The Welsh University Challenge

Last week I received an email from BBC Wales asking me to get in touch with one of their reporters. It turned out to be about a blog post I wrote some time ago concerning the recent decision by the Welsh Assembly Goverment to pay the fees of Welsh domiciled students wherever they go to study within the UK. The reporter had read my post and wanted to “pick my brains” for a story she was working on. I didn’t have time  last week as I was too busy, but I found out yesterday that the BBC had indeed run a story.

According to the BBC version, the policy of paying for Welsh students to go to English universities will cost the Welsh Assembly Government £51.7 million in 2015-6 although,  according to their projections, this will be more than offset by an expected £83.5 million coming from English students electing to study in Wales (who will have to pay their own fees).

The net cost of this policy will be about £97.6 million in the same year, allowing for the assumed net profit from English students, which will be met by cutting the core teaching grants to Welsh universities by about 35% – this is less than the cuts in England, but big cut nevertheless.

But these calculations depend on several assumptions. One is what level of fees are charged. If all English universities charge £9K (which is possible) then the outflow of cash related to Welsh students going to England increases. If Welsh university fees are capped at £6K (which also seems likely) then the cash inflow decreases. In fact, in this scenario the differential between  money in and money out completely disappears.

Moreover there is the question of how many students move in each direction. It’s possible that in the Age of Austerity more students will be forced to study near their family homes, which will also alter the balance. In addition, student places are being cut  in Wales while there is a possibility that the cap on numbers in English universities will soon be lifted. This raises the possibility that Welsh students may be forced to study in England anyway, as they might not be able find a place in Wales. We’re certainly not going to benefit much in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University from the current boom in applications, as our numbers have been cut since last year despite applications going up by 50%…

On the other hand – and I’ve anecdotal evidence for this from talking to parents at UCAS admissions days – there seems also to be a feeling that the WAG’s commitment to students is serving to convince a number of English residents that the Welsh universities are in safer hands than those in England.

So, although I strongly support the WAG’s reasons for wanting to help Welsh students as much as possible there remains considerable uncertainty about how things will pan out over the next few years. It could get very grim if reality departs significantly from the projections.

One of the arguments put forward by Leighton Andrews (the Welsh Assembly Minister responsible for Universities in Wales) is that the policy of paying for Welsh students to go to England was in fact a commitment made the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition that controls the Welsh Assembly. That’s fair enough,  but of course it makes one wonder what will happen if the balance changes with the Welsh Assembly Elections due in May 2011.

Only when we know the complexion of the new WAG will we learn whether it might revisit the policy. I’ve heard many arguments for and against, but it still strikes me as very strange to see the devolved administration spending so much of its hard-earned budget in England. That £50.7 million would go a long way if it were kept in Wales.

All things considered, however, despite all the difficulties I think the situation is much more positive for universities in Wales than in England.

Incidentally, another sensible idea being discussed by Leighton Andrews is that Welsh schools might be forced to ditch “soft” A-level subjects, such as (inevitably) Media Studies, in favour of “quality” ones (presumably including mathematics and physics). Perhaps he should do the same for Mickey Mouse degrees in Welsh universities too?

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7 Responses to “The Welsh University Challenge”

  1. I read the BBC story a few hours after it was published, and reacted with more than a little exasperation.

    What irritated me about the article is that it placed emphasis heavily on money from the Welsh Assembly Government going to fund Welsh students studying at universities outside Wales: the £50 million pounds predicted to go from Wales to England. I was irritated that the article mentioned only much later the Welsh Assembly Government’s prediction that there will be a flow of about £85 million in increased fees from students elsewhere in the United Kingdom into Welsh universities. The prediction, dependent on a number of uncertain factors and policy decisions, is that there will be a substantial net flow of money into Wales, as a result of the popularity of Welsh universities among students from elsewhere in the UK.

    I went from Wales to study at an English university many years ago, before students had to pay any fees themselves. My local authority paid my fees to an English institution, just as English local authorities paid the fees of some students to study at Welsh universities. A flow of students across borders enriches the experiences of the students, and expands their opportunities to find courses that suit their particular interests.

