Let's have top-ups but no Offa, say Welsh v-cs

February 18, 2005

Welsh vice-chancellors have called for the introduction of top-up fees in Wales without an English-style student access regulator.

Vice-chancellors have told Welsh Assembly members that there is "no realistic alternative" to extra fees to match the funding that will be available to English institutions from 2006.

But they argue that Wales does not need a body equivalent to the Office for Fair Access because it is already significantly ahead of England in widening access to higher education.

The argument comes in a submission from Higher Education Wales to the Rees review, which the Welsh Assembly set up to consider the case for top-up fees from 2007. An interim report to the Assembly is due early next month.

The submission argues that Welsh universities "do not need to be controlled and monitored by a regulator" because they have "demonstrated a commitment to, and delivered success in, widening participation".

But the submission has angered Welsh politicians who say that if top-up fees are introduced in Wales from 2007, Welsh universities should not be complacent about the possible deterrent impact on students from poor backgrounds.

Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru's education spokeswoman, said: "We have been successful in widening access in Wales because we have introduced a series of student grants and benefits. Bringing in fees would undermine that. To say we are doing well when there are no fees is one thing, but if the vice-chancellors want fees, they must be ready to accept the monitoring that must go with that."

Peter Black, the Liberal Democrat Assembly member for South Wales West, said the latest admissions figures showed that the prospect of fees was already deterring some Welsh students.

The figures show a 2.1 per cent drop in the number of Welsh students entering higher education against an increase of 0.8 per cent and 2.3 per cent in England and Northern Ireland, and no significant change in Scotland. Mr Black said: "This is why I am totally opposed to the introduction of top-up fees."

A Hew official said a regulator was not needed because "we do not have the same widening-access issues that exist in England".

She added: "Initiatives have been put in place that are driving the access agenda in Wales, and there are already plenty of ways in which institutions can demonstrate they are keeping to the Assembly's widening access agenda."

The Hew paper says that the initial impact on Wales of top-up fees being introduced in England from 2006 has been to "create uncertainty about the situation in Wales and a concern that Welsh HEIs would be underfunded during this first year".

  tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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