Source: National Assembly For Wales/Cynulliad Cymru
The Welsh education and skills minister has indicated his reluctance to halt support for students who choose to go to university in England – while branding the system of charging £9,000 tuition fees across the border “unsustainable”.
A review of higher education funding in Wales has faced calls for an end to the transfer of millions of pounds each year to English institutions that attract Welsh undergraduates but, in an interview with Times Higher Education, minister Huw Lewis said he would be “very reluctant” to give up on the principle that the investment was “in the young person…not in any particular institution”.
Under the current system, Welsh students need to take out a loan for only the first £3,685 of their tuition fees, wherever they study – with the Cardiff government making up the difference, even if it is up to £9,000.
This year, 8,040 Welsh students started degrees in England, and while Mr Lewis acknowledged that anything was “breakable” if funding cuts continued, he said he was wary of restricting student movement.
“If you’re a young person from Wales, we will look after you in terms of your ambitions and your life chances wherever you feel that should take you,” Mr Lewis said. “That’s a very precious, valuable thing, and we’d fight tooth and nail to hold on to it.”
Mr Lewis said he had given Sir Ian Diamond, the chairman of the funding review and the principal of the University of Aberdeen, a fair amount of “licence to roam”.
However, when asked whether there was a possibility of Welsh students being charged £9,000 a year to study in their home country, Mr Lewis said ministers “haven’t sidestepped it accidentally” in the past.
Arguing that “realisation is dawning” in England that charging £9,000 fees is “unsustainable” and “actually more expensive than before”, he expressed concern that students would still be paying off debts in their fifties.
“That’s not a pretty system – it doesn’t have much in the way of an attraction for me certainly, and I’m sure the average UK citizens think this is mildly daft,” Mr Lewis said.
In Wales, it is Glyndwr University that faces the most serious funding challenges. Last week, its vice-chancellor, Michael Scott, announced his intention to step down. It follows a year of mounting problems, including the suspension of its licence to sponsor international students (now reinstated).
Mr Lewis said that when it came to finance, the “eye has been taken off the ball” at the institution. He said that the role of Glyndwr had to be “re-described” and that the prospect of turning it into a technical university serving the skilled industries of North East Wales was “very interesting”.
The priority, however, was to return stability to the institution. Merging it with a neighbouring institution has been debated, and Mr Lewis said that, while there was a clear need for partnership, he was “open-minded” about how it should be legally defined.
He added: “We need a Glyndwr, we need it to be an HE institution with its own identity, and we need it based in Wrexham.”