    I was disappointed by the sensationalism in the article.

    • Bryn,

      You attended university before devolution took place and before the Westminster government decided to put up fees for English universities. Times have changed in both regards.

      I am skeptical of the predictions but as I tried to explain above, the uncertainty extends even to the sign of the net flow of funding. If the cap on numbers is tightened in Wales but loosened in England, and English universities charge higher fees than Welsh ones then the policy could be ruinous. But these are uncharted waters and we’ll just have to see.

      I’ve nothing against Welsh students going to study in England but if they do they why shouldn’t they be in the same boat as English students, paying the fee themselves?

      After all, you wouldn’t want the WAG to pay the fees of Welsh students going to study in the USA (or another foreign country), or would you?

      I’d like to see Welsh universities set a lower fee than across the border, drawing English students here but pay the fee only for Welsh students studying in Wales. The famous £50K would then stay in Wales and much of the putative £85M would still come in. All this would offset the 35% cuts to the teaching grant.

      Peter

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Peter,

    The central problem we have is that, as you suggest, we really have no idea how things will work out either with the new English or the new Welsh student funding systems. I fully expect the Welsh Assembly Government will monitor how things develop and will modify its policy accordingly.

    We may see a fall in the number of young people from homes in England who choose to go to university, because of fears about paying back the very high fees. A system of lower fees (about £6000 per annum) in Wales than in England might attract applications from large numbers of students from England. Raising caps on student numbers in Wales would be a sensible response in that case.

    I would have no problem with some contribution being made from Wales to send students to the United States. I have no problem with residence in Wales being used as the criterion to assess whether a person’s higher education is subsidised, wherever they go.

    Time will tell how things develop, and how the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy needs to be adjusted.

    Bryn.

  3. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Like Bryn, I went to a university in London, and my LEA (Dyfed as it was then, in West Wales) paid my fees, and a small contribution to my maintenance grant.

    I applaud WAG’s attempt to subsidise the cost of higher education for Welsh students compared to what Westminster has decided to do in England. As someone who believes giving a higher education to people benefits ALL of society, not just the student, I’m pleased that WAG is willing to make the financial burden of getting a degree less onerous.

    I also think it’s right that this financial aid should extend to Welsh students wishing to do their degrees outside of Wales. If my children decide to go to university, I would like their choice of where to go to be determined by the suitability of the course and the (perceived) quality of the department, not by the cost. WAG’s plans seem to ensure this.

    As both Bryn and Peter say, whether WAG is out of pocket in this will depend on a number of unknown factors. All we have at the moment are projected costs, with a number of unknown quantities going in to those calculations.

    What WAG, and people who care about Wales, need to ensure is that Welsh universities don’t just become a cheaper option compared to universities elsewhere. We need to compete on quality first and foremost, with price being a secondary consideration.

  4. The BBC is now reporting that the basic student fee in Wales will be set at only £4000, not £6000. The upper limit will be £9000 as in England. Universities will be allowed to charge above the minimum if they make commitments to open access and social inclusion.

    (In practice, the commitment to open access will probably be fairly straightforward to realise in Welsh universities. The old University of Wales was founded to provide higher education to all sectors of society and became known as the “working man’s university” at the start of the 20th century.)

    • This news makes me very nervous indeed, although it may just be a political move. With the WAG elections coming up in May 2011 it may sound good to say the minimum fee is £4K and help the administration get re-elected. After the election we may find out the fees are the same as England after all.

  5. My view is that the Welsh fees will have to be close to the level in England, and the English fees will have to be at least £7000-£8000 to maintain university funding at their old level before the spending cuts, and higher than thisvif universities themselves contribute anything to bursaries for students from poorer families.

    We’ll have to see how things develop. What is important is that the Welsh university sector keeps in contact with the Welsh Assembly Government. The WAG will listen to informed, polite lobbying when developing policy (it’s totally different in character to the United Kingdom Government). The only real danger will come from a failure to inform the WAG of potential future problems, or from obvious self-serving attempts from vice-chancellors to maximise their income.

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