The Higher Education (Wales) Bill

20 May 2014

Article written by Anne Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image from Flickr by Kevin Saff.  Licenced under the Creative Commons.

Image from Flickr by Kevin Saff. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Yesterday, Huw Lewis, Minister for Education and Skills, introduced a Higher Education (Wales) Bill and is due to make an Oral Statement in the Chamber today (Tuesday 20 May 2014). The Bill (as introduced) and the Explanatory Memorandum can be found on the National Assembly for Wales’ website at: Higher Education (Wales) Bill.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to establish a legal basis for a revised framework to regulate higher education in Wales. To do this, the Bill provides the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) with the necessary functions to:

  • assure the quality of higher education provision,
  • enforce tuition fee controls and fee plan requirements, and
  • establish a framework for the organisation and management of the financial affairs of providers of higher education in Wales whose courses are automatically designated for student support purposes.

The Welsh Government says that it is seeks to:

  • ensure robust and proportionate regulation of institutions in Wales whose courses are supported by Welsh Government backed higher education grants and loans;
  • safeguard the contribution made to the public good arising from the Welsh Government’s financial subsidy of higher education;
  • maintain a strong focus on fair access to higher education; and
  • preserve and protect the institutional autonomy and academic freedom of universities.

Previously the Welsh Government had relied on terms and conditions attached to public funding channelled through HEFCW, to regulate the sector. This funding was given to universities by HEFCW for teaching and other activities for example widening access.

However, the public funding of higher education started to change in 2012/13 with a shift towards universities getting a greater proportion of their income from the students themselves (through higher tuition fees) and less reliance on direct government funding through HEFCW. This reduced the ability of HEFCW to attach terms and conditions to this support. Never the less the Welsh Government continues to provide significant public funds indirectly though tuition fee support for example the Tuition Fee Grant (Wales only), student loans and other grants.

The Bill will require all higher education providers whose courses are automatically designated for statutory student support to undertake activity to support equality of access to higher education and to have charitable status.

As well as HEFCW, the Bill will specifically affect:

  • the eight universities in Wales
  • the Open University
  • five colleges of further education in Wales who provide higher education courses and
  • any other providers of higher education whose activities are conducted wholly or principally in Wales and who wish their courses to be automatically designated for student support.

The Welsh Government has consulted on a number of proposals relating to the governance and quality assurance of higher education and has made several changes as a result of the consultation responses. Between May and July 2013, the Welsh Government undertook a Higher Education (Wales) Bill: Technical consultation. A summary and the 21 individual responses were published in April 2014.

The Welsh Government intends to adopt a phased approach to the implementation of the new regulatory framework but would like to see full commencement in the 2016/17 academic year.