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Welsh Higher Education Madness

During the last few days universities have been concentrating on Clearing, the process whereby students can find places in university courses in the days after they receive their A-level results, and change their plans if their A-levels are significantly different from predicted grades. The two weeks after results are published are also the period when universities find out whether they have been able to hit their admission targets, and since funding is increasingly determined by student numbers, it’s a nerve-racking time, when those academics and administrators who handle admissions frequently get visits from colleagues with the question ‘how are the numbers?’

This year, there has been a drop in applications throughout the UK – this was to be expected, since last year’s eighteen-year-olds applied in record numbers to escape the higher fees which are kicking in this year. However, compared to two years ago, the drop is not so dramatic (some say the figures are up since 2010, but the only set of figures I found, from January, had them only slightly down). But while this drop in numbers has been observed everywhere, the Welsh government is responsible for a policy which can’t cope with such a (predictable) development.

In Wales we are therefore faced with a situation where lower numbers are likely to exacerbate a situation which is already dire, as even a part of the opposition in Cardiff has now finally realised. It is well known that the Welsh government decided, a few months before the Welsh elections in May 2011, that students living in Wales would not have to pay more than the current fees (c. £3500), even if they went to an English university. As it turns out, this scheme will only work if we attract a significant number of English students (24 000 at last calculation, see previous link) who pay the full £9000 fees, and, quite predictably, we are unlikely to meet the necessary target under the current circumstances.

The result will be a wider opening of a funding gap which has been developing for over a decade now, and this is well documented by the government’s own higher education funding body, HEFCW (e.g. here, for 2007). Yet, the responsible Welsh Government Minister, Leighton Andrews, continues to refer to it as ‘the so-called funding gap’, even when challenged with the facts (e.g. here, @ 4:40 pm).

The Learned Society of Wales has tried to make the minister and the government see sense, but the correspondence, as published on their website, suggests that he minister prefers to stick to distorted figures and half-truths which conceal (albeit only very superficially) the shambles over which he has been presiding. It’s worth a look: read it and despair…

Just one paragraph of Andrews’s letter of 14th June shows how disingenuous (or willfully ignorant?) his approach is, even when he is not talking to voters who might not be so clear about the facts, but replying to somebody who clearly knows more about Welsh universities than anybody in the current Welsh government does.

…I hope that you now welcome our recent announcements on what I regard as the most equitable student finance system we’ve ever created in Wales. At the same time, the level of public funding for the Welsh HE sector (through HEFCW) will be higher than that available to English institutions. Our proposals are far more generous over forthcoming years [than] that are predicted for England, where teaching budgets are expected to fall significantly. These changes effectively abolish the so-called Funding Gap.

I have argued elsewhere on this blog why the new fees system in Wales is anything but equitable, and will particularly disadvantage Welsh youngsters from poorer backgrounds who aspire to go to university.

But let us look at the rest of this statement, claiming that state funding in Wales will be higher than in England. This is correct, but it doesn’t mean that Welsh universities will get more money than those in England. Whatever one thinks of the new fees regime in England, one ought to stick to the facts, and fact is that most of the teaching grant has been withdrawn and replaced by income from higher fees. In Wales, the fees haven’t been raised, and so the grant remains, which is why it is, and has to be, higher than in England. However, what Leighton Andrews isn’t saying is that Wales can’t afford a teaching grant high enough to make up for the significant shortfall. Only a significant influx of full-fee paying students from England could do that, and at last count, English teenagers haven’t been willing to help out Leighton Andrews in sufficient numbers. Not many people (apart from Leighton Andrews, perhaps) will be surprised.

Of course, he seems to think that this isn’t a problem, since he is sure that universities are so wasteful and inefficient that there is a lot of room for more savings – but unless he has some special Welsh fairy dust to allow universities to provide teaching and research a lot more cheaply than universities anywhere else in the UK, this looks like wishful thinking at best (see Sir John Cadogan’s letter of 8th July in the correspondence also linked above for a thorough refutation of Andrews’s arguments). There is no such thing as a cheap higher education sector. The most likely outcome, in spite of valiant efforts on the part of Welsh universities to improve quality and output with inadequate funds, is that more Welsh students will want to go to the better funded English universities, taking ever more HE funding with them, while fewer English students will be ready to provide development aid for Wales by paying full fees on courses in a cut-price environment.

Somebody stop this madness. Please.

PS: Swansea Classics, Ancient History & Egyptology have yet again managed to admit more students than (optimistically) predicted, and in spite of the circumstances described in this post, our students tend to be very happy with my department, both in History and in Classics. I am very proud that we are able to achieve this - I just wish the government would appreicate our work and understand that it doesn’t come cheap!

This article has been cross-posted with Maria’s own blog

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