Fees decision proclaims alternative to English model

Deian Hopkin says Wales’ approach to university funding means devolution has come of age

While the Welsh Government’s policy on student fees has been widely applauded in Wales it has raised more than a few eyebrows in Westminster and generated cries of “foul” from certain sections of the English press and the Taxpayers Alliance. The broad thrust of the policy is that Welsh-domiciled students will not be required to pay the huge increases in tuition fees being planned in England following the Browne Review of University Funding and the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The latter has reduced the budget of the Higher Education Funding Council for England by 40 per cent and they in turn have decided to cut the teaching grant to universities by 79 per cent. As a result it is likely that there will be no funding available to support teaching in the arts and humanities, the social sciences and business, the so-called ‘classroom’ subjects. Consequently, universities will have to increase their annual tuition fees by up to 100 per cent, to £7,500 at the very least, and probably more to generate the additional income they claim they need.

Along with Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews, Professor Sir Deian Hopkin will be speaking at tomorrow’s IWA conference on Opportunities for a Confederal University in South West Wales in Carmarthen. Places are still available to attend this conference: full details here.

Nonetheless, it has been pointed out by the Higher Education Policy Institute  that English universities will still be some 30 per cent better off than at present, provided they charge the full £9,000 (The government’s proposals for higher education funding and student finance – an analysis, November 2010). The cost will be borne by graduates, who may emerge with debts of up to £40,000, and ultimately the taxpayer.

The situation in Wales will now be very different. For one thing, the higher education budget in Wales is being reduced by only 12 per cent, less than a third of the English equivalent. For another, while the teaching budget of Welsh universities will be cut by 35 per cent to help pay for the tuition-fee subsidy, this is substantially less than is the case in England.  Nor, so far, is there any mention of discriminating against particular subjects.

Yet, Welsh universities will be able to charge the same fees as in England, up to £9,000 a year. Of course, these fees will be paid in full by the 24,000 or so English, Scottish and Northern Irish students studying in Wales – though not, bizarrely, by European Union students. It may prove difficult to explain to a wider public why a student from Poznan may be paying a third of the fee paid by his or her classmate from Portsmouth. The Portsmouth parent may also wonder why their son or daughter graduates with a debt almost £18,000 higher than their Welsh contemporaries. One solution for Bristol or Liverpool parents, of course, may be to relocate across the border to start qualifying for the three-year residency requirement and save their children substantial money.

On the face of it, this is good news not only for Welsh students (and, perhaps, Welsh estate agents)  but also for Welsh universities themselves.  For some years Welsh university heads have complained that they are less well funded  than their English counterparts. Henceforth, this should not be the case. It may even be the opposite because the direct grant support from the Welsh Government will be greater than in England. So, together with fee increases, the overall income of Welsh universities will increase and restore a more level playing field.

One may ask, if the settlement is relatively more generous for Welsh higher education why should they increase their fees to the same extent as in England? The bottom line is that there is little point in reducing fees except to gain competitive advantage and, given Welsh universities have all the applications they currently need, that seems unnecessary. It is clear, though, that they will have greater scope for fee adjustment than their English counterparts and that will be an important strategic decision for individual institutions.

There is a further agenda at work in Wales. This is the attempt to rationalise higher education provision, perhaps leading to fewer separate institutions. There is a lively debate on this issue across Europe. Denmark, for example, has already taken radical steps to merge universities and technical institutions and other countries are looking closely at the structure of their higher education systems.

On the other hand, in most European countries universities are more directly controlled by the state and have little of the autonomy enjoyed in the UK, while it is too early to tell whether the Danish experiment is working. However, it will be interesting to see how merger and confederation works in South West Wales where some important partnership work is developing between local universities and colleges both to generate efficiency savings but also to provide more seamless progression routes. Certainly, the decision on fees should help the process of widening participation to higher education in Wales – although one should not forget that, despite the generous fee subsidy, Welsh graduates will still have heavier debts than their predecessors. It is all a matter of relativities.

Is this the week when devolution came of age? The Welsh Government’s decision  has demonstrated its ability to set its own course, determine its own priorities and create a distinctive educational provision. In the meantime, Leighton Andrews’ announcement will cause consternation in England, raise the political temperature and provide further fuel to the student protests. After all, it will be said, there is an alternative to the English model after all. It will be fascinating to hear the Coalition government explaining this away.

Professor Sir Deian Hopkin retired as Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University in 2009 after 44 years in higher education, including 24 years at Aberystwyth University where he was Head of the History Department.

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