Jane Davidson outlines how Wales will benefit from designing its own tuition-fee and student-support system
The numbers of students going into higher education in Wales are already at an all-time high. Our institutions outperform their UK counterparts in terms of encouraging students from non-traditional backgrounds into higher education.
We have a clear and coherent ten-year policy, which sets our goals for the sector, the individual, communities and the wider economy.
Increasing the numbers of students from low-participation neighbourhoods is a major part of the Welsh Assembly government's Learning Country and Reaching Higher strategies.
Higher education is not just for the elite, and I am committed to dispelling those myths. That is why I have extended the Aimhigher Roadshow into Wales. It is also the reason why I introduced assembly learning grants, which will provide a guaranteed source of extra financial support of up to £1,500 for low-income Welsh students in further and higher education, wherever they choose to study.
The report by Teresa Rees of Cardiff University on student hardship and funding in Wales, together with our higher education review, led to the conclusion that responsibility for all elements of student support should be "under one roof". Consequently, I was delighted to announce in July that the assembly government would be taking over the tuition-fee regime and the student-support system for Wales.
This will resolve the present anomaly, where the assembly is responsible for most functions affecting higher education in Wales but not student support. It will also allow us to take a "whole-system" view and, over time, to design and deliver a distinctive student-support function that is consistent with the assembly government's wider strategy for higher education and, in particular, our access and social inclusion agendas.
The intention is to bring forward legislation that will give the assembly new powers over the fees charged for higher education and over the support provided to students in higher and further education.
There is still much work to do on the detail of the legislative proposals and the practicalities of taking over the Welsh tuition-fee regimes and student-support system. Much of this work on the financial, operational and practical implications will be highly technical. However, a key component of the work will be dialogue and communication with students and others with an interest in higher education in Wales and the UK.
When the detail of the legislation is settled, it will be a key priority to start that dialogue so that all students wishing to study in Wales, and potential students living in Wales wishing to study anywhere in the UK, know what support they can expect from the assembly and from the Department for Education and Skills.
To that end, the transfer of powers must be manageable and as seamless and secure as possible. It is envisaged that the assembly will have powers over tuition fees prior to the academic year 2006-07. This would allow the assembly government to meet its manifesto commitment that "top-up" fees (variable fees) will not be introduced during the lifetime of the second assembly. Under our current proposals, from 2006, Welsh students studying anywhere in the UK will receive student support from the assembly. (English students studying anywhere in the UK would continue to receive support from the DFES.) As for the longer term, variable fees have been neither ruled in nor ruled out after 2007. I have a responsibility to balance the needs of institutions with those needs of students and so must give careful consideration to future policy in Wales. I shall therefore be establishing an independent study of the issues.
I envisage that the study group will examine the issue of variable fees and advise me on the way forward for Wales. It will also provide advice on how we might use devolved student-support powers to achieve the best possible outcomes for Wales. I will be clearer about the timescale of this work once the legislative implications of the English white paper are clear and will make further announcements accordingly.
Meanwhile, the assembly Cabinet will be examining progress on these devolution proposals step by step. Our final decisions will be taken in the light of further work with Westminster colleagues and in consultation with others in the educational sector. Devolution of these functions represents an opportunity to build on our commitment to social justice, especially widening access and establishing an even stronger higher education sector in Wales.
Jane Davidson is minister for education and lifelong learning in the Welsh Assembly government.