Wales’ higher education institutions have called on the country’s next government to scrap the universal tuition fee grant and to redirect funding to means-tested maintenance grants.
Welsh-domiciled students currently pay only the first £3,810 of their tuition fees, wherever they study in the UK, with the Labour-led Cardiff government paying the remaining £5,190.
But, in its manifesto for the Welsh Assembly elections, to be held in May, Universities Wales says that the country faces a “difficult choice”: to provide low-cost higher education for all, or “to invest in high-quality Welsh universities”.
“We do not believe a future Welsh government will be able to do both,” the document says.
Universities Wales argues that funding should be “redirected” towards means-tested maintenance grants, covering undergraduate and postgraduate students, whether they are studying full-time or part-time.
The switch would also save money that could potentially be used to increase direct funding for Welsh universities. Institutions have long been concerned about the amount of Welsh money that follows students to universities elsewhere in the UK, which was estimated at £184.6 million in 2013-14.
The manifesto says that it is particularly important to ensure that teaching in medicine and dentistry courses, as well as other science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, is “properly funded”.
Colin Riordan, chair of Universities Wales and vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, said that a future Welsh government “must prioritise policies that equip universities to continue to deliver significant economic and social benefits for Wales”.
“We believe that offering means-tested maintenance grants for Welsh students from foundation through to postgraduate level will give many more talented people the opportunity to transform their life chances through going to university,” Professor Riordan said. “Freeing up resource by targeting tuition fee grant on those that need it most will also allow funding to be prioritised for higher education policies which equip our universities to deliver economic growth, greater social justice, and, crucially, a high-quality university offering for students.”
Student funding in Wales is currently being reviewed by a panel led by Sir Ian Diamond, the vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen.
But the universities’ stance puts them at odds with the National Union of Students Wales which, in its manifesto, calls for the tuition fee grant to be protected through the next Assembly term.
A poll of 250 Welsh adults, conducted for NUS Wales, found that 70 per cent of respondents felt that reducing tuition fees should be a government priority.
The Universities Wales manifesto says that the quality-related research budget should be maintained in real terms, rather than in cash terms, as happened this year.
The document also calls for “distinct support and investment” in part-time study and for Wales to stay in the European Union, with a referendum on the UK’s membership planned for the next Assembly term.