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The Blog of Adam Price AS/MP, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

Adam Price MP / AS - Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

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19th March 2009

Don’t write off the tuition fee grant…..yet

It was on the Carmarthenshire leg of Ieuan’s Wales-wide walk in 2006 that I first floated the idea of a debt write-off policy  for Welsh students as a means of tackling student debt and addressing the brain drain by attracting those studying in England back home after graduation.  It is to Ieuan’s eternal credit that this Plaid policy - one of our 7407 - is now Welsh Government policy.  There are many other positive things to welcome in the announcement by Jane Hutt (who is, incidentally, a friend whose sincerity I greatly admire - I once stupidly called for her resignation as Health Minister, a mistake I won’t be repeating on this occasion) yesterday.

It will come as no suprise though that I am deeply disappointed by her decision to phase out the Tuition Fee Grant.  I was also  very disappointed by her rather perfunctory response to my four-page letter outlining my concerns about the policy and the consultation process. Since my letter has been published in full I’ll do the same for Jane’s response:

“Dear Adam

I write in reply to your letter of 27th February.

As you will be aware, a great deal of further discussion has gone on over the past three weeks.

The Assembly Government’s collective view is represented by the statement I have made to the Assembly in plenary today, and which I am pleased to include here.

Yours sincerely,

Jane Hutt

I think it would have been a basic courtesy to at least attempt to address the specific points I raised.   Maybe the Minister was advised to keep her counsel in case a judicial review is sought. 

The most serious charge I made was that policy was essentially based on misleading information.  The Cabinet minutes for the meeting of November 17th baldly state: “It was apparent that the TFG had not had the effect of encouraging Welsh students to study at Welsh HEIs.” 

Whether deliberate or not, this is a complete distortion of the facts.  In 2004/05 the proportion of Welsh first-year full-time undergraduate students studying at a Welsh higher education institution was 65.84%.  This figure - the lowest for the four ‘home nations’ - fell further (it had been on a downward trend since 2003/04 despite the explicit Assembly goal of increasing it to 70%) to 64.3% in 2005/06.  Top-up fees were introduced in England in 2006/07 but Wales decided to diverge from the policy and not pass this extra cost onto students (initially by delaying the introduction of variable fees by a year, then by introducing the tuition fee grant the following year so that students didn’t have to pay the top-up element themselves).  The effect of this policy was dramatic:  the proportion of Welsh first-year students staying in Wales increased from 64.3% to 70.8%, with Wales even overtaking northern Ireland in the process.  This progress has been maintained in 2007/08,  the latest year for which figures are available.   

Even Universities UK  (not a body known for its sympathy to anti-fees arguments) had to admit the success of  the policy in its most recent study of the effect of variable fees:   

“As we suggested, the 2006/07 first-year enrolment data on cross-border flows within the UK show a marked increase in the proportion of Welsh-domiciled students choosing to study at Welsh higher education institutions between 2005/06 and 2006/07. The introduction of variable fees in Wales was postponed until 2007/08, so that in 2006/07 Welsh domiciled students enrolling on their first year in 2006/07 faced significantly lower fees than if they had chosen to study at an English institution. Even with the introduction of variable fees in Wales from 2007/08, Welsh-domiciled students have a strong incentive in the form of a fee support grant of £1,835 to enrol at Welsh institutions. The trend towards increased numbers of Welsh-domiciled students choosing to study at Welsh institutions may therefore be expected to continue.”



I will continue to press Jane to publish the policy paper on which the Cabinet discussion was based. 

