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Whose to Lose?: Citizens, institutions and the ownership of higher education funding in a devolved UK

  • 26 February 2015

On Thursday, 26th February 2015, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) will publish Whose to Lose?: Citizens, institutions and the ownership of higher education funding in a devolved UK. It covers all four parts of the UK, with a particular focus on Wales, and is written by Lucy Hunter Blackburn, the former Head of Higher Education for the Scottish Government.

The paper is being submitted to the Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales in time for the end of their consultation period on Friday, 27th February 2015.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

‘The student funding debate in Wales is weighed down by shibboleths that are superficially attractive but need challenging. Student mobility within and beyond the UK is generally a good thing for students, businesses and the country.

‘Incentivising people to study in their home area and discouraging them from studying elsewhere would not be right for all Welsh students, just as it would not be right for all students from England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

‘Changing the rules so that Welsh students are no longer able to take all their financial support with them would not guarantee more funding for other higher education priorities either.

’There are risks in treating higher education as a local public service just as it is becoming more truly international elsewhere. Instead of looking for ways to restrict the mobility of UK students, we should be looking at how we can encourage them to gain experience abroad.’

Lucy Hunter Blackburn, the author of the report, said:

‘Wales faces a significant challenge in managing a system with so much student movement, in and out. But the language of “universities losing money” is not helpful.

‘What happens with the fee grant will affect individuals more than institutions. The only certain result of restricting the fee grant to Wales would be that some Welsh citizens would end up paying much more back to the state for their higher education.

‘This would be not on the basis of family background or future earnings potential, but simply because – for whatever reason – they had not studied in Wales. That’s the effect which has to be justified, before there’s any discussion of how the money might otherwise be spent.’

Notes for Editors

The report covers the following points.

  • The right of Welsh-domiciled students to take their student support, particularly their portable fee grant, with them when studying elsewhere in the UK is controversial.
  • The critics include Conservative and Plaid Cymru politicians, who have expressed opposition to the current arrangements. But the concept of loss to Welsh institutions used by such critics risks concealing the benefits for individuals.
  • Ending the portability of the fee grant would increase student debt for those crossing the border to study. But people would still wish to study elsewhere, so there might be little transfer of resources from English to Welsh institutions.
  • Ending the portability of the fee grant would, however, represent a transfer from one group of Welsh citizens – those who wish to study elsewhere – to the overall Welsh budget.
  • The absence of portable cash support towards fees for students from Scotland and Northern Ireland should be debated as there is greater competition for places in both those jurisdictions, and low-income Scottish students at universities elsewhere in the UK face particularly high levels of debt.
  • Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with an unequivocal loss as a result of student mobility. This is partly a legacy issue, arising from the comparatively low number of local student places, and should be addressed in any recasting of the devolution settlement.
  • Support for student mobility across the UK was once seen as having collective, as well as, individual benefits. But discussion of the collective benefits has become muted and devolution has led to pressure for more internal barriers, often as a response to English policymaking.
  • Higher education is at risk of being treated as a local public service just when it is becoming more truly international elsewhere. Except in England, UK higher education funding is more likely than at any time in the past half century to be conceived largely as an investment in local institutions rather than individual citizens.
  • Student mobility is not just an internal UK issue. The lack of portable student support for those wishing to study elsewhere in the EU inhibits student choice and mobility. The Scottish Government are usefully piloting a different approach.
  • Despite the pressures for a more territorial approach, the funding for higher education belongs to everyone within a jurisdiction. Those wishing to pursue higher education have as much right to it as those who provide higher education.

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