Archive for December 5, 2010

Why should Wales subsidise English universities?

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , on December 5, 2010 by telescoper

As the argument about increased tuition fees for English universities  intensifies in the run-up to Thursday’s debate in the House of Commons,  the Welsh Assembly Government last week announced that fees for students in Wales would rise to a basic level of £6000 per year, with a possible increase to £9000 “in certain circumstances”.

I’m a bit surprised that the WAG made this announcement in advance of the vote in Westminster, as it seems to me to be by no means certain that England will introduce the post-Browne system that Wales is copying. If the increased fee measure for England doesn’t get through Parliament then Welsh universities will find themselves out on a limb.

More generally, I find it extremely disappointing that there seems to be absolutely no independent thinking going on in Wales about Higher Education funding. The responsibility for this is devolved to the WAG, but time and time again it simply copies what the English are doing. What’s the point of having devolution if you haven’t got politicians willing and able to be different from the Westminster crowd?

One thing that Welsh Assembly Minister Leighton Andrews did announce that isn’t the case in England is that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from any tuition fee rise by a new system of grants, meaning that the Welsh Assembly will pick up the tab for Welsh students. They will still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG will pay the extra (between about £3K and £6K). 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…

POSTCRIPT: Leighton Andrews’ speech to the Welsh Assembly can be seen here.