This guest blog on Ian Diamond’s review of university funding in Wales has been kindly provided by Lucy Hunter Blackburn, who is a Freelance researcher and postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh as well as the author of the 2015 HEPI paper Whose to Lose?: Citizens, institutions and the ownership of higher education funding in a devolved UK. Lucy runs her own blog at https://adventuresinevidence.com.
It has been a long wait, but the Welsh Government’s decision to remit its student funding problems to an independent review has paid off.
The Committee headed by Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, rejected one of the most fundamental assumptions of the debate about higher education across the UK. Its position is so radical that it has hardly sunk in. What matters, says the Committee, is not fees but living costs, and in addressing those it departs substantially from principles which have guided student support systems across the UK for over fifty years.
The first long-standing principle it overturns is that how much you get should depend on your parents’ income: everyone will be entitled to the same amount, based on the National Living Wage. It calculates that would currently imply £8,100 for those living away from home. This is just below the current English maximum, £8,200, available only to those at the lowest incomes. It is only a little higher than the current Welsh figure, but for those on middle incomes it would mean a large increase in support. The ‘squeezed middle’ is identified by the Committee as a group neglected by policy makers, with too much assumed about their families’ ‘ability to pay’ for living costs. A very similar point is made by Lorenza Antonucci in her cross-national study of student hardship, published last month. These proposals offer students from such families more help up front than in any previous system.
There is not a complete rejection of parental contributions. But means-testing is reserved only to determine the mix of grant and loan. Support should all come as grant for the least well-off (for whom the maximum grant is currently just over £5,000). It would then taper down to a universal minimum of £1,000 for those from households with incomes around £80,000. Loan would replace grant pound for pound as income rose. The report’s description implies that a student from a household with an income of £45,000 would be entitled to a maintenance grant worth something over £5,000, plus a loan of around £3,000. Although the Committee expects that better-off families will often continue to support their children, it rightly says that this system helps any students who, for whatever reason, cannot call on family help. One positive effect of this change may be to give many students more choice over how much term time work they feel they need to take on.
The Committee’s second break with the past is to argue for part-time students to receive living cost support broadly pro rata to the entitlement of full-time students. It also argues for retention of the current Welsh arrangements whereby the full-time equivalent fee is set at a lower rate for part-time courses (the Funding Council tops this up). The Committee innovates further in arguing there should be no previous study rules applied, seeing part-time study as central to developing skills in the working population. Again, this is radical stuff, moving the centre of gravity in the funding system at least a little away from a model conceived principally for full-time school leavers.
A further innovation is to bring taught postgraduate courses into the main funding arrangements, rightly noticing that as these have grown more popular, the question of equal access to them has become more acute. As with part-time provision, the report argues that these have capacity to contribute more to developing the Welsh economy. It adds that this also removes an unfairness where some fully funded four-year degrees already lead to a masters-level qualification.
Last, the Committee commendably argues for the full portability of support (as I did in a HEPI report published last year) across the rest of the UK, as well as into Europe and, with some safeguards, potentially anywhere in the world. This is a document guided by a strong sense of wanting higher education to offer students from Wales the most expansive opportunities. It is stronger for that.
All these new forms of support must however be paid for. This would be done by abolishing the existing universal fee grant, which has the de facto effect of capping Welsh students’ annual fee debt at £3,900. As the report notes, universities in Wales have complained that this leads to money leaking over the border which, they argue, should be going instead to them. It was not an argument that stood up well to close examination and the Committee did not entirely buy it, drily noting that that even more money has leaked into Wales, in the form of fee payments by students from other parts of the UK. The Committee was however willing to see it end, on the more substantial grounds that it is not well-targeted on those most in need of support. There is something counter-cultural in how briskly the report proposes a move to £9,000 fees, clearly confident from its research that, combined with much better grant, the effect of these is not to be feared.
Thus a Committee chaired by a Scottish university principal has come to conclusions almost exactly opposite to those adopted in Edinburgh, where a 100% fee subsidy has been protected while grants have been cut to the bone. The cash budget can only stretch so far, says the report, and the priority for it should be targeted support, a position firmly supported by NUS Wales. It terms this ‘progressive unversalism’, recognising that there is a modest universal grant, and universal access to loans, which it is careful to emphasise are themseves a form of publicly-subsidised funding. The net effect is to redistribute cash support away from those at the lowest and highest incomes, particularly the highest ones, and towards those at low-middle incomes, and postgraduates and part-timers. It feels counter-intuitive to remove any cash from low income students, but it is difficult for the Committee to avoid this, with the fee grant gone, without having a much higher maintenance grant. The high-grant model still assigns them substantially less debt than those at higher incomes. In practice, the combination of generous grant and family contributions is likely to mean that for the bulk of the students, the bulk of their debt could now be for fees. Total debt would stay lower than England, and, as now, be more fairly distributed by income than in Scotland.
Figures in the report suggest its student funding proposals use about 70% of the money released from the fee grant. The rest it proposes should be invested in the system through the Funding Council, which it argues needs some money of its own to stimulate areas such as widening access. The Welsh higher education sector therefore would benefit from extra funding equivalent to around three-quarters (I think) of the amount of fee grant previously following Welsh students into England. The report makes other recommendations beyond student funding which cannot be covered here, on research, knowledge transfer, links with colleges, graduate retention and support for Welsh language. For a relatively short document, it covers a lot of ground.
How easily could the Welsh Government adopt this? The Committee identifies extra fee loan as the only new cost. The Welsh Government cannot currently be using anything like its ‘Barnett share’ of the loans being issued in England and would surely be on strong ground in bidding for access to more. The politics are harder to call, but having the NUS and the universities supportive should help a great deal. It looks likely, therefore, that something very close to this package, allowing perhaps for any necessary technical tweaks, will be implemented. It is less likely to have an immediate impact on administrations elsewhere in the UK. Nonetheless, it contains an implicit and well-formulated rebuke, both to England’s flight from any cash support and to Scotland’s denial that prioritising fees over grants is a political choice which reinforces existing inequalities. Among the sound and fury of student support policy since 1999, Wales is quietly establishing itself as the UK’s most thoughtful player.