Heini Gruffudd argues that we should stop subsiding those who choose to study outside the country
Finance directors of Welsh universities have queried the subsidising of Welsh students who study in other parts of the UK. Their concern is the adequate funding of Welsh universities. Another way to look at this is to ask whether the current policy of subsidies best serves the educational and economic interest of Wales. Of particular concern in the light of the 2011 Census figures, does this policy have relevance for the Welsh language?
It takes some effort to wade through the mass of statistics provided by the universities and UCAS. One thing is clear: the share of applications by 18-year-olds to institutions in their home country is far lower in Wales than in Scotland and England. In those two countries, the share is 95 per cent. In Northern Ireland it is around 60 per cent and rising. In Wales it is just over 40 per cent and falling.
The position of English students is easily explained by strength of student numbers and places available in English universities. Scotland’s large percentage of stay-in-Scotland students can be attributed to a largely different education system, but also to the decision of the Scottish Parliament to allow Scottish and EU students to study free of charge in Scotland. If they study in other parts of the UK they face up to £9,000 in fees.
Similarly, Northern Ireland differentiates between studying at home and elsewhere. In 2012 Northern Irish students paid £3,465 to study in their own country, but £9,000 to study elsewhere. The Welsh Government was for some unknown reason more generous. Welsh students paid just £3,465 to study in all parts of the UK. A UCAS report notes that Welsh students “are the only UK group of young applicants whose application rate to English institutions has risen in 2012”. We are either the most broad-minded nation, or the one with the most inadequate self-perception.
The effect is clear. Since 2010, and especially since the introduction of differential fees in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales has seen a disengagement between its students and home universities not witnessed in other countries of the UK, nor probably in Europe. Wales is now the only country where there is a decrease in students in its own universities and a corresponding increase in students in other countries. The Welsh Government policy seems to suggest to Welsh students that there is no merit in studying in Wales.
One may ponder the result of this brain drain. How many students come back to the country that invested thousands of pounds in their primary and secondary education? There are no readily available statistics on this, but one can assume that a substantial proportion contribute to economic activity elsewhere. And how are other aspects of Welsh life – be it in the health service, national and local government administration, or education – affected by this? One can cite Carmarthenshire education service, where just 20 per cent of the staff speak Welsh, a situation which desperately calls for more Welsh speakers.
The recently established Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol has been given responsibility to develop teaching through the medium of Welsh in Welsh universities, working in partnership with the universities and providing Welsh medium modules in a wide range of subjects. Lecturers and staff are appointed to develop innovative courses which can be delivered in all colleges.
The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales supports the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol by around £4 million annually, with the aim of developing provision and increasing take-up of the provision by students. The College is developing nicely, but for it to succeed the numbers of Welsh speaking students studying in Wales must be maximised. A change of funding could be the deciding factor for a few thousand more Welsh students to stay in Wales, and these will include several hundred Welsh-speaking students.
The Welsh Government now gives around £31 million to support Welsh students who study outside Wales. This money would be better spent on Welsh universities to lower fees for all Welsh students studying inside Wales, or it could target students from comparatively deprived communities. A system should be put in place to ensure that Welsh universities accept a greater proportion of Welsh applicants.
Some may worry that giving priority to the needs of the Welsh education system and Welsh civic life would not cater for those students who aspire academic excellence in Oxbridge or equivalent institutions. However, only about 80 Welsh students a year enter these universities. Some especially targeted support could assist this small group, and also for students whose academic needs are not catered for by Welsh universities, and whose talents and qualifications are needed by Wales.
The solution to the well-being of the Welsh language, and its expanding use as language of home, society and work in a bilingual Wales, will probably not be found in a single grand initiative. Rather we need a myriad of smaller schemes, policies and actions which together will build this Wales. A change in the student grant subsidy to favour Welsh students staying in Wales will be a significant building block if not the cornerstone of the Wales so many of us envisage.