Monday, 30 November 2015

The national interest(s)

The UK has four separate national higher education policies. It’s a devolved matter, so the governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh set the policies in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland independently of policies determined by BIS in London for England. But it is also the case that there’s a single higher education system in the UK – at least when viewed from the perspectives of staff, students and research funders. Staff move freely between the different nations; there’s plenty of student mobility between nations, and research funders look for the best research, which often spans the UK’s internal borders. So there’s two contrary facts on the go at the same time.

Universities Wales, the local franchise of UUK in Wales, has today published a manifesto which speaks to the tension which arises because of this. The manifesto, which aims to help shape party policies in May 2016’s assembly elections, sets out six ‘fundamental commitments’ for universities in Wales. Let’s take a look.

The first of these fundamental commitments addresses access to maintenance funding for students: “Provide means-tested maintenance grants for Welsh students from foundation through to postgraduate level to ensure that everyone in Wales has access to the life changing opportunities provided through higher education.”

There’s two things going on here. Firstly, a recognition that access to money to live on whilst studying is a major factor in widening access and enabling students to succeed. Future fee repayments are much less of an inhibiting factor than cash for food, rent and clothes. Secondly, the range of the funding – undergraduates are not the only students, and with postgraduate loans available in England, Welsh universities and Welsh students are disadvantaged if similar funding is not available.

The second commitment addresses affordability: “Prioritise university funding towards the policies that both provide opportunities to access an internationally competitive, high quality university education and deliver economic and social benefits for individuals, government and businesses in Wales.”

At the moment the Welsh Government provides a direct fee subsidy for all Welsh-domiciled (ie, living in Wales before they went to university) students, no matter where they attend university. So, Welsh government HE money is being spent to pay fees at universities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland (although in practical terms the vast majority of Welsh students who study outside Wales do so in England.) And the plain truth is that this commitment places great pressure on other Welsh HE priorities. The Diamond Commission is currently looking at HE funding issues (and is due to report after the election – where have we heard that before?), and Universities Wales is aiming to help change policy. Welsh Labour has previously made a clear anti-fee commitment, so all policy help will be important. And it’s clearly tied in with the maintenance grants point in the first ‘fundamental commitment’: give something good to students before taking something else away.

The third commitment speaks to a very real concern for the larger universities in Wales: “Maintain in real terms the quality-related (QR) research budget that underpins Wales’ world leading research.” The size of the sector in Wales means that government can be far more selective in research funding, and REF 2014 showed that the quality of research in Wales as measured by GPA was high. What is also important that scale factors aren’t used as a reason for the Welsh government to reduce QR funding as a response to financial pressures.

The fourth commitment speaks to the variety of access to higher education: “Continue investment in part-time provision both to widen access to higher education and develop crucial skills within the Welsh workforce, mindful that part-time provision requires distinct support and investment in order to deliver for Wales.” This is an area where the English funding model has hit universities hard, with significant declines in part-time study.

The fifth ‘fundamental commitment’ relates to HEFCW: “Retain a funding and oversight body for higher education in Wales to manage risk and provide stability to the sector, provide assurance to Government and enable universities to continue delivering for Wales.

The proposed changes in English HE would see the abolition of HEFCE. English universities value the buffer HEFCE provides between government and any individual university, and a removal of that buffer, with the more explicit possibility of government choosing which subjects and universities to fund, causes concerns. In Wales the issues are magnified: in a small country it’s easier for government to interfere.

And finally, Europe: “Actively support Wales remaining a member of the European Union.” Wales gets a great deal out of Europe – in terms of funding for economic regeneration, for instance – and it’s a matter of concern for Welsh universities that access to research funding, as well as staff and student mobility, should continue. In practical terms, Welsh government commitment to membership of the EU will mean little in the event of a referendum ‘out’ vote, but the ‘fundamental commitment’ helps emphasise the significance of the EU to universities.

So of the six commitments, the first five – maintenance grants, access to funding for all levels of study, research funding, part-time funding, and regulation – seek directly to counter, address, or improve upon, the changes which have or will happen in England. Welsh Universities know that if their part of the HE system isn’t finely tuned with respect to that in England, they’ll suffer the consequences.

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