The Diamond Challenge

Dafydd Trystan looks at the challenges facing Professor Sir Ian Diamond’s review into higher education and student finance.

The long awaited Diamond report into higher education funding will shortly be published. At the request of the Welsh Government, Sir Ian Diamond and his expert team of reviewers have sought to put together a package of funding and support for higher education that is sustainable. The scale of the challenge is significant, since 2010 when the Welsh Government introduced the tuition fee grant the Higher Education sector in the UK has been transformed.

Fees have risen to £9,000, and are projected to rise even further in the years ahead. Funding for universities has rapidly shifted from funding council grants to student fees – thus creating an unprecedented marketplace environment in the sector, and de facto pushing universities further away from the public sector and into the private realm. The UK government, for England, has also lifted the controls on student numbers and more recently enabled significant growth in alternative providers. The most recent proposals in the UK Higher Education Bill make it considerably easier for any organization to set up a ‘University’ in England. And to further add to the breathless pace of change a new Teaching Excellence Framework has been introduced which will allow universities (in England) to charge higher fees if their teaching is deemed to be excellent. It is almost certain that Welsh Universities will be able to take part in the TEF, but it is much less clear whether fees will be able to rise in Wales as in England.

This brief précis of developments in HE themselves provide a challenging and changing context for the Diamond report. But, add in severe pressure on the public finances and a growing number of students from Wales successfully applying to University and one begins to comprehend the scale of the Diamond challenge.

In many ways, the Diamond report is a delicate balancing act. Addressing a Labour Minister one might have suggested that the maxim ‘socialism is the language of priorities’ was suitable, but it seems rather less so given the current Education Secretary. She has already, in a recent speech hinted at a direction of travel by committing to a system that is based on progressive universalism. The devil will of course be in the detail and prioritization will be key amongst a range of competing priorities:

  • Student numbers. Will student numbers attending universities to continue to increase?
  • Student Fees. Should students still receive support to pay part of their fees – for students from Wales the Welsh Government pays more than £5,000 of the fees each year? [It is well worth remembering here that student fee loans only become repayable once you earn a particular level of salary – and even then most graduates are not expected to pay off their entire loan. Loans are written off after 30 years]
  • Student maintenance.  More directly relevant to student life is the increasing cost of living for students at universities. Will there be any support for student living costs – should this be universal or means-tested and should it be grant-based or loan-based?
  • Widening Access. Levels of participation in higher education from deprived communities in Wales are lower than similar communities in England (despite the tuition fees policy!). What can and should be done to address this problem?
  • Welsh universities. There has long been a persistent funding gap between the funding allocated to universities in Wales and those in England. Will the report seek to enhance the resources available to Welsh universities and thus boost the Welsh economy?
  • Part Time Study. The number of part time students has fallen in recent years and support for such students is proportionately lower than that of what full time students can receive. What can be done to better support part time students?
  • Postgraduate Study.  In England students are now entitled to loans of up to £10,000 to support their postgraduate studies. At the moment no such scheme exists in Wales, and therefore how should postgraduate study be supported and encouraged in Wales?
  • Research. The budget for research funding in Wales has fallen in real terms over the last five years. To support a knowledge-based Welsh economy should more funding be allocated to research?
  • Public Policy Priorities.  The Welsh Government has set out a number of public policy priorities in recent years – including STEM subjects, Welsh Medium study, Science Policy, Medical education and other more expensive subjects. Once again the budget for public policy priorities, allocated through the funding council has fallen (pretty dramatically) in recent years – if these areas are priorities how are they to be resourced?

Each of these areas is complex and requires considerable thought, but the core challenge facing Diamond is the context of the public finances. In the current climate, with the best will in the world it will not be possible to fully address each of these competing priorities. The Diamond challenge, if you like, will be to balance these priorities and put forward a plan that can endure for a generation or more. Furthermore – to add another difficulty to the mix – changes to Higher Education funding take time. While it is generally accepted that it will be difficult to implement many changes for 2017/18, ensuring implementation by the beginning of 2018/19 academic year will be crucial for success.

I wish Professor Diamond and his reviewers well, on what is an unenviable task, but one which could provide the basis for the future success of Welsh students and universities for years to come.

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