Kirsty Williams is Cabinet Secretary for Education in the Welsh government and Liberal Democrat AM for Brecon and Radnorshire.
As many in the Welsh higher education sector will know, our consultation on delivering the reforms proposed in the Diamond Review closes on 14th February. Based on the mostly positive reaction to the government’s proposals, I’m not expecting a Valentine’s Day massacre on that last day of the consultation. In fact, I’m very much hoping that we’re on the road to a beautiful relationship, as Humphrey Bogart might have said.
It’s a relationship in which we get the balance right in supporting students when they most need it, and enables our universities to compete internationally. Or as Gavan Conlon from London Economics has put it: “doing more, with less, but better”. The Diamond Review, and indeed our response, is built on foundations that are essential for any progressive reform. We have been able to balance – and to blend – principles and practicalities.
The issue at hand when the Review began was clear. The current system of funding Welsh higher education is unsustainable, but perhaps more importantly, was it supporting students in the best way? Was it supporting our sector to be the best it could be for Wales? And was it supporting widening access, through part-time and onto post-graduate study?
So, from those challenges, we have set out new principles for a progressive and sustainable student support system. Those principles are:
In practice, this means combining universal and means-tested support; committing to cohort protection for those in the current system; and extending ELQ exemptions rather than abolishing them completely.
But we must remember that Welsh higher education operates in a UK-wide context which brings many benefits. The Open University itself is a good example of a four nations institution that gains from its UK scale but is nimble enough to operate at a national level in Wales. But it also brings many challenges. Decisions made in Westminster – directly and indirectly – have a knock-on effect on the three other UK nations. What is certainly not true is the perception that policy in England is the norm from which we in Wales might deviate. This is a pejorative that portrays us as mischief-makers or an errant cousin.
In fact, the truth is that our Diamond reforms show that Wales is innovative, international and potentially an inspiration. We are already taking calls from other administrations interested in our reforms. As David Morris predicted on Wonkhe in September: “questions will be asked across the UK about why can Wales be so much more generous to its students. Diamond could be a game changer, across the entire UK.”
As my officials in our schools’ division well know, I am driven by an ambition that Wales learns from the best, so that we can then be a model of best practice. I want to see policymakers from around the world visiting Wales to learn from us on how to raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver a new curriculum. Surely people must be fed up of always visiting Finland or Korea – let’s be great enough so that they come to Fishguard or Caernarfon instead.
It would be a welcome change if Welsh vice chancellors decided to enlighten their English counterparts about the bold, collective, decisions that we have taken here. If that starts happening, then I know I will be on my way to achieving my ambition.
And perhaps our boldest decision has been to make available equivalent maintenance support across different modes and levels of study. I believe that in being the first in the UK, indeed perhaps the first in Europe, to do this: moving towards a system that provides for all.
The work of NUS Wales, through their research and continuing constructive engagement, has been bold in addressing student funding priorities head-on. And they have made the case for all types of students, not just the traditional eighteen-year-olds.
It is vital that our funding is not just provided for one type of student. That is neither progressive nor appropriate for a competitive modern economy and society. So the option is either a system that treats all students the same and government makes a complete retreat from student support, or you commit fully to a partnership where we share those costs when students most need it. Thanks to the Diamond Package we have a practical, progressive and consistent system that ensures Wales can take the latter option.
I want to underline the fundamental shift towards that ‘whole system’ approach. Providing parity of support across part-time and post-graduate gives us a real chance to tackle some of those enduring inequalities in social mobility, employment outcomes, access to the professions, diversity in academia and the essential promotion of life-long learning.
Financial decisions are, of course, for future budget negotiations. But I am committed to a higher education system that is supported to deliver on social mobility, on research and scholarship, on an engaged democracy, on enabling entrepreneurship, and on national prosperity.
These are exciting times to be part of the collective effort to reform education in Wales, building better futures for our citizens and for our nation. Our proposed changes to student support funding and higher education finance are an ambitious, but essential, aspect of that mission.
This blog is an abridged version of Kirsty Williams’ speech to the Wonkhe and Open University in Wales event: Delivering Diamond. Read more about what happened at the conference on our live blog here.