HEPI report defends student mobility

A report released today by HEPI questions to whom does the higher education budget in Wales belong, particularly the Welsh portable fee grant, as well as exploring the high costs for students from Northern Ireland and Scotland who chose to study in England, and whether or not students from the UK should be able to take funding into the EU.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) today released a report written by Lucy Hunter Blackburn, the former Head of Higher Education for the Scottish Government. The report questions to whom does the higher education budget in Wales belong, particularly the Welsh portable fee grant, as well as exploring the high costs for students from Northern Ireland and Scotland who chose to study in England, and whether or not students from the UK should be able to take funding into the EU. 

The report entitled, “Whose to Lose?: Citizens, institutions and the ownership of higher education funding in a devolved UK” looks into the right of Welsh-domiciled students to take their student support, specifically their portable fee grant, with them when studying elsewhere in the UK. This has been a controversial topic and has sparked debate, with many politicians claiming that the portable fee grant is handing over money to English universities. The report argues that this concept of loss used by critics risks concealing the benefits for individuals.

At the moment first-time, full-time, Welsh undergraduate students pay £3,685 in tuition fees and any fee above that amount is funded by the Welsh Government. This funding is given to Welsh students wherever they study within the UK.

The debate around the portable fee grant focuses mostly on ‘lost money’ being handed over to non-Welsh institutions. The report argues that this money should not be thought of as some sort of ‘donation’, rather, these funds are used to subsidise the higher education of people from Wales.

The paper also mentions that while there is £80m spent on fee grants for Welsh students studying in other parts of the UK there are certainly more English students bringing tuition into Wales. The Student Loans Company (SLC) has so far this year paid £220m to Welsh institutions on behalf of English students. “Institutions that complain about the current arrangements might be accused on this analysis of holding to a philosophy of ‘what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own’.” says the report.

In ending the portability of the fee grant, any Welsh student crossing the border would have significantly higher student debt. This may increase welsh institutional income but would make students feel as though they have less choice and would effectively financially punish those choosing to leave Wales to study.

Despite the financial deterrent of studying outside Wales without a portable fee grant, undoubtedly there would still be people who wish to study elsewhere and there may actually be little transfer of resources from English to Welsh institutions.

“Wales faces a significant challenge in managing a system with so much student movement, in and out. But the language of “universities losing money” is not helpful.” says Lucy Hunter Blackburn, the author of the report.

“What happens with the fee grant will affect individuals more than institutions. The only certain result of restricting the fee grant to Wales would be that some Welsh citizens would end up paying much more back to the state for their higher education.”

Another point raised in the paper is why these arguments are applied solely to the fee grant where they could easily be applied to maintenance grants and fee and maintenance loans.

The report also brings to attention the absence of portable cash support towards fees for students from Scotland and Northern Ireland, as there is greater competition for places in both those jurisdictions. Low income Scottish students at universities elsewhere in the UK face the highest levels of student debt, needing to borrow or make up a total of £14,750 a year (£15,750 for mature Scots). Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with an unequivocal loss as a result of student mobility. It is the largest net exporter of undergraduate students in the UK, losing almost fifteen times as many students as it gains.

The report goes on to warn that “Higher education is at risk of being treated as a local public service just when it is becoming more truly international elsewhere” (except in England). The report mentions the lack of portable student support for those wishing to study elsewhere in the EU which ‘inhibits student choice and mobility’.

The report states that “Restricting student support to study within the UK made some sense in the political circumstances of the 1960s, when the UK was not even a member of the Common Market. But it is less persuasive in a more integrated EU with a single market”.

Finally the report makes the point that higher education funding belongs to everyone within a jurisdiction, “Those wishing to pursue higher education have as much right to it as those who provide higher education.”

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

“The student funding debate in Wales is weighed down by shibboleths that are superficially attractive but need challenging. Student mobility within and beyond the UK is generally a good thing for students, businesses and the country.

Incentivising people to study in their home area and discouraging them from studying elsewhere would not be right for all Welsh students, just as it would not be right for all students from England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Changing the rules so that Welsh students are no longer able to take all their financial support with them would not guarantee more funding for other higher education priorities either.

There are risks in treating higher education as a local public service just as it is becoming more truly international elsewhere. Instead of looking for ways to restrict the mobility of UK students, we should be looking at how we can encourage them to gain experience abroad.”

Download the full report here.

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