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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Welsh dilemma

Reports in the Western Mail this morning, that the Labour pledge to defer the implementation of top-up fees in Wales until after the 2007 Assembly elections will mean that the Welsh block grant will be subsidising English students to the tune of £14 million, illustrates the dilemma facing us as we try to reach an agreement on this issue.

The subsidy to English and other students arises out of the introduction of top-up fees in England next year. Students going to universities in England will have to take out a loan of £3,000 a year from the government-funded Students Loan Company. The cash will be paid directly to the institutions where they are studying. But in Wales, where no students will be paying top-up fees during the academic year 2006-07, the extra £3,000 per student will be paid out of the Assembly Government's core budget.

Because 38% of students at Welsh Higher Education Institutions come from England then any blanket exemption such as this will lead to a Welsh subsidy for English students. This may also act as an incentive to students from across the border to apply to our universities at the expense of Welsh students. If this policy were to be carried forward unchanged then in three or four years the total cost could be as much as £150 million.

Talks are on-going but it is likely that they will centre around Welsh domiciled students studying in Welsh HEIs rather than all students purely for those financial reasons. The policy of top-up fees is a UK Labour one. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to protect all students from this iniquitous burden.
I'm interested to see you describe variable fees as an 'iniquitous burden'. If this is the case, I wonder why the Liberal Democrat representative on the Rees panel concluded that they were the best way forward for Wales? I'd also like to know which alternative to variable fees you want Wales to introduce?

The idea that the Welsh Assembly Government must close the higher education funding gap with England without asking graduates to contribute towards the cost of their tuition is remarkable. How on earth do you propose that they do so?

Is it not the case that many LibDems are privately convinced of the merits of the variable fee system for Wales, but cannot now support it because of the party's outspoken stance against it during the recent general election campaign? This may have won you favour with students and helped to take Cardiff Central, but it could now deprive you of a share of power at the Bay because you've made it difficult for yourselves to strike a compromise with Labour on this issue.
So how much would it cost the Welsh taxpayer to subsidise “students from England and elsewhere next year” under your original proposals, as set out in your “mini manifesto for students” as “We will scrap tuition fees, and stop the introduction of top-up fees” – it goes on to say that “The Welsh Liberal Democrats will abolish all tuition fees” – that does not say “the welsh liberal democrats will abolish tuition fees – as long as you are a welsh domiciled student”, does it??

You have now realised that your original manifesto commitment was not financially viable, and you have been dishonest to the students who voted for you.

In reply to BayWatcher, the Lib Dems would propose any system and any policy, as long as it was politically favourable to them. In this case, scrapping tuition fees was popular with students, the lib dems jumped on the bandwagon, but unfortunately for them, someone must have brought a calculator along with them, as they’ve only just worked out that the Assembly cannot afford to implement a no fees policy!! And that’s why they are desperately trying to cover up the mess they’ve made.

Can I ask, what proposals do you have to finance welsh domiciled students who wish to study veterinary science (a discipline not available in Wales), or any other discipline that is not taught in Wales??

Oh, and by the way, do you welcome the fact that Swansea University has jumped up 8 places in the Times league table to 42nd, or do you still think the vice-chancellor is “dumbing down” the education at Swansea??
I do welcome the improved position of Swansea University but also stand by my original comments that the closure of chemistry, philosophy and other departments was a dumbing down of education provision at the College.

The Liberal Democrats representative on the Rees Commission did not conclude that variable fees was the best way forward for Wales. You will notice that there is an alternative option recommended for consideration in the report, which was mooted by him I believe. In her evidence to the Education Committee on Wednesday Professor Rees admitted that the Commission were not unanimous on this issue.

The manifesto commitments that have been quoted were part of a costed UK policy to be implemented if the Liberal Democrats had formed the next Government. They would have been funded out of a 50p tax rate on incomes over £100,000. Contrary to Martyn Williams' assertion it is a financially viable way forward. You will notice that the Liberal Democrats did not win that election, their preferred tax policy is not being implemented and the Welsh Assembly does not have tax raising powers.

Therefore we now need to find a workable solution to protect Welsh students from the iniquitous debt burden that fees will visit on them after graduation, whilst also ensuring that Higher Education does not lose out. It is not about closing the funding gap, that is a separate issue, it is about ensuring access to education for all those who are able to benefit from it. It is about using public funds to invest in our future in exactly the same way as has happened for decades. The Welsh Liberal Democrats are in mo way 'privately convinced' of any case that includes variable fees for students.

What we are doing now is seeking to negotiate the best deal for Welsh students, for HEIs and for Wales that is both legal and affordable. We are doing so in the context of a very difficult funding situation posed by the cross-border student traffic between Wales and England and by the fact that the Labour Government are pressing ahead with penalising graduates for seeking to better themselves and equip themselves with skills that the Country needs.
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