Diamond Review: Wales leading the way on sustainable HE funding

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The Diamond Review has finally reported – we had a long wait, but the consensus indicates it was worth it.

When it was set up in 2014, Diamond’s broad and ambitious brief left many sceptical. Indeed, it is no mean feat to create an affordable, sustainable higher education funding system that works for all students – not just the full timers, but part-time and postgraduates too. A system that has both widening access and world class quality at its heart. A system that can drive forward the economy and deliver social justice. And all under a finite and pressurised budget.

Other nations in the UK are struggling to create long-term approaches to higher education funding that suit all parts of the sector, but has Wales provided the most progressive blueprint for HE in the UK thus far? Has it offered a solution to problems that have vexed politicians and policy wonks since mass HE provision became the norm? The initial response from the likes of NUS, UCU, political parties across the spectrum in Wales, and institutions, suggests that maybe it has.

And while it is too soon to judge success, these are still recommendations at the moment, what is clear is that Wales has a plan. And that leaves even the most sceptical of us reason to be optimistic.

All modes, all levels

Diamond was not simply looking for a solution on tuition fees, or research funding, or even just reducing costs in a time of difficult budget settlements; it was doing all of this. But most importantly it sought to create a sustainable funding settlement for the whole sector, students and institutions of every variety. One might not think that’s radical, yet remarkable as it is, it will be the first in the UK to offer something for everyone, and more for those who need it when they need it most.

Like the sun in the solar system, full-time undergraduates have been at the centre of our higher education system, with all other types of students and modes of study having to revolve around them. Of course, this is an important cohort of students, but their dominance in policy was disproportionate and it came at the expense of funding for part-time and postgraduate students.

There is an urgent rationale for Wales (and the rest of the UK) to be investing in part-time provision. Demographic changes mean that the proportion of young people is shrinking. To keep being economically successful, the UK needs to expand and develop its workforce. This means developing the workforce we currently have, not just relying on an influx of new graduates. An effective way to do this is to enable people to study while they work, and Diamond’s recommendations support this aim. The problem and solution are no different elsewhere in the UK, and yet part-time numbers in England have declined by 40 percent in recent years, much more sharply than in Wales.

There is, of course, a social justice imperative to part-time HE too. For many studying this way, the responsibilities of jobs, mortgages and caring mean a full-time course is simply not possible. For others, a disability means a full-time course will simply not meet their needs. There are many reasons why people cannot study full-time, despite being ready and able to study at university level.

And in turn, by not providing support for postgraduate study, are we not implicitly saying that postgraduate study – and the personal economic advantages it can bring –  is just for those who can afford it, for the wealthier – and therefore encouraging the mantra that advantage breeds advantage? When we say we want to widen access to education, up until now, we have been saying that it’s only to bachelor’s degree level, and beyond that is fair game. It simply makes no economic sense for us to limit access to postgraduate study only to those who can afford it.

Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance

Tuition fees have undeservedly dominated the debate in UK higher education for decades. Fees are important, but the focus on this ignores the killer issue for fair access and affordability: maintenance. Current levels of maintenance – in either loan or grant form – do not cover the actual cost of living. Unless a student can find another course of income, they will not have enough money to pay rent, eat or travel. This is why students drop out, or why they work unsuitably long hours, or why they survive on credit cards and pay-day loans – then do less well in their studies, turn down valuable extra-curricular activities and work placements, and are ultimately less able to enjoy the benefits of their education.

The greater focus on maintenance recommended by Diamond, to the tune of the new minimum wage, bolsters the chances of the least advantaged students to stay at university, free from the pressures of high-interest loans and longer than appropriate hours in paid employment. It will mean the outcome of their study is richer in substance and stature. And it means the public purse investment in that individual’s study is a sounder one, more likely to generate a healthy return.

Progressive is progressive, even when it’s relative

The Diamond recommendations on maintenance are the most progressive in the UK, but progressive is a relative concept – relative to rising fees in England, slow economic activity in Wales, and austerity everywhere. But if there is only money available to fund maintenance for students or less tuition fee debt for graduates, a commitment to social justice demands that maintenance for students be prioritised.

The status quo, or the removal of fees in their entirety, was not a viable outcome of this review. Instead, with the financial backdrop as it is, and the fact that our universities operate with a UK-wide higher education system, the focus must be on offering support to students in all modes of study to access and stay in university. A progressive maintenance system, with a universal element at its heart for all students, delivers this objective.

Wales now needs to work hard on developing its economy and proving to prospective students that a degree is worth their investment; that the rewards are worth the graduate debt and repayments. Because if they are convinced, they’ll be supported to stay on course, whether full-time or part-time, undergraduate or postgraduate. With those that need it most, receiving the most. We cannot take implementation for granted, but what is for sure is that Wales has the opportunity to lead the way in delivering a progressive higher education system that can support all students, as well as our institutions.

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