HE Review of Funding: A Diamond in the Rough?

William Callaway, University Secretary at the University of South Wales, looks at funding arrangements for Welsh students and welcomes the potential impact of the recent Diamond Review.

Funding arrangements for HE in Wales have been subject to much debate, inside and out the sector, for many years and particularly most recently awaiting the outcome of the much anticipated Welsh Government sponsored Review by Sir Ian Diamond, Principal & Vice-Chancellor, University of Aberdeen.

It is commonly recognised that we need parity of funding for Welsh universities if we are to compete with our counterparts in the rest of the UK. Under the current system, each Welsh domiciled full-time student studying anywhere in the UK receives a non-means tested funding top-up of over £5k per student per annum; meaning that they do not pay more than £3,900 per year of study. While this commitment to students, set out by the previous Welsh Government, might be considered admirable it is becoming increasingly clear that Wales needs to change its approach.

The Diamond Review was published in September. The clarity and sustainability of the report’s findings has been welcomed by a sector keen for change. Its conclusions reflect the points many of us have been making about the need to enable Welsh universities to compete on a level playing field, targeting finite financial support where it is most needed and breaking down the financial barriers that deter students with limited means.

Diamond suggests that instead of the current one size fits all approach, there should be means-tested grants for Welsh students from foundation through to postgraduate level to ensure that everyone in Wales has access to the life changing opportunities provided through higher education. This would enable the Welsh Government, through its funding council, to prioritise funding towards the policies that provide opportunities to access an internationally competitive, high quality university education and deliver economic and social benefits for individuals, government and businesses in Wales. In additional there will be the opportunity to maintain in very real terms the quality-related QR research budget, and most importantly a continued investment in expensive subjects, part-time provision to widen access to HE and Welsh language developments.

Reflecting the diversity of my own university’s student population with a substantial number of part time and postgraduates, I welcome the shift away from the tuition fee grant towards targeted support, based on need, for all modes and level of study. These areas need funding if our universities are to continue to be a positive force for good for the people and economy of Wales.

There are still some hurdles to be jumped, but there is much to welcome in the Welsh Government’s vocal intention that the new regime will be in place for 2018 entry, with a consultation on implementation later this autumn. There is also a strong desire to protect current cohorts, so that students already studying or entering HE in 2017 have consistency and certainty.

Any government has an unenviable task in trying to balance competing needs in a finite budget. We know there’s genuine understanding that Welsh universities need to be able to compete in a national and international market: this comes across in the evidence to Diamond. When there isn’t enough funding to do everything, it’s important to concentrate effort on those who need it most: removing financial issues that act as a barrier for individuals who could benefit from going to university. From experience, actively seeking students from all backgrounds, many of whom stay in the region, has a major impact for communities and employers.

As with all change, the devil will be in the detail, but if higher education should be available to all who can benefit from it, we must welcome the report’s principles and strategic direction. In my view it offers a serious prospect of evidence-based and principled outcomes that will benefit Welsh students and universities. In an all too rare occurrence; the review team have won something approaching a broad political consensus in Wales: this is something to be commended.