There are actually far more than eight things you might have missed about the final report of the Diamond Review. The report contained recommendations on everything under-the-sun in Welsh higher education (or what little sun there is in Wales), from QR funding to Coleg Cymraeg, to the Welsh University Press.
Nonetheless, here listed are eight of perhaps the most significant implications or unanswered question that the review has left us.
1 – Students will incur more debt, but at very different amounts
Comparing and contrasting the exact amount the ‘typical’ full-time student will take under different loans and fees systems is quite difficult and requires a large amount of caveating and calculation.
Nonetheless, some back-of-a-napkin addition gives us a very quick and clear position of the before and after situation for Welsh students. There will be significant variance in the amount of debt incurred depending on your background.
(Very)Approximate debt incurred under each student finance system (tuition and maintenance)
|Debt from Diamond system||Debt from current Welsh system (16-17)||Debt from English system (16-17)|
|Low income (£15,000)||£27,000 (+ £27,000 in cash grants)||£20,400 (+ £15,000 in cash grants)||£51,600 (+ £0 in cash grants)|
|Middle income (£50,000)||£42,000 (+ £12,000 in cash grants)||£27,000 (+ <£1,000 in cash grants)||£42,750 (+ £0 in cash grants)|
|High income (£90,000)||£51,000 (+ £3,000 in cash grants)||£23,400 (+ £0 in cash grants)||£38,400 (+ £0 in cash grants)|
For a full-time, three year course, living away from home, outside London, without any extra targeted support.
Those critical of the increase in Welsh students’ tuition fees tend to highlight the greater levels of debt that it will leave students in. However, the most substantive increases in loan debt will fall almost entirely on students from middle-class families. Given these students are the most likely to enter well-paying jobs, the repayment rate can be expected to hold up.
Students from the poorest backgrounds who go onto high earnings will get a (relatively) very good deal. This is particularly good compared with their English counterparts, which as Andrew McGettigan has highlighted, face a “tax on social mobility” due to the combined freezing of the repayment threshold and the abolition of maintenance grants.
2 – A Welsh RAB?
The Diamond panel was assisted by bespoke RAB charge modelling carried out by BIS (p. 27). However, if Diamond’s proposals achieve their stated aims they might require a more fundamental rethink of how RAB is conducted for Welsh funded students.
An increase in the number of Welsh graduates remaining in Wales, which is a stated aspiration of the review and the Welsh Government, will be bad news for the Welsh RAB. Average wages are lower in Wales, although so are costs, so while graduates retain their relative purchasing power, the Treasury will receive less in payments to cover the loan book.
3 – ELQ regulations lifted – time for a second degree?
When outlining plans for part-time maintenance support (p. 46), the review states:
“our proposals for part-time funding arrangements in the round, should be made available to part-time students who study on a module by module basis, as well as those who register for a qualification, with no restriction on those who have previous equivalent level qualifications [ELQ] at HE level.”
Is this the abolition of the much-derided ELQ restrictions that many have blamed for the catastrophic decline in part-time study? Enabling workers to take a second degree, particularly on such a flexible basis, could revitalise part-time higher education in Wales. The change would also be very suitable for the Welsh labour market, where having the flexibility to acquire skills on the supply-side will be more vital than ever to maintaining employment levels. Mid-career retraining will be essential for a growing number of workers.
4 – Progressive universalism is back
Universal benefits have had a tough time in recent years under both Labour and Conservative governments in Westminster, with the possible exception of pensions. Though universal benefit was a core principal at the foundation of the welfare state in the 1940s, it has slowly been eroded by cost pressures and the inevitable objections from both left and right: why should the rich receive state handouts?
Universalism has had a better time in Scotland and Wales since devolution, particularly in education and health policy, but Diamond moves universal support in Welsh HE away from institutions (universities receiving a fee grant) and towards people. The £1000 universal grant will arguably be token to students from the very wealthiest families, but clearly, the panel felt the principal was important to uphold.
5 – Will degree apprentices get a pay rise?
Pegging of maintenance support to the National Living Wage is a striking step, particularly considering under 25s in work aren’t even eligible for it. Another group not eligible are first-year apprentices under 25, whose minimum wage is even less at £3.30.
Diamond calls for an extra £1 million investment per annum in degree apprenticeships, and also recommends the Welsh Government be more proactive in developing new degree apprenticeship frameworks. Expansion of these programmes will be hard to incentivise if students are liable to receive less money for working as an apprentice than they would get as a grant as a full-time student. The Welsh Government might consider topping up higher-level apprentices’ wages with grants if their employer is unable to match the National Living Wage.
6 – Tying maintenance to the minimum wage leaves power with Westminster
The recommendation to base the total rate of maintenance on the National Living Wage is not (yet) set in statute and may merely be a ‘guide’ rather than a ‘peg’. However if it were, Welsh Government spending on student finance would effectively be beholden to the decisions of the Chancellor and the Low Pay Commission in Westminster.
7 – Welsh universities will effectively have a ‘soft incomes policy’
One of the more intriguing Diamond proposals is for Welsh universities to report the cost of their accommodation (and presumably other related) services to HEFCW, who will publish these annually (p. 39). This is an attempt to stop ‘price gouging’ which many believe universities have been guilty of across the UK in an attempt to raise revenue in a near-captive market.
Alongside this, universities who believe they require more than £9,000 in funding for some undergraduate and postgraduate courses will have to apply to HEFCW for a top-up that “reflect[s] the agreed cost of teaching” (p. 52). Assessing the cost of teaching for individual courses has been a notoriously controversial and unpleasant area for universities in the past, despite the attempts of the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC). HEFCW may find themselves with a significant amount of leverage here.
Taken together, these measures are effectively the introduction of a soft ‘incomes policy’ for two areas of university income that have traditionally been subject to the free(ish) market. HEFCW will assume the role of Harold Wilson’s National Board for Prices and Incomes.
8 – Implications: Scotland and Northern Ireland
Diamond’s proposals effectively take the opposite route for a social-democratically inclined devolved nation to Scotland. Scotland’s focus on free-tuition is rooted in the idea of education as a fundamentally public good. The new Welsh system will acknowledge the need to repay for individual gain from tuition and provide individual support while studying. These are two very different forms of universal subsidy.
Criticism of Scottish universities’ record on widening access has led to increased pressure on the Scottish Government to revise its free tuition policy, something that is incredibly unlikely to happen given the SNP’s steadfast commitment to it. As the Commission on Widening Access’s recommendations are considered, the Scottish government will no doubt be forced to look over to Wales for ideas about improving student support, particularly for part-time and lifelong study.
Meanwhile, Northern Irish higher education funding has been under pressure for some time. A review akin to that carried out by Diamond may be just what the province’s sector needs to be put on a sustainable footing. If so, the competing visions offered by Scotland and Wales will make for some compelling options.