The Dissolution of the Assembly

Yesterday’s mail included a polling card for the forthcoming elections to the Welsh Assembly. Coincidentally, I found out this morning that the Welsh Assembly will be dissolved on 31st March, to be re-convened on or after 5th May when the elections are finished.

Until Thursday the Welsh Assembly Government comprises a coalition of New Labour and Plaid Cymru and, although I don’t know enough about Welsh politics to predict what’s going to happen with any real confidence, it seems reasonably likely that not much will change. I can’t see the Tories or LibDems making any gains, at any rate.

I’m not sure of the extent to which Higher Education will be important in the forthcoming election campaign. It sure be, of course, as the relevant issues are those over which the Assembly has direct responsibility, education being one. The WAG’s hands are tied to a large extent by the funding it receives from Westminster, and it also has many other calls on its purse, but I do hope the new WAG, whatever its complexion is, will do the right thing by Welsh universities when it re-forms in May.

I have to admit, though, that I’m very worried for the future. As I predicted when the new funding arrangements for English universities were announced, the vast majority – and certainly all the research intensive ones – will be charging the full £9K fee level from 2012. That means the current WAG’s commitment to pay fees for Welsh-domiciled students wanting to study in England will be much more expensive than the WAG’s estimates, which were based on an average fee level of £7.5K. English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay whatever fee Welsh universities charge, which isn’t known yet.

Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales, compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If numbers remain the same, in order for the funds coming in from England to exceed the money going to England, the fee level charged in Wales must  be at least 64% of that charged in England, i.e. £5760 if all English universities charge £9K. That’s way above the putative mininum fee level of £4K announced by the WAG; if Welsh universities charge fees at that level then the WAG will be providing a large net subsidy to English universities.

And breaking even isn’t anywhere near enough. The WAG has signalled an intention to top-slice teaching budgets by about 40%. We don’t yet know how that will be implemented, university-by-university and department-by-department,  but unless there are to be wholesale closures of “expensive” subjects (i.e. science and engineering) fee levels will have to rise substantially above the level calculated above. My own employer, Cardiff University, a member of the Russell Group of research-led universities, will probably want to brand itself alongside the English universities belonging  to this club by charging a high fee. I hope it doesn’t do this, but  the WAG’s policies are pushing it in that direction. As one of Wales’ biggest recruiters of English students, Cardiff will have to charge high fees in order to be seen as being of the same quality as leading English universities as well as to make up for funding lost in the latest round of deep cuts to recurrent grants.

The recent rhetoric of the WAG is all about achieving greater control of the HE sector in Wales to align it with strategic priorities within the Principality. This is certainly justifiable in principle as Wales has a university system which is far too fragmented and chaotic. Paradoxically, however,  the WAG’s own policies seem to be forcing Welsh universities to look to England for income to make up for the big cuts recently announced.

So what’s the alternative?

I think it would be much more rational to ditch the commitment to fund Welsh-domiciled students for studying in England. If a student wants to go to England then they should experience the same fee regime as students domiciled there. After all, you wouldn’t expect the WAG to pay fees for a Welsh student to go to America, would you? The cash thus saved should be reinvested in Welsh Higher Education, in accordance with the WAG’s strategic priorities, and in keeping tuition fee levels as low as possible within the Principality. The best way to avoid tuition fee levels of £9K is to maintain core grants at a level that makes it unnecessary to charge so much.

It seems to me that this plan is a better deal for Welsh students, for English students wanting to study in Wales,  for Welsh universities, and for the Welsh Assembly Government, but then I’m used to being in a minority of one.

Let’s just say I’ll be reading the party manifesto statements with great interest over the next few weeks…


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3 Responses to “The Dissolution of the Assembly”

  1. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Peter – I haven’t crunched through the numbers like you. What does the recently announced 14% odd cut in NEXT year’s HEFCW budget mean for the shortfall in funding in Welsh universities?

    I fully expect Cardiff, and maybe the other pre-92 universities in Wales, to charge 9,000 pounds or close to it, so as not to be seen to be “inferior” to the better English universities, as I suspect many parents and potential students will base their assessment of the quality of a university on the fees it is charging, higher fees being deemed to indicate better quality.

    I worry about all of this. Are we moving towards being the only (?) European country where higher education is largely privatised. Although I worked for 8 years in private HE institutes in the US (mainly the 6 I spent at the University of Chicago), so am not against privately funded HE in principle, this sort of sea-change cannot happen in a few short years. Americans (those who can afford it) save for their childrens’ HE from birth, so by the time the child reaches 18 the middle-class parents have a nice sum of money to fund their child’s $40,000 or so a yaer HE. We have no such tradition in the Disnuited Kingdom, so to expect parents who have been used to thinking in terms of 3,200 pounds a year to suddently find 3 times that is expecting a lot.

    And, whilst it would be hypocritical of me to say I am against privately funded HE (having worked in it for 8 years), I would hope that the DUK can be more like the rest of Europe in seeing HE as something government should fund, because of ALL the benefits it brings to society. We wouldn’t question the state funding 4-18 education, so why should HE be any different? ALL forms of education benefit not only the indivdual, but society as a whole.

    I am not sure how I feel about your suggestion that Welsh students going to English universities should not enjoy the subsidy that WAG is suggesting. I would hate for my children to feel restricted in the university they can attend, but I also take your point that WAG is unlikely to subsidise a student going to the US, so why should they subsidise a student going to England…..

  2. “Yesterday’s mail included a polling card for the forthcoming elections to the Welsh Assembly. “.

    Yesterday in Germany were “state” elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate and county and municipal elections in Hesse. The main results were huge losses for the FDP (roughly corresponding to the LibDems) and huge wins for the green party. In fact, Baden-Württemberg will soon have the first prime minister (at the Bundesland, or “state”, level) from the green party. The conservative CDU is still the largest party, but the left vote is about evenly split between the SPD (“Labour”) and the Greens. These two, taken together, have an absolute majority and, since the Green party is the largest party in the coalition, very, very probably the tradition will be followed which dictates that the largest party in the coalition gets to choose the prime minister.

    Note that with a first-past-the-post system, the conservative CDU would have a huge majority in parliament, even though they have substantially less then 50% of the popular vote.

    This is even more remarkable since Baden-Württemburg (the southwest state bordering on Switzerland and France) is traditionally quite conservative and along with Bavaria is one of only two states which have always had a conservative government since WWII.

    Everyone agrees the main reason is that it is a reaction to the nuclear catastrophe in Japan and a vote against the federal government’s decision to partially reverse the phase-out of nuclear power in Germany enacted by the red-green coalition a few years ago. (After the events in Japan, the federal government put a 3-month moratorium on the reversal, ostensibly as a reaction to the events in Japan. At a meeting with industry bosses, the economics minister from the FDP mentioned behind closed doors that the real motivation was to avoid a move to the greens in the upcoming elections. However, this was leaked, the result being that the move to the greens (and away from the FDP) was probably even larger than it otherwise would have been.)

    News from Germany but in English from the online version of the most reputable weekly news magazine: http://www.spiegel.de/international/ .

  3. stringph Says:

    The Germans would have bigger problems than nuclear power plants and Liberal politicians if a magnitude 9 earthquake struck. The fact that most Japanese reactors were basically unaffected by the most powerful earthquake in history isn’t a very strong argument against nuclear power.

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