From Browne to Diamond

When the Minister for Education and Skills in Wales, Huw Lewis, assumed the education brief in June 2013, it was against a backdrop of widespread discontent in Welsh HE. Many questioned the efficacy, impact and sustainability of the Welsh Government’s tuition fee policy, its failure to implement a revised part-time student support system and the steadily decreasing part-time student numbers.

So few were surprised when in November, the Minister announced the ‘Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales’ to be chaired by Sir Ian Diamond, Vice Chancellor of Aberdeen University. This week the Welsh Government published the membership and terms of reference of the review, and so now we have a better understanding of its scope, we can also begin to speculate about its direction.

The need for the review is a direct result of the changes to higher education in England that followed the 2010 report of the Browne Review and the subsequent impact this had on Wales. Comparisons between the Diamond Review and the Browne Review are inevitable and, in many ways, justified. From the timeline to the terms of reference, there are definite similarities.

Just as widening participation was a key objective of the Browne Review, the Welsh Government’s key focus for the review includes widening access.  The Minister has also made part-time and postgraduate provision priorities, areas largely neglected under the current funding regime. Although part-time and postgraduate study were covered by the Browne Review, the terms of reference for the Diamond Review places a particular and specific importance on them, insisting that they are strengthened.

Another priority of the review is the long term financial sustainability of the funding system in Wales, and this cuts to the heart of the reasons for the review itself. The Welsh Government has been engaged in a public tug of war with the higher education sector and opposition parties around the Welsh tuition fee grant, the problem of cross-border flow and the impact of Westminster policies on Welsh higher education.

The student support settlement put in place by the Welsh Government, following the raising of the tuition fee cap in England in 2010, means that every Welsh-domiciled student, regardless of where they study, receives a tuition fee grant of up to £5,425. As such, Welsh Government funding follows Welsh students across the border and this has drawn frequent criticism. Plaid Cymru labelled the system ‘flawed’ and the Welsh Conservatives called it ‘damaging’, highlighting how the policy leads to five particular English universities alone receiving £15 million of Welsh Government funding.

Universities have also expressed dissatisfaction with the fee grant. One of the most vocal critics, the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University and Chair of Higher Education Wales, Professor Colin Riordan, will be a member of the review and has previously called for the fee grant to be restricted to those studying in Wales.

Despite this, the Welsh Government has continuously challenged its critics, arguing that the Welsh higher education sector is in a healthy position. Sector income in Wales is predicted to have increased by 13.8% in 2013/14 and the Welsh Audit Office’s report on higher education funding was an apparent vindication of the Government’s approach.

The controversy surrounding the fee grant ultimately hinges on the issue of cross-border flow, which itself is set to be another priority of the Diamond Review. Among the devolved nations of the UK, the cross-border flow between England and Wales in higher education is unique. In Wales over a third of all higher education students are English-domiciled, and nearly half of all new entrants from Wales choose to study in England. As such, changes to English policy will always have repercussions for Welsh higher education policy, especially given the year on year trend of more Welsh students choosing to study in England.

And so with the recent announcement that the student number cap in England would be lifted, ruffled feathers were ruffled further. Many speculated about the impact this would have on the movement of Welsh students, with the BBC reporting a leaked document that highlighted how an additional 1,500 students crossing the border in 2015/16 would lead to an extra £7.1 million of Welsh Government funding going to English institutions.

And the critics of the Government’s current HE funding arrangements were further inflamed when the timescale for the review became apparent, with the review not due to report until after the next Welsh Government elections in 2016. However, the publication of the terms of reference this week sees the review further align itself with the approach used by Browne with an interim ‘evidence-based’ report due to be published prior to the Assembly elections.

And while the priorities and timeline of the Diamond Review are reminiscent of Browne, the membership is both broader and larger.

Joining Sir Ian Diamond will be Director of the OU in Wales Rob Humphries, himself no stranger to Welsh education reviews having been a member of the two “Rees Reviews” on HE funding and student hardship and the Graham Review on part-time provision. It also includes political nominees and the President of NUS Wales.

The panel also brings in Dr. Gavan Conlon who has been quietly influential in England over the last couple of years having been one of the first to predict that the RAB charge would be significantly higher than the Government estimated. He was also behind the Million+ work on the economic costs of the new funding system in England and involved in the development of IPPR’s Critical Path report.

It seems a safe bet that the recommendations of this review will not echo those of Browne. The members have for the most part been critical of the approach taken in England over the past few years.

However Wales is so inexorably bound to English HE that no big step can be taken without one eye on the border – the comings and goings of Welsh and English students, and a constant awareness that whatever next comes out of Westminster – particularly at the General Election next year – could move the goalposts once again.

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