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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Tuition Fee dilemma

Although I support the policy of the Welsh Government of mitigating the impact of tuition fees on Welsh students, the latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) figures, as printed in today's Western Mail, raises serious questions as to how it is funded.

The Welsh Goverment's plan is to top-slice the teaching grant to Welsh Universities to pay for this policy, calculating that colleges will get the money back through the fees of individual students. The danger is that, because the Government are also funding Welsh students studying in English Universities, the amount of the teaching grant leaving Wales will not be matched by income from the fees of English students coming to study here.

On first glance those fears appear to have been justified. The paper says that at the moment, calculations account for roughly 24,000 English students, who do not have the benefit of a government subsidy, studying in Wales and 16,000 Welsh undergraduates learning across the border:

But today’s Ucas figures reveal the number of English-domiciled learners applying to Welsh institutions has fallen by 13.4% – down from 5,386 in 2011 to 4,576 for 2012 entry.

The number of Welsh students opting for English courses, meanwhile, is down by just 4.3%

There still needs to be a fair bit of number-crunching before the impact of these changes on University finances becomes clear, but there is a clear danger that, unless the Welsh Government finds money from elsewhere then many Universities will be facing a shortfall in their future finances.

In the same article the President of NUS Wales alleges that the reason why the number of English students applying to university is down by 12% on last year is due to the Westminsteer Government's tuition fee policy. On that measure the number of Welsh and Scottish students going to University should be up, but that is not the case.

As this article makes clear, there are dangers in jumping to conclusions about statistics in this way:

The absolute number of applications is down compared to the previous year, but so too was the birth rate 18 years ago compared to the previous year, as Stuart pointed out in a comment on my earlier post:

The number of live births in England in 1993 (18 years ago) was 636,473; in the preceding year it had been 651,784. So that’s a fall of 15,311, or 2.3%. Looking at the fall in applications from 18 year olds, it’s 2.4%.

Not such an amazing drop after all; in fact, maybe just in line with demographic changes… and expect more to come, the number of births fell until 2001, when it reached less than 564,000.

In other words, anyone wanting to write the headline SHOCK NEWS AS TUITION FEES MAKE NO IMPACT – Small fall in applications mirrors decline in 18 year olds would have had rather more grounds for writing that than some of the shock horror headlines seen (and depending on your view of the importance of older applications, though it’s 18 year olds who have dominated the rhetoric up until now).

Perhaps NUS Wales might wish to reflect on these figures before drawing any more conclusions from them.
While the figures may be driven by phenomena such as how broody the UK was almost two decades ago, it does not excuse a poorly conceived policy.
Greater investment in English institutions (albeit through greater local fee income) will make their courses more appealing to English students. This will reduce the inflow to Wales, while the WG 'subsidy' will encourage our students across the border. Focussing investment upon welsh students rather than welsh ivory towers is commendable. However, subsidising English HE from meagre Welsh resources while underfunding local capacity certainly isn't.
Yes, I agree. The way this policy is funded is a huge concern
The problem is, of course, that Welsh universities have been underfunded (compared to England) for ten years already.


The Welsh Government seems to believe that it could starve its higher education sector of funds with no consequences at all.

In the end, the people most affected are those young people in Wales who aspire to go to university but cannot afford to live away from home: they won't have the choice to go to England and take a little more Welsh HE funding with them to an already better funded English university.
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