Plaid Cymru believes that Higher Education should be free, and our MPs have consistently voted against bringing in, and increasing, tuition fees. Unfortunately, due to the way in which Wales is funded and the market-driven way in which higher education now operates, unilateral action on this by Wales would not be possible.
A sustainable higher education funding policy should seek to provide a fair system of student support, enabling people of all backgrounds to gain a university education. It should also recognise the importance of our universities to our economy, communities and as cultural institutions.
Recently, Professor Ian Diamond published his review of higher education funding in Wales. Diamond concluded that students are struggling with the upfront costs of maintenance and that this is more of a barrier than the cost of tuition fees that they pay back when they earn enough money. This has resulted in a commitment by the Welsh Government to change its current policy. Currently, Welsh-domiciled students receive a tuition fee grant to cover up to £4,954 of tuition fee costs. They can apply for a tuition fee loan to cover up to £4,296. Students receive this support wherever in the UK they choose to study.
General election 2017
Labour: ‘We will scrap tuition fees for students starting university this autumn’
Lib Dems: ‘Brexit undermines universities at every turn’
Conservatives: ‘The last thing we need is to slam on student number controls’
This student support policy is very expensive: in the 2017/18 budget, the total cost is £589.8m. This squeezes the funding available for the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. HEFCW is responsible for providing funding to universities to cover expensive subjects such as medicine and engineering, which cannot be met through tuition fees. It also provides funding for part-time students and Welsh-medium courses.
Under the current policy, funding follows the student, resulting in underfunded Welsh universities. The latest figures show that more Welsh-domiciled students applied to study in England than in Wales. This is not the case for any other UK country. This results in a funding gap between universities in Wales and elsewhere in the UK. This funding gap will lead to a decline in standards as universities are forced to make cuts, resulting in a poorer education for students and a decline in applications to those universities. Three Welsh universities have recently announced cuts and significant job losses.
Plaid Cymru has committed to delivering Diamond’s recommendations. This includes moving from a student support system based on paying students’ tuition costs, to helping students with the upfront costs of living through maintenance grants. This would be a means-tested tapered system under which all students receive some support. The most affluent students from households earning £80,000 or more a year would receive a grant of £1,000 a year. The least affluent students, from households earning £20,000 a year or less, would receive a grant equivalent to the living wage of £9,113 a year.
Diamond also raises the issue of a "brain drain", with students leaving Wales and not returning after graduation, resulting in a skills gap in the Welsh economy and shortages in fields such as medicine. Plaid Cymru’s answer is a system of "golden hellos" – graduates who stay in or return to Wales after graduating will receive a partial write-off of their tuition fee debt. We want to provide students with opportunities in Wales as well as elsewhere.
Plaid Cymru’s aim is to attract and retain highly skilled young people to live and to work in Wales, boosting our economy and a thriving higher education sector, enhancing Wales culturally, educationally and economically.
Llyr Gruffydd is Plaid Cymru shadow education secretary.