, then, the policy of favouring allocating funds to students rather than to universities does not augur well for the future international standing of Welsh higher education. We must hope the second part of the Review of Higher Education can find acceptable recommendations for boosting resources available to the sector.