The second argument employed in defence of the U-turn on fees is that the policy hasn’t  widened particpation in higher education from people from lower income groups.  It is true that the performance of the Welsh HE sector in widening access has been poor - but the fault for that lies not with the tuition fee grant but with the failure of the Government (including previous Education Ministers) to keep the sector to the promises they made when variable fees were introduced.   In England the Government required any university wishing to charge variable fees to publish an access agreement setting out how it planned to widen participation.  A minimum of 30% of the additional money raised through top-up fees had to be spent on access-related measures.  All of this is overseen by OFFA(the Office of Fair Access) to which Universities have a statutory duty to report.  In Wales, the emphasis on access has been much weaker:  no new body was created to oversee implementation instead the responsibility was given to HEFCW; instead of statutory ‘access agreements’ universities must simply produce tuition fee plans which have no legal status and have been much lower profile.   In Wales too, universities wishing to charge top-up fees have been asked to spend at least 30% of the additional funds on widening access and promoting higher education but there has been very little scrutiny of what they are doing with the money. 

Take Cardiff University, for example:  Cardiff’s plan  promised to spend 30% of itas additional income on access/HE promotion in 2007/08 (amounting to £3.908m) rising to 31.88% (£8.158m) in 2011/12.  But if you delve into the detail you see that some of this can hardly be justified as promoting access at all:  half a million a year goes on ‘information services’ and another £110k goes towards two additional teaching posts. It’s difficult to see why these two items of expenditure are included within the 30% of additional funding that is meant to promote HE generally or widen access among under-represented groups.  Most outrageously of all, Cardiff includes £837k rising to £2.587m by the end of the five-year plan (over a quarter of the widening access budget) for estate investment - new buildings essentially - which really should come out of the Universrity’s general budget for capital investment.  This is about the same as the amount ear-marked for the Cardiff University bursary (£2.678m in the final year).  In other words if Cardiff prioritised access properly it could double the amount given to students who need it.

Now Cardiff will undoubtedly argue that needs must - and shiny new lecture theatres are necessary for it to compete with its Russell Group competitors.  That’s as may be, but the fact is that a commitment was made by Ministers on access and it’s the Welsh Assembly Government that has failed to hold the sector to account.  For Ministers then to turn around and blame the tuition fee grant for the failure to make progress on access will simply not wash. The Tuition Fee Grant did its job.  HEFCW and DCELLS simply haven’t been doing theirs. 

The wider implications of the U-turn in Wales is that it makes the task of defeating the proposal to raise the tuition fee cap (which will affect England and Wales) much more difficult.  The success of the distinctive policies on fees in Wales and Scotland  was a significant bulwark against those Vice-Chancellors who want to create a full-scale market in higher education.  The Welsh Assembly Government’s capitulation on fees has strengthened their hand. Jane Hutt was asked what position the Government was taking on this and refused to be drawn.  But raising the cap would have a disastrous effect on Welsh students and the Welsh HE sector.

I am glad that my party has given its members a free vote  on this issue and I hope as many back-benchers as possible vote in line with party policy.  If one party in the Coalition has granted a free vote, then I think it is only fair that Labour members are afforded the same courtesy - Huw Lewis AM has been equivocal about his own position on fees, and Alun Davies - who was President of NUS Wales when I was on their executive - has expressed his preference for a graduate tax which is NUS UK’s current policy.   If the Tories still oppose fees - which is far from certain as they have dropped their opposition in England and Paul Davies yesterday sounded as if he was supporting the Government’s line - then the vote could be close.  The Lib Dems- like Plaid - still have policy opposing fees  since their activists quashed a leadership move to dilute their opposition at their recent Spring Conference - so it’s not just in Plaid that the activists have been on the march.   I still hold out some hope that this vote can be won.  We came within three votes of defeating fees at Westminster.  Perhaps once again the Assembly can succeed where Westminster has failed.

If the vote is lost and any legal action proves unsuccessful, then I am determined to ensure that Plaid will make a clear commitment to reverse this policy come 2011: I’d even like to see us make it  a red line, the price for our participation in any  administation.  It will be a popular policy.  As yesterday’s poll by the University and College Union shows: 60% of people would be more inclined to vote for a political party that promised not to increase university tuition fees.  Only 11% said they would not be influenced by a party’s tuition fee policy.  Tuition fees will, I think,  be a clear dividing line betwen Plaid and Labour come the next Assembly election - just as it was last time.

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