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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Plaid Cymru and Labour sell out on top-up fees - on the record

From yesterday's statement in which the Labour Plaid Cymru Government effectively introduced top-up fees for Welsh students in Welsh universities:

Jenny Randerson: Thank you very much, Minister, for your statement and, indeed, for letting me have early sight of some of your plans this morning. I will start by taking us back to 2002, when the Minister who then had responsibility for education stated to the Assembly that one reason why she was opposing tuition fees was because the Rees report had concluded unequivocally that upfront tuition fees did not just deter those who would have to pay them, but those who would not have to pay them. Therefore, I greatly regret the Government’s somersault on this.

This is clearly a complex package, but its complexity does not disguise the fact that the total amount set aside to assist students going to university is to be cut by approximately 40 per cent. As a result of this package, there will no longer be any financial incentive to study in Wales, which was a key reason for introducing the tuition fee grant. Its purpose was to assist Welsh institutions to build their capacity by encouraging students to study in Wales. Also, we all know that students who study in Wales are more likely to stay in Wales, and we need their skills.

Bethan Jenkins: I restate my opposition to the introduction of top-up fees in Wales. I am deeply disappointed that the Government of Wales, under your watch, has turned its back on one of the most distinctive policies since its inception.

I welcome the partial debt write-off to a degree, but I wonder how effective it can be when we are intent on forcing students to incur more and more debt as a result of the abolishment of the current fee grant structure. Minister, can you assure the National Assembly that the Welsh Assembly Government is opposed to lifting the cap on fees and is vehemently opposed to the abolition of the cap on tuition fees, which was an idea floated recently by Universities UK? There is a danger that such moves in England will add pressure on institutions in Wales to follow suit on the agenda of the marketisation of higher education.

Could you enlighten us on the representations that the Assembly Government will make to the review being held by the Westminster Government on student finance and the financing of HE? Is it not the case that, if the UK Minister implements the recommendations of this review, whenever England increases fees, Wales will have to follow suit? You said earlier that this agenda was compatible with 'One Wales’ priorities, but how does perpetuating the market in higher education reflect that?

I also want to express my discomfort at the way in which this consultation was carried out from its inception. Many students, including those outside the National Union of Students leadership, have had legitimate concerns about the decision to scrap the fee grant. The decisions were made before the consultation began, which is damaging for the development of democracy in Wales.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Please ask a question.

Bethan Jenkins: I reiterate that most people in this room have had free education, and it is hypocritical to say that things should now be different.

Leanne Wood: Minister, your statement today is a great disappointment to those of us who believe in free education as a right for all. The universal tuition fee grant was a hard-won gain for Wales—a real devolution dividend. I fully understand that there is a significant and growing funding gap in the university sector and that that gap needs to be filled. However, what I fail to understand is why students have to pay to plug that gap. Students are among those on the lowest incomes in our society and, on the other hand, our universities have vast assets in the form of land, buildings and, in some cases, even artwork. Can you assure us that all efforts have been made to assess the value of universities’ assets to establish whether there are any other ways to plug this funding gap? I am concerned about the precedent that this sets. What happens when the university sector puts more pressure on the Assembly Government later on because the cap has been lifted in England and the gap between the English and Welsh university sectors has grown? Will we be taking more money from student support then to fund that gap?

I am sure that you agree that 'One Wales’ and, you could argue, Welsh devolution, were built on the spirit of progressive universalism. Universalism is preferable as a principle to means-testing. Why is this so? As Mark Drakeford said in 2007, 'services which are reserved for poor people very quickly become poor services’.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Could we have your questions, please, Leanne?

Leanne Wood: I am coming to the questions now, Deputy Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Can you come to them now, please?

Leanne Wood: We are all aware that high numbers of people who are entitled to means-tested benefits do not claim them, and we all know about those people who fall just above a threshold—people who are in work but not well off, who miss out on all kinds of benefits. I am sure that we are all aware of the kinds of resentment that exist—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Could we have a question, please, Leanne?

Leanne Wood: The tuition fee grant is a universal benefit. I was fortunate enough to have received free education, as were most Assembly Members.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. Could you please come to the question?

Leanne Wood: If there had been a threat of a debt at the end of that education—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. I have switched off your microphone. Are you going to ask the question?

Leanne Wood: My fear is that this change will reduce the numbers of people from working-class backgrounds going into higher education. I hope that I am wrong on this, Minister, but if it transpires that the numbers of young people from working-class families applying to higher education—[Interruption.]—bring back universal student support if the evidence shows that that is needed?

I am indebted to Valleys Mam for this quote:

"The democratic nature of a party where it’s essential that leaders follow the policy decided upon by the ordinary members. And democracy in general. “Vote Plaid, Labour lied” was the chant on the lips of nationalists whilst referring to the mess made in Iraq and Labour’s u-turn on tuition fees. Plaid Cymru’s constitution - in letter and in spirit - does not allow us to make the same mistake." (Adam Price, 27 November 2008)

She poses the question: If in 2004 Plaid in the Assembly, but outside the Welsh Assembly Government, can work with the then other opposition parties to foil the introduction of top-up fees in Wales by Labour, how come when it's inside the Welsh Assembly Government in 2009 Plaid has less influence?

It is a good one. Plaid Cymru has a lot to answer for.
Plaid and Labour are beneath contempt!

And Bethan and Leeann's attempts to make enough noise to distract from their own party's complicity in this disgrace won't wash either.

Plaid lied; Labour died.
Why are you attacking bethan and leanne? There is no reason - other than pure malice - to do that! They made a principled stand and should be congratulated not criticised!

All those attacking Plaid - Labour Government for this, need to ask themselves where would they get the cash to address the huge gap between the finances of Welsh and English Universities? How many nurses or teachers would lose their jobs to pay for these grants? How many hospital wards would need to close? It's all very well to attack Plaid but I haven't heard one suggestion to address the FE and univeristy funding from the Lib Dems.
The one thing the Welsh Liberal Democrats will not do is to dip into the pockets of students to fill this gap. At the end of the day it is about budget priorities and we have put forward ideas to meet the funding gap in the past and will have costed proposals in time for the Assembly elections. The issue this post is highlighting is the way that Plaid have abandoned their policies and principles. Remember that the tuition fee grant was already accomodated in the budget. It was not as if the government needed to find the money this time.
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