NPC/04/12/A: Independent Study into the Devolution of Student Support and Tuition Fees Regime in Wales

by Jim Ewing

Executive Summary

The National Postgraduate Committee of the United Kingdom is pleased to make a submission to this Study.

The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is opposed to all undergraduate tuition fees and top-up fees, be they at a fixed rate or variable, as they deter initial entry into higher education and lead to levels of debt which further deter advancement to postgraduate education. We believe that higher education benefits the whole of society, generally because it provides a trained, skilled workforce, cultivates critical thought and disseminates empirical knowledge and specifically because it maximises the number of people equipped to advance to postgraduate education, including original research to add to the stock of knowledge.

Preamble

The NPC is a charity (No. SC0033368) with the aim to advance, in the public interest, postgraduate education in the UK. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated student representative bodies from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We also have a Welsh sub-committee, NPC Wales/Pwyllgor Cenedlaethol l-Raddedigion Cymru (PC-R Cymru), which deals with matters concerning postgraduate issues within Wales. We work closely with all relevant bodies in the pursuit of these aims.

Submission

What will be the impact of the introduction of top up fees in England in 2006-07 for Welsh students and higher education institutions?

Welsh students currently in their first year at English institutions or who will begin in 2005-6 will have to budget for fees increases during their courses. Assuming there is no introduction of top-up fees in Wales, there would also be an increase in applications for undergraduate courses in Wales from Welsh residents, who could no longer afford to study in England. This would increase the pool from which Welsh HEIs could select their students but it would also increase demands on places. While those who can afford it may choose to go to England to study, the able who have lower academic qualifications and limited means may find themselves forced out of higher education altogether. (Some may find refuge in further education, but this in turn would push people out of this twin sector.) Increased applications from English residents who wish - or need - to avoid top-up fees would exacerbate this problem.

Should Wales introduce variable fees in 2007- 08?

No. The NPC opposes variable fees along with all undergraduate fees, as we believe they deter initial entry to higher education and generate such levels of debt as to deter graduates from proceeding to postgraduate education.

What other sources of funding are there for higher education?

The main sources of funding remain direct taxation, industry and charitable bodies. (Donations from alumni may be still a largely untapped source in the UK but we do not expect that the amount to be raised from this source would ever amount to more than a bonus; it is not to be depended on for core funding. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence indicates that alumni from comparatively underfunded disciplines viz. the arts and humanities resent being asked to support out of their own pockets disciplines which always seemed to be better funded when they were undergraduates.)

If variable fees, or additional fixed fees, are not to be introduced in Wales, what alternative sources of income should be used to ensure adequate funding for the higher education sector in Wales, within the context of the present powers of the National Assembly for Wales?

The rub of this question is "the context of the present powers of the National Assembly for Wales". The Assembly has no tax-raising powers, depending on a block grant from Westminster. This makes NPC policy, which is opposed to all tuition fees at undergraduate level, difficult to realise under present circumstances, but the policy is not a dead letter. If the political will is lacking to equip the Welsh Assembly with the powers it needs to secure the revenue necessary to fulfil the perceived wishes of the Welsh people, then it becomes a matter of prioritising: what are the people of Wales willing to have their money spent on?

Are there any issues relating to student support which you would wish to draw to our attention regarding particular groups of students in HE in Wales?

We wish to draw particular attention to the condition of postgraduate education in Wales.

We reiterate that undergraduate fees are a deterrent to people from lower socioeconomic groups entering higher education; this in turn has an effect on the number of people qualified to continue to postgraduate education. The levels of debt incurred during undergraduate study are such that graduates may wonder if even a one-year masters course is worth the extra debt and gap in National Insurance payments, bearing in mind the length of time required to pay off debt and the need to save for children and old age. The Assembly is already concerned about the numbers of young Welsh people who leave the Principality in order to pursue their careers, including those who leave for higher education; in order to redress this situation, we advocate a policy of targeted funding. A special grants scheme for young Welsh people to allow them to study in Wales to postgraduate level would encourage the able among the disadvantaged to pursue academic careers in their home area and enrich the local economy upon final graduation.

In the short term, this can be achieved by extending the current Assembly Learning Grant to Welsh-domiciled postgraduate students. It is unfair that this grant scheme should be applied to all post-16 education except postgraduate study; postgraduate inclusion would encourage Welsh-domiciled prospective postgraduates to remain in (or return to) Wales for postgraduate study.

In the longer term, the Assembly might consider the example of the Postgraduate Students' Allowance Scheme operated by the Student Award Agency for Scotland (see https://www.saas.gov.uk). The Scottish Parliament introduced this scheme because it recognised the same lack of skills which Wales faces now. NPC has also recommended a similar scheme to the English RDAs (see http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1076699904).

It has also been suggested by one NPC officer that such a scheme, devised to encourage Welsh-domiciled applicants to study in Wales, could include specific support for Welsh-medium courses, in areas such as education and nursing, among others.

Conclusion

The NPC opposes the introduction of top-up fees in Wales as inconsistent with its policy of opposing all undergraduate tuition fees as a burden and a disincentive, hampering progression to postgraduate study. We recommend that the National Assembly for Wales take advantage of the present opportunity to introduce a funding scheme for those resident in Wales which allows the able, who may otherwise fail to achieve their full potential, to pursue higher education to postgraduate level in Welsh HEIs. Under the present regime, this would probably require sacrifice in other areas; a different regime would require a political will for change. These may be difficult choices to make but the pursuit of greatness is not easy and the way lies through education, to build up a better trained and informed citizenship and to facilitate the expansion of research in Welsh academia and industry. To quote one PhD student at Cardiff University,

"Wales has an agenda to become a Learning Country and to become a better place to live all round and education is key to that. Lifting people out of poverty [and] regenerating our communities all requires an holistic approach."

The introduction of market forces in the form of top-up fees is no solution to the problems faced by access and funding in higher education in Wales and has no place in the holistic approach necessary.