20 January 2016
Article by Anne Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
This afternoon (Wednesday 20 January 2016), Assembly Members will have a debate about the independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales.
The review’s interim factual report was published on 18 December 2015. The interim report is a factual summary of the evidence that the review has received. The final report and recommendations are due to be presented to the Minister for Education and Skills this autumn.
The review was set up by Huw Lewis, Minister for Education and Skills in April 2014.
Professor Sir Ian Diamond was asked to chair the review panel. Professor Diamond is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and was previously Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council.
The Review’s remit
The Minister’s priorities for the review include:
- widening access: ensuring that any future system has widening access as its core objective, is progressive and equitable;
- supporting the skill needs of Wales;
- strengthening part-time and postgraduate provision in Wales; and
- long-term financial sustainability.
The review was also asked to consider:
the funding of higher education in the light of continuing constraints on public expenditure; full-time and part-time tuition fees policy; cross-border HE funding policy and arrangements; student finance arrangements (including maintenance support for HE and further education FE students); the Higher Education Funding Council Wales’ role in the delivery of student finance; and student debt.
In their Programme for Government, the Welsh Government had pledged that no [full time undergraduate] student ordinarily resident in Wales will pay higher fees in real terms during the lifetime of this administration than if they had been students in 2010/11. This applies no matter where the student chooses to study, in Wales or elsewhere.
Who are the other members of the review panel?
Other members of the review panel include:
- Professor Colin Riordan: President and Vice-Chancellor at Cardiff University and Chair of Universities Wales;
- Rob Humphreys: Director for Wales, Open University, and Vice Chair of Universities Wales; and
- Stephanie Lloyd followed by Beth Button: Presidents of National Union of Students (NUS) Wales;
Other panel members include education experts from the fields of diversity, inclusion, the economics of education, the further education sector and a representative from industry.
In his Foreword, Professor Diamond said that he was privileged by the quality of the experts who have given their time to sit on the Review Panel and also by the cross party nature of those experts. Each of the opposition political parties had been invited to nominate a representative to sit on the panel. These are:
- Gareth Jones OBE: Former head teacher and former Plaid Cymru Assembly Member;
- Professor David Warner, CBE: Former Vice Chancellor of Swansea Metropolitan University. Conservative Party in Wales nominee
- Professor Michael Woods: Professor of Human Geography at Aberystwyth, University and Co-Director of WISERD (Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data & Methods). Welsh Liberal Democrat nominee.
An interim, factual report
Both Professor Diamond and the Minister emphasise that the report summarises the evidence considered by the Review Panel from April 2014 to September 2015. The interim report identifies the emerging themes and messages arising from this evidence, but does not make any judgement about its validity or significance.
What do the key stakeholders think?
At the same time, a summary of responses to the Call for Evidence was also published. The Call for Evidence ran from November 2014 to February 2015, asking for responses to 16 specific questions plus an invitation to provide additional supporting information, including proposals for reform and alternative HE sector and student finance funding models. The review received 166 written responses to their Call for Evidence.
There is more . . .
The Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) was commissioned to undertake additional research specifically on part-time higher education provision in Wales. Their report, Evidence to the Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance arrangements in Wales – Part-Time Higher Education in Wales was published at the same time as the interim report.
Key themes arising from the evidence
The panel and the Minister have strongly emphasised that these are not recommendations or even the views of the panel themselves! However a few of the emerging themes and messages from the evidence base include:
- The majority of respondents who expressed a view believe that maintaining the status quo [maintaining current arrangements] is not an option;
- There is, generally, a lack of consensus on the way forward. Most respondents recognise, however, that difficult choices will have to be made;
- The higher education sector in Wales has benefitted overall from a net increase in income since the introduction of the current fees and funding regime – although the increase may not be as high as predicted and changes in income levels differ significantly between institutions;
- There is concern, particularly amongst HE sector respondents, about a large and increasing funding gap in the level of investment in higher education in Wales compared to elsewhere in the UK;
- There is a strongly held belief that the current HE sector funding and student finance regime in Wales is not sustainable into the future;
- HE students domiciled in Wales benefit from having lower student debt levels than those domiciled in England;
- There is a strong consensus, particularly amongst students, students’ representative bodies, support staff and widening participation professionals, that the level of maintenance support available is inadequate to cover actual costs incurred by students and that this is a bigger issue for students than the level of tuition fees and tuition fee support.
Final report and recommendations
The Review Panel’s own views and recommendations will be presented in the final report, which will be presented to the Minister by September 2016. The review is tasked with producing a final report for the Minister for Education and Skills that provides clear advice and costed recommendations for the future funding of the higher education sector and student finance arrangements in Wales. The Minister asked that the Panel’s recommendations are deliverable, affordable and sustainable.
It is a huge and complex task to tackle. Expectations are high. Their recommendations to the next Education Minister will influence financial support for both higher education institutions and for the next generation of higher education students.