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After the storm: Responding to critiques of our paper on student finance in Wales

  • 30 October 2018
  • By Nick Hillman

To my surprise, our recent paper on the new Welsh student funding system has proved more controversial than anything HEPI has published since our 2016 paper on male underachievement.

People seemed to find it helpful when we responded to the critique we received for Boys to Men. So I shall try to respond in a similar fashion to the criticisms directed at our paper on Wales.

But first a word on why we undertook the project. It has been suggested that evaluating the new Welsh student support system is not really necessary because it is based on a long and detailed consultation exercise.

Indeed it is, and HEPI was part of that process. But:

  • a policy built on consensus should not be exempt from scrutiny;
  • the new Welsh student support system has some important differences to the one proposed in the Diamond report that emerged from the lengthy consultation process; and
  • knock-on consequences of changes decided beyond Cardiff may make the new Welsh system less sustainable than it initially seemed – these include:
    • potential changes in England, such as a reduction in the headline tuition fee cap, which could make the Welsh fee cap higher than the English one (something the Welsh Government have sought to avoid); and
    • potential changes to UK-wide factors, such as the classification of student in the national accounts, which would matter given that all students in Wales are now expected to take on much larger debts than in the past.

When the Welsh Government – and therefore the Welsh Labour Party and the Welsh Liberal Democrats – plus the Welsh part of the National Union of Students and Welsh higher education institutions all agree, it is right to question whether sufficient scrutiny has been paid to the new package of support for Welsh students. This is especially true when the Official Opposition in the Welsh Assembly (the Welsh Conservatives) have seemingly little to say on the issue.

So one reason for writing the paper on student support in Wales was to prick the broad but somewhat stifling consensus in favour of the new system, with the aim of encouraging a more nuanced debate. (The report actually began life just as a short blog but, during the writing process, I became more and more convinced that important points were being missed in public discussion of the new system.)

I shall try to respond to the three main criticisms we have heard about our report point-by-point.

1. The report is misleading because it compares current Welsh students to previous Welsh students rather than to English students

It makes more sense to compare the Welsh student support system in 2018/19 to the Welsh student support system in 2017/18 than to the English student support system, for Welsh students have no entitlement to the English system. In doing so, we followed the key ‘before’and ‘after’ charts in the Diamond review.

In concentrating on the old and new systems in Wales, we also followed the same approach as the Welsh media, which have for example focused on how some siblings have different student support packages despite being in higher education at the same time.

Moreover, if we had compared the Welsh support package to the one in England, we would also have needed to compare it to those in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland too. That would have been a useful exercise and, indeed, we have done it before. But our paper on Wales was designed to be a short Policy Note and a much longer piece would have engaged fewer people.

With hindsight, we could perhaps have focused more on the fact that the reduction in cash-in-hand support for the poorest new students from Wales between 2017/18 and 2018/19, which grabbed people’s attention, was – in part – a reflection of the boost to support prior to 2017/18.

If we had taken an earlier comparator year, it would not have been true that the poorest full-time new undergraduates are now worse off in terms of disposable spending. But it is standard practice in public policy to make year-on-year comparisons. Had we picked an earlier year in order to flatter the data, people would rightly have queried our decision.

2. The report did not recognise that Welsh students are receiving a much more generous overall funding package than English students

Detailed comparisons between the student support available to English students and that now available to Welsh students suggest any differences are fairly modest.

A Welsh student from one of the lowest-income households is entitled to a maximum of £9,000 cash-in-hand for living costs in 2018/19. A comparable student from England has an entitlement of £8,700, just £300 shy. The Welsh student also typically receives £250 less in fee support, some of which is recycled for bursaries and other student help.

At higher incomes, bigger gaps can be identified, but only if one ignores the continuing parental contribution in England which would not be valid. The balance of grants and loans is also different in England and Wales but our paper was very clear on this and any disagreement with what we said has focused on cash-in-hand figures, which are unaffected by the precise balance between grants and loans.

For some students, the English system is actually more generous than the Welsh one, though again the differences are modest. For example, an English-domiciled student studying in London and living away from home is entitled to living cost help of up to £11,354, whereas a comparable Welsh-domiciled student is entitled to living cost support of £11,250.

There are some students who clearly do much better in Wales than in England, such as part-time students. As our text made clear, they were not the main focus of our report. But any analysis of the Welsh system does need to recognise that new support is being directed to these students. That is why our very first paragraph consisted entirely of a list of seven strengths of the new system – including the extra support for part-time students.

3. The report did not recognise Wales’ student finance arrangements as ‘the most progressive in the UK’

Even though the poorest new Welsh full-time students will have less cash in their pockets in 2018/19 than in 2017/18 and even though total debts are increasing for all students, the new funding arrangements do have some features that are relatively progressive.

These include the central role given to large maintenance grants for those from the poorest families: in England, the poorest students are expected to leave higher education with the biggest debts; in Wales, that is not the case. The more progressive features in Wales also include the support for part-time and postgraduate students.

But a full assessment depends upon one’s definition of ‘progressive’. It is a term that is carrying too much weight in some claims about the Welsh reforms.

In the new arrangements for Wales, there is – for example – no automatic assumption that the most well-off families will support their student offspring as in the past. The expectation of parental support has been replaced by a greater entitlement to maintenance support – a new entitlement to non-repayable grants and a much bigger maintenance loan entitlement (much of which may be written off).

In other words, substantial public resources are being specifically and intentionally directed at better-off families. The ending of assumed parental support is a first for student maintenance support anywhere in the UK (although it was recommended by a majority of the Anderson committee way back in 1960). So it is worthy of detailed consideration, especially when there is such deep concern about intergenerational fairness.

We will go on striving to be fair to the Welsh Government. We have, in the past, published a defence of the new arrangements by Kirsty Williams (‘Equity and Excellence: The Welsh tradition and contemporary challenge’, August 2017) and would be happy to do so again.

But policymaking is rarely about uncovering the perfect solution; it is about balancing priorities against one another within the available resources. The more positive and the less positive features of any reform should be considered in the round to see if an optimal and sustainable balance has been found.

That is what our report seeks to do.

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