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Impact of English post-18 review in Wales

David Kernohan looks at an unintended, and potentially damaging, impact that Wales will see from a policy decision made for political ends in an entirely different country.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Welsh higher education policy can sometimes feel like the UK in the Brexit transition period – it feels all the pain of Westminster decisions it very often has no say in.

There is in reality one UK HE market, and each system needs to work to make itself as attractive as possible to stay competitive. But if one part of the UK changes others need to follow.

Science saves Wales?

One option would be for Wales to adopt the Augar pricing structure wholesale Here I’ve modelled this for the £6,500/£13,500 “preview” from the other week.

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We see a surprising number of “winners” – to the extent that the sector overall would see at £30m boost in income. This windfall is focused on Wales’ more traditional STEM-focused institutions like Cardiff and Swansea but more diverse and arts-focused institutions like Glyndwr and Trinity St David would still have to manage sizeable losses.

An additional tab on this visualisation allows you to look at the most recent subject make-up of each institution. It’s still the case that it is impossible to train to be a vet in Wales – but the sector does have a notable STEM focus.

Where do Welsh HEIs get their money?

The switch-over between Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and fee income happened for the academic year commencing in 2015. Before that income had grown slowly, but without keeping pace with England. There was a slight boost in 2015 and the hope is that a rise in student numbers will continue this trend.

Though most HEIs seem healthy, there are a couple that appear to be in a slow tailspin. Glyndwr, for instance has lost 25% of its overall income since 2013.

HEFCW have traditionally managed financial risk by brokering mergers and partnerships and we can see evidence of the late 2000s wave of mergers producing larger and more sustainable universities. The subject spread offered by institutions also shows evidence of intervention, though the policy levers linked to high-cost subjects are much less powerful than in England.

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Where do Welsh students study?

Wales imports slightly less than half of its students from England – which makes the need to make a rational offer post-Augar even more acute. And, although the majority of Welsh students study in Wales, the number and proportion studying in England is growing and now represents more than a third of all Welsh-domiciled students. Of the four HE sectors in the UK, Wales and England are the most tightly enmeshed and the removal of the Severn Crossing toll suggests that this is unlikely to change.

I’ve plotted the destination of students from different domiciles as a simple national table and, on a second tab, by the local authority of domicile. With Wales being such a net importer of students (Scotland and Northern Ireland are both net exporters), demand for accomodation will continue to grow near popular institutions which suggests another potential revenue stream.

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What do the funders say?

Chief Executive of HEFCW David Blaney told Wonkhe that he was watching developments of the Augar review and funding in England “with interest”.

We know from past experience that what happens east of the border can have an impact on the higher education offer in Wales, and there are certainly areas that need to be explored when the findings of the review become apparent,” Blaney said.

The four systems of HE used to work together well in partnership. However, this arguably has diminished somewhat away since 2017 and the establishment of a very different regulatory regime in England. HEFCW is known for its sensitive and considered interventions in HE and the Welsh sector appears very much to be the system with the most evidence of having been planned.

Blaney continued: “Policymakers in Wales will need to consider the potential consequences once there is more clarity, and respond to them appropriately while continuing to ensure that there is proper investment in the student experience and living costs, and that the priorities of our Welsh Government can continue to be supported.”

Keep talking

There should be – and there surely must be – a line of communication open between the DfE and Wales. Philip Augar has noted on several occasions that he has been impressed with Ian Diamond’s review with numerous meetings between the panel, Diamond, and Welsh HE leaders convened earlier this year. Even if things have soured on a regulator level (surely the worst kept secret in UK HE policy) frequent contact between DfE and the Welsh Government should ensure the system is not simply blindsided.

There’s an income as well as a market consideration here and there is a very strong sense that a cut for English HE coming. Via the Barnett formula, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland will take a bath too – and any savings on fees for students studying in England are (largely) loans not taken rather than reusable money.

It is unlikely that anyone in Wales would be willing to turn back from a progressive and attractive system of student support that is already seeing a healthy impact on part-time and postgraduate enrolments. But it is also not clear where else the money would come from.

One response to “Impact of English post-18 review in Wales

  1. Wrexham Glyndwr University stats show a reduction in enrolments since 2013 due to the managed closure of a campus in London, which at one point had over 1000 FT students. We have reported surpluses in our accounts over the past 3 years. “Tailspin of slow decline???” Come on WonkHE, you can do better than lazy “spin” journalism!

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