The Welsh University Funding Debacle

Although I no longer work in Wales, I still try to keep up with developments in the Welsh Higher Education sector as they might affect friends and former colleagues who do. That’s why my eye was drawn this morning to a news item on the BBC website about the effect of the Welsh Government’s policy of giving Welsh students bursaries to study at English universities. The gist of the argument is that:

For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border it costs the Welsh government around £4,500.

It means this year’s 7,370 first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m with them. Including last year’s students, the total figure is over £50m.

I did in fact make exactly the same point over three years ago on this blog, when former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from then (then) impending tuition fee rises by a new system of grants. In effect the Welsh Assembly Government would pick up the tab for Welsh students; they would still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG would pay the extra £6K. I wrote in May 2010:

This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

Well, the changes did go ahead, and now the consequences are becoming depressingly clear.

The figures in the BBC story suggest something that I’ve also worried about, which is that the WAG policy might actually increase the number of Welsh students deciding to study in England, while also decreasing the number of other students deciding to study in Wales. Why would this happen? Well, it’s because, at least in STEM subjects, the tuition fee paid in England attracts additional central funding from HEFCE. This additional resource is nowhere near as much as it should be, but is still better than in Wales. Indeed it was precisely by cutting the central teaching grant that the Welsh Government was able to fund its bursaries in the first place. So why should an English student decide to forego additional government support by choosing to study in Wales, and why should a Welsh student decide to do likewise by not going to England?

I really hope the Welsh Government decides to change its policy. There didn’t seem to be any chance of a U-turn while Leighton Andrews remained in charge, but now that he’s gone perhaps there’s hope.

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2 Responses to “The Welsh University Funding Debacle”

  1. There are two crucial statistics, which I haven’t seen anywhere, although a comment from the WAG given in the BBC story suggests the qualitative answer to the first:

    1) What is the net flow of money across the border as the result of English students studying in Wales and Welsh students studying in England. The comment from the WAG claims this is still very positive in the Welsh direction.

    2) How is this statistic changing as the result of all the political changes?

    I have a huge bias in this matter, since I have a child close to university age. However, I don’t particularly like the idea of just giving money for Welsh students to study in Wales, since there is such a tiny pool of universities to choose from. Scotland do this, but I think there these is a sufficiently large and diverse pool of institutions.

    • telescoper Says:

      This is a bit of a non sequitur. Under my proposal, Welsh students would be able to study in England under the same arrangements that apply to English students. They just wouldn’t be subsidized by the Welsh Government to do so.

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