Parliamentary committee calls for better student protection

The Welsh Parliament’s Children, Young People and Education Committee has now laid its Committee Stage 1 Report on the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill before the Senedd.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Stage 1 of a Public Bill in Wales involves consideration of the general principles of the Bill by a committee, and the agreement of those general principles by the Senedd. That Plenary debate has been scheduled for Tuesday 15 March 2022.

The report is great – having taken evidence from all the big names in the sector, it has now come back with a whopping 37 recommendations for Welsh Government to now take a look at.

Some are quite thorny. In its efforts to… ahem… recognise the diversity of an emerging tertiary sector (and not upset too many apple carts) there’s plenty of ways in which different types of provider will be treated – on stuff like quality assurance, academic and institutional autonomy, and equality of opportunity requirements. The committee is concerned that that might end up interfering with overall “parity of esteem” ambitions between FE and HE.

When it comes to the new Commission, the committee recommends increased worker and learner representation on the board, a new strategic duty to promote collaboration and competitiveness in research and innovation, and a general duty to protection the institutional autonomy of tertiary education providers. All sensible stuff.

It also calls for the Commission to be given strategic duties to promote the learner voice and social partnership, both of which would represent a helpful tone shift from some of the stuff we’ve seen in England.

There’s also a recommendation that Jeremy Miles brings forward amendments at Stage 2 to ensure that learner protection plans take account of student / learner welfare. “Student and learner well-being and welfare is a particular area of interest to the Committee”, it says, “and we are likely to revisit these issues in more detail during the Senedd term.”

Arguably the most important issues emerging in Wales surround issues outside of the direct ambit of the Commission being set up. When Michelle Donelan froze the graduate repayment threshold for current borrowers a few weeks back, Jeremy Miles had to issue an uncomfortable statement making clear that this is an area where there is very limited room for Wales to take an alternative path – because “while some parts of the policy are devolved in law, they are not devolved in practice”.

Now, with the Treasury saved a lot of money on the loan scheme in Westminster, there are major questions over all the other levers you can pull on student loans in Wales – in terms of what is technically devolved, what can be practically done and the size of the spending envelope Miles now has to play with. It will be painful for Welsh Ministers to be as regressive as their counterparts in Westminster, and there will be some tough choices in the coming months about whether to pass any of that pain on to the pockets of students, graduates or universities.

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