Welsh v-cs fear ‘unintended consequences’ of English reforms

Universities Wales chair says institutions are waiting on Westminster reforms, when England should instead be following their lead

September 21, 2021

Welsh universities fear “unintended consequences” of funding reforms in the English sector, a vice-chancellor has said.

Elizabeth Treasure, the Aberystwyth University head who became chair of Universities Wales last month, said that she was “sitting on the edge of my seat awaiting announcements” from the Westminster government on its response to the Augar review of post-18 education financing.

Welsh universities can currently charge UK students up to £9,000 annually in tuition fees, compared with £9,250 in England, but any reduction in the English cap – £7,500 has been mooted – would likely force Welsh providers to drop their fees to remain competitive.

Other options in England could include the introduction of government-imposed minimum entry requirements for access to student loans.

“Whatever happens, we will have to respond to whatever announcements are made in England…and, we’ve made this point to ministers, Wales needs time to respond to that,” Professor Treasure told Times Higher Education. “We will have to move quickly if the fees are cut in England.”

Professor Treasure said that with any major reforms Welsh universities would need to “just check there aren’t any unintended consequences, particularly around the widening access agenda”. Tuition fee revenue is a major revenue source for institutions’ widening participation activities.

On this topic, Professor Treasure argued that England should be following Wales, which is regarded as providing a generous student support package, including £10,530 maintenance funding for students living away from home, with up to £8,100 in the form of a grant of dependent on household income, and the remainder as a loan.

This is regarded as significant because some evidence suggests that upfront living costs are the biggest barrier to disadvantaged students attending university.

“In my opinion, England should look to us to replicate that level of support,” Professor Treasure said.   

Professor Treasure said that her worries over unintended consequences extended to rhetoric from some English politicians that “too many” students were going to university and did not earn enough after graduation to justify having studied for a degree.

“Why are you defining it as too many students? Have you got a range of options for young people and older people and returners to choose from? We need to identify where the jobs are and what sort of skills people need for them – let’s look at the transferable skills people gain by doing degrees,” Professor Treasure said. “I personally believe it’s very reasonable to go to university and study something you’re passionate about for three years.

“It’s too narrow to look at outcomes as being finance-driven. There’s far more that graduates give back in terms of ability to think, to analyse, to problem-solve, etc.”

Professor Treasure said that these considerations were particularly important in the Welsh economy, which is heavily based around small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Universities have set up a Wales Innovation Network to make it easier for them to partner and share infrastructure between each other and with local authorities, businesses and charities to address local challenges.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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