Our next panel will look at widening access and whether Diamond can succeed in delivering a more socially just higher education system, and we are now chaired by Hannah Pudner, Assistant Director at OU Wales.
First up is Ioan Matthews, Director of Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, the Welsh language medium higher education college. Appropriately, Ioan is speaking to us in both Welsh and England, and thanks to the magic of simultaneous translation he can switch between the two.
Ioan thanks the Diamond Panel for successfully coming up with a new system that has brought together multiple stakeholders and looks set to create a sustainable system. However, there are many questions to consider for funding accessible higher education in a bi-lingual country, and we often need to remind ourselves where Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol came from.
The Coleg was set up in 2011 after a long campaign for Welsh medium higher education, for which there is a clear and growing demand in Wales.
Diamond has clearly recommended £5.8 million per year to enable higher education institutions and Coleg Cymraeg to work together to specifically deliver Welsh language higher learning and provide choice for students across the country. This is very welcome, but there are still challenges ahead, particularly for funding Welsh language learning in further education and for more atypical routes in higher learning.
The Coleg is now developing a strategic plan alongside universities in order to outline how the new funding will be spent. This, as a result of the Diamond Review, will give the Coleg a more sustainable footing in the years ahead.
Next is Fflur Elyn, President of NUS Wales. She welcomes the opportunity to talk at length about NUS’s position on higher education funding. She restates NUS’s national commitment to ‘free education’, and argues that this is a worthwhile investment for society across the UK. However, NUS Wales recognises that the funding is not available in Wales to deliver free education and that the current funding system is unsustainable. NUS Wales research showed just how many students, particularly those from disadvantaged areas, are frequently struggling to cover their living costs, and that this was damaging their wellbeing. Many disadvantaged students are either in private debt or taking on part-time work alongside their studies, causing massive anxiety and difficulties. This is why NUS Wales focused their efforts on maintenance support for students to ensure they can go from day-to-day making ends meet.
NUS Wales welcome the general trajectory of Diamond and particularly tying maintenance support to the National Living Wage and the universal grant, but it is important that maintenance continues to rise in line with wages and inflation. Also welcome commitments on part-time and Welsh language education.
However, NUS Wales are concerned that although students will be better supported, they will also be taking on more debt, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Fflur is also concerned about the reduction in the income threshold for access to grants, and will be looking closely a specific report for student parents and student carers.
Finally, higher education is “only part of the post-compulsory sector”, and colleges need to be commensurately funded alongside universities in order to have a strong post-compulsory education system.
Finally, we have Natasha Davies from Chwarae Teg, a Welsh gender equality charity. She points out that there are many challenges for gender equality in Welsh higher education, including imbalances in subject-mix, graduate earnings, and support for student parents and carers.
Natasha notes that 60% of part-time students are women and the commitment to parity for part-time funding is incredibly important for advancing gender equality, who are often using part-time education when returning to work after breaks. Part-time is also vital for up-skilling the workforce in growth sectors in Wales such as engineering which are currently dominated by men and where opportunities need to be opened up for women.
Linked to this is the ongoing consultation and discussions on support for students with caring and parenting responsibilities, which must interact with funding and support for part-time and flexible learning. This must in turn link through to support in further education.
Finally, Natasha turns to the role that higher education can play in improving gender equality in wider society – particularly in women’s participation in STEM and in senior leadership roles.