Wales to be ‘unique in Europe’ for all-modes living cost support

Welsh education secretary Kirsty Williams sees major benefits in following Diamond review plan

November 24, 2016
Mobile cash machine white van at the Green Man Festival Wales UK
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Wales will have a system unique in Europe in providing public living cost support for students across all modes of study after opting to implement a major review, according to the Welsh education secretary.

The Welsh government announced on 22 November that it would follow with “only minor modification” the recommendations of the review led by Sir Ian Diamond, which proposed a shift from public subsidy for tuition fees to student living cost support when it was published in September.

Tuition fees will be allowed to rise to the same £9,000 cap in place in England, to be repaid by graduates via income-contingent loans. 

But a £1,000 maintenance grant will be introduced for all Welsh-domiciled students.

In addition, poorer students will be allocated a maintenance grant amounting to about £8,100 a year. There will be maintenance loans for all those not eligible for the grant.

There will be living cost support not just for full-time undergraduates, but for part-time undergraduates and for postgraduates as well.

Kirsty Williams, education secretary and sole Liberal Democrat in Wales’ Labour-led administration, told Times Higher Education that the new system would be “a great deal for students in that it recognises the real barrier students tell us [they face] when going on to higher education: that fear of how you pay for your day-to-day living costs”.

She said that such support for all modes of study “will be unique to the United Kingdom and, indeed, we’ve looked but we can’t find anywhere in Europe that offers a similar level for all modes of study”.

Students from households with earnings of more than £59,200 a year will be eligible only for the £1,000 basic grant. The Diamond review had modelled a threshold of £81,000.

But Ms Williams said that “even with that modification we anticipate that one-third of our students will be in receipt of the maximum maintenance grant from the Welsh government”, with an average grant per student of about £7,000.

The aim is to implement the new system for the 2018-19 academic year. Sign-off from the UK Treasury will be required. 

Asked if the changes would save public money or mean extra spending, Ms Williams said that there was a “shift away from an element of student support [fee subsidy] but our desire then is to ensure that funding goes into our universities, so overall the HE budget will be consistent”.

Although England has £9,000 fees, the Conservative government in England has scrapped all maintenance grants, replacing them with loans.

Would the new Welsh system be similar to England’s, or a contrast?

“I think our system bears no resemblance to the English system whatsoever in its unique support for recognising upfront living costs for students…and for recognising that living costs are also a barrier for people studying at undergraduate part-time level and postgraduate level,” Ms Williams said.

Sir Ian, the vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said that the Welsh government has “taken on board the essential elements” of the review and “we’ve got an exciting new way of funding higher education in Wales that seems to have support from across the political spectrum”.

Gavan Conlon, a partner at consultancy London Economics and member of the review panel, said he believed that the UK’s other nations “will have a close look at the outcomes and see how they can be replicated”.

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