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.

4 thoughts on “The Diamond Challenge

  1. Dafydd rightly ends his piece reminding the reader that it is not possible to adequately fund each desired outcome as they compete for finite resources. Understandably he reminds us of current state of public finances; however we should understand that this competition has always been present. Westminster decided more than a decade ago to raise an increasing proportion of university funding directly from students. When Wales decided not to follow this path (largely) it had to fund that decision. Mainly Wales has allocated less money to schools and less money to Universities in order to provide more money for students. Unfortunately the debate here has almost entirely concentrated on student funding with little attention given to the consequent reduced funding elsewhere.

  2. I did my MSc (electronic product engineering) at the University of Glamorgan (a few years after it changed from being the Polytechnic of Wales). Applying for funding I was informed I was not eligible. To support myself during my degree I had a few part time jobs (working the weekend in a national supermarket and working a few shifts a week in the kitchen of a national hotel / restaurant chain, not saying their names but if you are from Newport the supermarket was in Duffryn and the hotel was at the Coldra). As I had been working and not unemployed I was not eligible for funding. The best part is the lady then asked me if I had been in the army, police force, and about 3-4 other good occupations, answering no she said that’s a shame as I would have received funding. No beef, ex-military, police deserve it. She then went on to ask if I had been in prison, had been on a drug rehabilitation program or had 3-4 other social problems. So being a plain Joe who had worked to support himself I was not eligible for funding. If I was “suffering” from anti-social behaviour or if I had been in prison I would have been given funding. In the postgraduate funding review please remember us ordinary people.

  3. The author does not mention the present debate about how nursing education (probably the largest subject area in HEIs) is funded. At present all pre-reg nursing education (both course costs and student support) is funded through a fixed number of places commissioned by the NHS. This has several problems, not least that for several years the number of places commissioned does not meet the workforce needs on which they are supposed to be based – because this budget is a soft target easily cut in times of austerity. Moreover student support is currently provided through NHS bursaries at a level which causes great hardship to students. The English government has decided to charge tuition fees (currently contained in the commissioning tariff) and to replace NHS bursaries by loans as for other students.
    There is currently a battle to retain bursaries, but I believe this is quite the wrong battle and will not solve the problems. Wales now has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create radical change – we have devolved responsibility for both health and education, a tuition fees policy which is already different from England, and Brexit releases us from the EU Directives on nursing education which currently define the length, organisation, and content of nursing education (intended to enable free movement of labour through mutual recognition of qualifications)
    What will Wales decide? I have several ideas about how to do it, and have asked Dai Lloyd to ask the Health and Social Care Committee to look at it. Is anybody interested in doing anything about it?

  4. Universities have and continue to do many important things but this continued commercialisation and financialisation of students is not right for them or society as a whole. We have produced a system where 6 good “O” Levels used to be required to get a decent job, then 3 good “A” levels to get a decent job with a good degree to get a decent job. Originally the policy was to divert young people away from the labour market when the economy was not creating jobs but it has become a market and industry in itself with increasing numbers of professions becoming accesible only via a degree (eg paramedics).

    For many students the amount of contact time has been progressively reduced over the decades and the class sizes progressively larger and larger and despite students working harder (both on the degree and in jobs to support themselves) the rewards are limited as they are competing with huge numbers of other students with similar degrees.

    They are then under pressure to mark themselves out by investing in a Masters.

    Finally for many 18 is not the time for them to go to University, life is not a conveyor belt, there should be an onus on schools and universities to encourage a more variable age and experience intake.

    As far as funding is concerned the Welsh Government is constrained by the money doled out by Westminster but constraints on public sphere spending is a pure choice. Quantative easing did not have to go to the banks.

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