Monday, 2 May 2016

Vote early ...

Its election time! On 5 May, amongst all of the voting across the UK, the elections for the Welsh Assembly take place. What’s on offer for higher education in Wales? It’s a devolved matter, so policies can (and do!) differ from the other UK nations. I’ve read the manifestoes so you don’t have to: here’s your cut-out-and-keep guide, in strictly alphabetical order …

The Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay
Firstly, a piece of context. Tuition fees are different in Wales to the other parts of the UK. The Welsh Government funds part of the tuition fees for Welsh-domiciled students attending university anywhere in the UK. And as a decent number of Welsh-domiciled students go to university in England, this means a lot of Welsh Government HE money is funding English universities. Which causes a bit of a stir. The policy looks unaffordable, although the government denies that there’s a problem. But in any event a commission (the Diamond review) has been established to look into it and report just after the election. Where have we heard that before?

The Welsh Conservatives have six manifesto commitments relating to higher education:
  • Establish an HE institution focused solely on initial teacher training and educational research.
  • Reform tuition fee support, introducing a ‘Student Rent Rebate’, offering undergraduates timely and sustainable help with university living costs. 
  • Reduce student debt by exploring the viability of compressed degrees studied over two academic years. 
  • Encourage the growth of part-time, distance and flexible course options.
  • Develop links between local employers and the Further and Higher Education sectors. 
  • Continue to back Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, and explore a revised remit.

School education is one of the major campaign issues in Wales, which explains the focus on ITE. The fees policy is to stop the fee subsidy, and instead support living costs.

Welsh Labour make but two explicit commitments in relation to higher education:

  • A new funding body for Higher and Further Education in Wales 
  • A better package of student support than that on offer in England, based on the recommendations of the Diamond Review

The first arises from policy already on the cards, via the Hazelkorn Review. By making it a manifesto commitment, it will be harder, should Labour return to power, for the policy to be opposed by Universities or traded in coalition negotiations. And the second is the sound of a ball being kicked into the long grass.

The Welsh Lib Dems make commitments about universities, innovation and research; and also in relation to student support and HE funding:

  • Creating a database of Research & Development at Welsh universities to encourage collaboration between Higher Education and the private sector. 
  • Expanding investment in Knowledge-Transfer Partnerships to transfer academic knowledge smoothly to real-life businesses' projects. 
  • Providing additional finance for universities to support more expensive subjects such as engineering and computer science and tackle gender imbalances in student recruitment. 
  • Establishing a Wales-wide alumni network for European and international students who have studied in Wales, and Welsh students who have studied abroad, as part of a broader Diaspora Strategy to develop international business links.
  • Introduce a Student Living Support Grant for all Welsh students registered for a first undergraduate degree at a UK university, including part-time students, payable on top of the existing means-tested Assembly Learning Grant, replacing the Tuition Fee Grant. 
  • Require universities to adopt a 'Fair Access Agreement' outlining measures to broaden access and improve student retention. 
  • Pay the full tuition fees of care leavers. 
  • Protect hardship funding for the most vulnerable students. 
  • Introduce an Employability Enhancement Bursary to support students on postgraduate courses at universities in Wales and appropriate work placements that emphasise employability skills. 
  • Protect funding for Higher Education in Wales, and increase funding for HEFCW.

There’s no shortage of policy there. Like the Conservatives, there’s a focus on living costs not tuition fee subsidy.

Plaid Cymru make longer, and more grammatical, commitments for higher education:

As a matter of principle we believe that higher education, as a public good from which we all benefit as a society, should be free at the point of learning and paid for through general taxation. However, as the Diamond Review has already identified, unilateral action by Wales alone is not financially sustainable. 
We will reform student finance so that Welsh domiciled students who work in Wales after graduation will receive £6,000 per year during the first five years after graduating, up to a maximum of £18,000. This will ensure that our best and brightest have the opportunity and incentive to stay or return to Wales after completing their studies. 
We want to make Welsh universities attractive and successful institutions, and we will allocate funding to HEFCW to close the growing funding gap between Welsh and other UK universities. This substantial increase in investment will be conditional on a commitment, through a national compact, to better reflect the needs of Wales at national and regional levels in their research programmes, their investment in impact and innovation, and in addressing Wales’ most pressing knowledge and skills gaps. 
Supporting our young people in widening their horizons is also important for Wales. We will for the first time provide student financial support for Welsh-domiciled students enrolling as undergraduates in universities outside the UK, on similar lines to the recent pilot in Scotland. 
We will also expand our support for Erasmus+ so that more of our young people get the opportunity to study for part of their degree or work placements elsewhere in the European Union. 
We will support post-graduate study through a new postgraduate fund for loans to Welsh domiciled students. These loans will be income contingent long-term loans at preferential interest rates.
Again, a different approach to Labour on tuition fees; and a significant emphasis on student mobility.

