The long-awaited Diamond Review of Higher Education and Student Finance in Wales has arrived. This is the most significant announcement on higher education funding anywhere in the UK since 2010, and once again we have a Liberal Democrat minister in a coalition needing to make tough choices about student finance.
Indeed, a cynic might suggest that Kirsty Williams – the sole Liberal Democrat in a Labour government – was posted as Cabinet Secretary for Education by Carwyn Jones because the Labour First Minister knew that Diamond’s publication loomed, just as Lord Browne’s did in 2010. Vince Cable learned a lesson about Coalition politics quickly that summer and the rest is history. However, Labour and the Liberal Democrats will have to jointly own the implementation of Diamond’s proposals, and the generous new package for student support might sweeten the deal quite significantly.
- The Tuition Fee Grant is scrapped, and universities in Wales will be able to charge fees up to £9,000. HEFCW will top-up high-cost subjects, and inflationary pressures will be “shared between the student… and the state”.
- All Welsh full-time students studying away from home (outside London) will be eligible be eligible for up to £8,100 in maintenance support, on top of a universal grant of £1,000. Means-tested grants of varying levels will be available for students from the majority of households.
- Comparable student support will be available for part-time and postgraduate students, with PGT course fees at Welsh universities ‘soft capped’ at £9,000.
- Further recommendations concerned research higher technical and vocational education, QR funding, knowledge transfer, Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, the University of Wales Press, and the Student Loans Company.
Diamond’s student bargain
Diamond’s interim report last December effectively condemned the Tuition Fee Grant to the axe, showing that the Welsh sector was near unanimous in agreeing that it was unsustainable, costing £172.6 million per year for the Welsh Government with little improvement in outcomes for widening access. In its place, Diamond has proposed fundamentally altering the principle of universal state subsidy for higher education away from universities and towards students. The report’s executive summary is keen to stress that:
“representations from students [argued] that it is maintenance assistance that gives them the flexibility to manage their finances and, for some students, to overcome the real financial challenges associated with a period of higher education study”.
Welsh students will thus all be entitled to a £1,000 universal non-means-tested grant, topped up with a combination of means-tested grants and loans. The top rate of grant and loan support for full-time students will be the equivalent of the National Living Wage – based on 37.5 hours per week over a 30 week period (currently £8,100). This is particularly fascinating given that under-25s in work are not even eligible for the National Living Wage. Welsh students studying in London will be entitled to an extra 25% (£10,125), while those living at home will receive 15% less. This is easily the most generous student support package of any in the UK.
All students will be able to access the maximum amount in a graded form of loans and grants. The eligibility for grants will be extended significantly, with students from households earning up to £81,000 eligible for some degree of means-tested grant support. Another significant change, and one that many student finance campaigners will welcome will be the introduction of monthly rather than termly maintenance payments, enabling students to manage their money more easily. All the support will be portable for Welsh domiciled students studying across the UK and (for the meanwhile) the EU, and the report even recommends a pilot to explore extending such support beyond the EU.
Part-time students will receive the same support on a pro-rata basis, including access to maintenance grants. The new focus on maintenance and cost of living is further underlined by an interesting recommendation to require HEFCW to “collect the prices of a basket of goods for each university and publish them”.
Diamond’s proposals also recommend a much more active role for HEFCW in the postgraduate-taught market, to enable taught postgraduates to receive the same level of student support as undergraduates. Taught postgraduates will receive the same level of maintenance and tuition fee support as undergraduate students. Welsh universities will have to agree “a maximum fee support level.. via HEFCW for Welsh students for funding/fee loan purposes (up to the current maximum of £9,000).” Higher-cost subjects will be topped up by HEFCW (as at undergraduate level), upon agreement between the HEI and HEFCW on the cost of teaching.
Critically, the maximum postgraduate tuition fee loan available to Welsh students studying outside Wales will not exceed that required in Wales (i.e. £9,000). This appears to be an incentive to ensure that Welsh postgraduates stay in Wales. Graduate retention is a significant concern in Welsh politics, particularly for Plaid Cymru. While the report has little concrete proposals for retaining graduates in-work, it suggests that the Welsh Government consider partial loan-cancellation “for those working in jobs in Wales”.
The shift of state funding from tuition costs to student maintenance has been welcomed across the Welsh HE sector. NUS Wales has called the reforms a “progressive funding model” and reasoned that any associated increase in student loan debt is far preferable to incurring debts with banks, credit cards and payday loans.
The continuation of top-up funding at both undergraduate and postgraduate level has also been welcomed by Universities Wales, though Diamond makes little-to-no reference to the TEF and its associated inflationary fee increases. The report states that:
“We clarified that inflationary pressures should be shared between the student (through the Tuition Fee Loan and Maintenance Loan) and the state (through the Maintenance Grant and HEFCW learning and teaching grants)”.
Quite what the precise combination of absorbing inflation will be is unclear.
It will be interesting to monitor whether Diamond’s reforms significantly improve the prospects of part-time and adult learning in Wales, making it an interesting ‘controlled test’ compared to England. It has long been claimed that maintenance support is the key to reviving part-time education: Wales will show us whether this is true.
Finally, implementation of Diamond’s reforms will have significant political implications, not least for the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn will likely be uncomfortable with the headline announcement that a Welsh Labour government is increasing tuition fees, making it even more difficult to bring the whole party round to a policy of free tuition – something Corbyn and his allies have repeatedly expressed a desire to do. Corbyn and Carwyn Jones are already at loggerheads over Welsh representation on Labour’s NEC.
NUS Wales will not be the only organisation to proclaim the overall trajectory of the plans as “progressive” (though NUS UK, taking a harder line on free education, may not be quite so warm). Questions will no doubt be asked, in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, about why Wales can be so much more generous to its students, particularly part-timers and postgraduates. Diamond could be a game changer, not just in Wales, but across the entire UK.
You can read the full report and accompanying documents here.