“Sensible” and “Interesting”; the Welsh Approach to Student Maintenance and Fees from 2018

Rebecca Davies, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer at Aberystwyth University, weighs in on the changes to the Welsh Funding Policy and reflects on how it will look for the new 2018 student intake.

In 2012 in Wales fees for full-time undergraduate (FT UG) students were increased from £3,375 to £9,000 (as in England). So far, so similar, but in Wales to help mitigate this change the Welsh Government introduced tuition fee grants for Welsh domiciled FT UG students and EU students studying in Wales to cover this increase (c. £5,000).

This meant that these students would pay no more in real terms than they had done prior to the fee increase.  Interestingly this didn’t prevent students protesting at the fee increase in Wales back in the heady days of fee protests in 2012, the perception of £9,000 featured more heavily on banners than any Welsh dom banners riling against “no change”. Since the introduction of the tuition fee grant Welsh dom students have been able to access this wherever they studied in the UK,  and EU students who come to Wales to study are also able to access the fee grant… but all this is about to change.

In 2014 the Welsh Government commissioned an independent cross-party review of higher education funding and student finance arrangements, chaired by Sir Ian Diamond and the results were published in 2016.

The Review recommended the replacement of the tuition fee grant to provide increased student support, focusing on maintenance support through both a universal grant plus means-tested grant/loans top up to cover full living costs. 

The Review proposals have now been translated into policy and will be put into practice for the intake of students in 2018 – a new, progressive student focussed maintenance support approach. This support won’t just benefit FT UG – it will apply pro rata for part-time students, and to postgraduate students.  There will be no geographical barriers – like the current tuition fee grants these Welsh domicile students will be able to access the support no matter where they study in the UK.

For the individual student the advent/reappearance of maintenance grants goes some way to address the barrier of living costs, but there is still the tuition fee and the “fee maintenance grant” will (from 2018) need to be replaced by a loan. So we’re not quite back to the future  – yes, the student grant is back, but the tuition fee will apply to all.

There’s been widespread praise from the sector (can’t actually recall a UUK President saying that Welsh HE policy is both “interesting” and “sensible” before) with the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Education (Kirsty Williams) making number 16 in the WONKHE Powerlist 2017, cited as “a confident and impressive Assembly Member, her focus on the delivery of a genuinely fair and progressive system has done more to improve the poor sector perception of her party than any amount of Westminster hand-wringing.” 

And as our top twenty (oh, we do love a bit of ranking) Powerlist Cabinet Secretary for Education has stated, tuition fees in Wales will be linked to inflation from 2018/19 (this was in her piece in The Guardian July 14th 2017 not on the side of a bus so we’re a bit more confident… but are aware this is before any speculation about possible/probable conference season announcements). So in Wales, as in England, our dependence as a sector on fee income remains, but the potential for the whole of UK HE to benefit from Welsh dom students who have grants to help alleviate high living costs presents a real opportunity to welcome students who would have felt they couldn’t afford to both live and study.

I’m hoping to see at least one T-Shirt or poster in halls of residence in 2018 hailing the Cabinet Minister as a true HE hero by Welsh dom students – because this is a game changer. 

Watch and learn England, gwyliwch a dysgu.