Many of us working in higher education in the UK find ourselves preoccupied with what the post-18 review of education will or won’t recommend. In Wales we’re also paying close attention to the implementation and impact of our own recent review of higher education funding chaired by Ian Diamond.
Initial data from the Diamond Review suggest that the new student support arrangements are having a dramatic effect on the number of students choosing to study part-time and postgraduate courses in Wales.
The whole Diamond
The breadth of the Diamond Review is sometimes misunderstood. Many are aware of the headline recommendations around student support for living costs. But the review had a much wider focus, including greater parity of esteem between full-time and part-time study, research and innovation funding, improved access to postgraduate study and the overall funding model of universities in Wales. The final report of the review stressed that the package “comprises interlocking elements and should be seen in its entirety; it therefore requires implementation as a whole”.
These recommendations were the result of a review process that took place over two and a half years. During this time, members of the review scrutinised a wide breadth of evidence around what made a difference in widening access to higher education, what barriers exist to succeeding in HE for some students, and what funding and structures needed to be in place to ensure that Welsh universities were equipped to best deliver for those students. This evidence was comprehensively explored in both the interim report of the review and the final report.
In an example of thoughtful consensus in this politically polarised time, the recommendations of the Diamond Review received cross-party support in the National Assembly for Wales and support from the National Union of Students Wales and universities. Perhaps this consensus is unsurprising given the lengths the review took to engage with a range of stakeholders and the time it took to listen to evidence including NUS Wales’ “Pound in Your Pocket Wales” report on student experiences of financial support.
There remains a great deal of goodwill towards the Welsh government in its sensible steps taken to implement the recommendations. But at the same time there has also been a sense of caution as we wait to see if the reforms have the desired effect.
Although it is still too early to tell conclusively, with the first student cohort of the Diamond reforms entering HE this year, the early signs are very promising. Some of the initial figures are staggering. Early in-year data from the Student Loans Company shows that the number of Welsh-domiciled part-time applicants for student support is 50% higher this year than at the same time last year, increasing from 2,600 to 3,900 applicants. This is higher than at any time for the past five years.
Source: SLC, 2018
Similarly, the number of Welsh-domiciled applicants for postgraduate student support has increased by 57%, from 2,800 to 4,400.
And while applications for support do not necessarily equal an increase in overall student numbers, these figures line up with what we are hearing about part-time and postgraduate recruitment this year, a picture that will become clearer in the coming months.
For those of us who believe in the transformative potential of higher education, this is good news. As Universities Wales has said before on Wonkhe, the changing shape of our workforce and economy will mean that opportunities to reskill and upskill become ever more important. The student support and HE funding package now makes doing so accessible to more people.
Once again we find ourselves watching closely to see what may come out of the post-18 review in England. As we begin to see the positive impact of the new student support arrangements, we encourage those across the UK who care about HE and flexible lifelong learning to look at what we have done here in Wales.