Finally, UKIP also have plenty to say:
The number of young people studying at university is at an all-time high, as are the costs. Yet, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 58.8 per cent of UK graduates are in non-graduate jobs, a percentage that was exceeded only in Greece and Estonia. 
UKIP will encourage students to choose careers that will help fill the current skills gap, both to benefit Wales and to set our young people on the path to a solid, prosperous career. We will also support expansion of the Welsh higher education sector, which remains a success story for Wales, with an emphasis on teaching STEM subjects and quality of research.
UKIP is also concerned that, as a condition of our EU membership, we are currently obliged to give out tuition fee grants of £5,190 to European Union students studying in Wales, rather than EU students applying for places at UK universities as self-supporting international students.
UKIP will:

  • abolish fees for Welsh domiciled undergraduates taking degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEM) subjects in Wales, i.e. extend tuition fee grant to cover the current tuition fee loan element of costs for eligible courses
  • replace tuition fee grant with loans for Welsh domiciled students choosing to study in England
  • establish a bursary fund to help students from poorer backgrounds attend the most prestigious universities beyond Wales, whether in England or internationally, with a particular emphasis on STEM subjects and modern foreign languages
  • remove the £5,190 tuition fee grant from EU students studying in Wales following a ‘Leave’ vote in the referendum
  • retain the quality-related research (QR) budget that underpins world leading research in Wales
  • support part-time provision to widen access to higher education and to help up-skill the Welsh workforce

And there's more!
Using figures from the Diamond Review interim report we [UKIP] estimate that the saving to the Welsh government of replacing fees with loans for Welsh domiciled students studying in England as £62.1 million. However, the Welsh government is too optimistic regarding likely repayments on loans and the Diamond interim report implies that £11.9 million more a year should be set aside to cover non-repayment. We estimate the cost of abolishing fees for Welsh domiciled students studying STEM subjects in Wales as £28.7 million. The net annual saving from the above would therefore be around £21.5 million, of which we propose to use £5 million for our proposed bursary fund, leaving £16.5 million to help finance our spending priorities in other areas.
Part-time higher education and flexible learning opportunities, useful to workers and employers alike, are essential if we are to have any chance of improving the Welsh economy. There are over 34,000 part-time students studying at higher education level in Wales. Almost 23,000 of these are studying at undergraduate level. The number of students studying part-time HE in Wales is in decline: there has been an 11.5% drop in part-time undergraduate numbers between 2009/10 and 2013/14.
UKIP will:

  • encourage institutions to keep part-time fees low and to incentivise part-time provision.
  • maintain the current flexible credit system including credit transfer
  • retain the widening access premia paid to institutions to support recruitment and students from widening access backgrounds 
  • continue existing grants for part-time students
  • introduce loan restriction exemptions for Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) students in priority subject area
  • support disabled students to counter any adverse effects from the proposed changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA)

This looks like it’s been written by somebody with a good working knowledge of HE management and governance. ELQs and premia are a bit of a giveaway.

But does it all matter? All of the smart money is suggesting that Labour will be by far the largest party, but will be a few seats shy of a majority. In second place, neck-and-neck in the week before the election, are Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives. UKIP are expected to get enough seats to need two hands to count them; the Lib Dems will do well to get three AMs, and may even disappear entirely.

All of which means that we’re in coalition territory, based around Labour, or a minority Labour government. So most manifesto commitments won’t count for anything except in negotiation, and Labour have given themselves a lot of room for manoeuvre on HE issues. I suspect that Labour would be glad if another party required a change of tuition fee policy as a condition of coalition, or confidence and supply. It’ll get them off what is a pretty messy hook at the moment.

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