Could England take a shine to Wales’s Diamond reforms?

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The mammoth ‘Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales’, or Diamond Review, was published in September 2016. Chaired by Sir Professor Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Aberdeen, it took 30 months to produce a comprehensive, distinctive and innovative vision for the future of Welsh higher education.

It’s impact is still being felt, with the Wales Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, announcing £26m of funding yesterday because she “will not allow the political turmoil and uncertainty in England to knock us off course … to deliver the most equitable and progressive student support system in the UK … in line with our response to the Diamond Review”. Fees in Wales will remain at £9,000 and not be linked to inflation, while the threshold will increase to £25,000 (with Treasury approval) as in England. £10m of the funding will go to universities to cover any shortfall in funding they were expecting from an inflation-linked rise. £6m will go to HEFCW for any ‘short-term financial implications’. And the remaining £10m will be for (non-repayable) postgraduate student bursaries and grants, from 2018/19. The latter equates to over £3,000 per person per year, with the aim of incentivising progression in Welsh universities.

As cabinet ministers here continue to squabble over the issue of fees, might the rumours be true that England could soon start to ‘borrow’ some of Diamond’s policy ideas? 

The student vote

Students were perceived to be highly influential in June’s general election result, with Labour 45 percentage points ahead amongst this group. In reality, fees wasn’t a breakthrough issue for most people (96%), and Corbyn was more popular among all young people, not just students. Despite this, fees and funding continue to rise up the agenda yet again here in Westminster. In July, Jo Johnson gave a robust speech defending the current system under the banner of ‘value for money’ for students, as well as taxpayers. However, no concessions were made about loan repayment terms or fee levels, with a “fair balance” between students and the state involving the former paying two thirds of the cost.

Then came a summer of discontent, including initial rumbling among the cabinet, about September’s planned rise in fees to £9,250, and in inflation-linked repayment interest to 6.1%. Although it had no impact on policy, the Government was symbolically defeated on Opposition Day in the Commons over the fee rise. In October this pressure culminated in the Prime Minister announcing a fee freeze for a year, along with the £4,000 higher repayment threshold of £25,000. This increases the cost to taxpayers by over £2.3 billion per year, a 41% increase in the long term. It also prompted a rash of reviews, with three now running from Parliamentary committees, one from the NAO, and the Prime Minister’s promise of another “major review”.

Why the 50% drop in part-time students matters

Despite criticising predicted fee rises in the Labour-led Welsh system in his July speech, the Minister made a number of announcements that hinted at possible Welsh influence.

Firstly he spoke of a ‘maintenance support package for part-time students’, details as yet unknown. One of the boldest elements of the new Welsh system is equal and generous maintenance support across all modes and levels of study, including part-time and – as shown yesterday – postgraduates. Currently there are 42,800 part-time students in Wales, 31% of the total. That proportion is declining, but nowhere near as fast as the 50 percent drop seen in England since the 2012 tuition fee hike to £9,000 fees. Furthermore, if part-time students are included in the figures, there has actually been a 15% (or 11,500) fall in the number of undergraduates from low participation areas from 2011/12 to 2015/16. These trends put long-term economic and access objectives at risk.

Part-time students are only going to become more and more important. Once the current demographic ‘bulge’ cohorts pass through England’s secondary schools, and some progress on into higher education, the nation faces a projected long-term shift towards an ageing population. That means fewer 18-year-olds entering higher education and a rise in the proportion of part-time learners – who tend to be mature and re-training. Accelerating technological change, global competition and the whole ‘Brexit thing’ together make flexible re-skilling key to keeping the economy productive and growing. But where might such funding come from given the Chancellor’s commitment to continuing his predecessor’s austerity programme? There are other strong claims to more money, from the (eroding) public sector pay cap to further cash injections for the NHS, again issues were Corbyn polls strongly.

Welsh lessons

As employers have been contributing to the apprenticeship levy since April, degree apprenticeships are increasingly seen as the answer here. The 2017 Conservative Party manifesto pledge to allow levy funds to pay wages during retraining, may well be a homage to the National Living Wage pledge given in the Diamond Review, and could feature in any ‘support package’. Scotland is apparently also interested in this policy.

As for access, part-time students are more likely to be disabled, mature, and have existing caring responsibilities. Social mobility – the avowed priority of Johnson’s DfE boss Justine Greening – requires equality of opportunity and maybe a little old-fashioned redistribution on the side. Again, Wales could offer some hints, as one of the first national systems not to prioritise 18-year-old first-time undergraduates. For instance, bringing Equivalent or Lower Qualifications (ELQs) exemptions back into the English system (after their removal in 2008) would encourage retraining and part-time students. Again, the growing pot of apprenticeship levy funding could provide the required money, if institutions can respond quickly enough with high-quality offers that serve both students and employers. This would require a strong focus on social mobility, working with new partners and delivering the skills that employers really need and are willing to pay for, moving beyond the false dichotomies between HE and FE.

The second half of Johnson’s July speech focused on value for money initiatives such as subject-level TEF, vice chancellor pay and LEO data. Nothing was mentioned of greater transparency about the real price of higher education; accommodation, textbooks, living costs, or teaching costs. Again, the Diamond Review can offer England some ideas, mandating that institutions report in a standardised and accessible format. This will help inform student choices and allow for fair competition – both stated ambitions of the current English system (though ironically, not the Welsh).

As population growth starts to slow in all four nations of the UK over the next decade, questions of productivity and value for money will grow in prominence – how can we do more with less? Technology is always part of that equation, but the other part is ‘human capital’ i.e. education. However, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that the proportion of GDP spent on education is set to fall, from 4.4 percent currently, to 3.8 percent in 50 years. To sustain economic growth and address social mobility, sooner or later the English system may well need to take some more Welsh lessons – hen bryd!

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