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Workings out

Betsan Powys | 12:41 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Mr George knew and Mr Stevens knew it too.

I didn't get maths. No, hang on. I did get there in the end but not without a great deal of slogging along the way. Even if the answer was right, you'd see from the workings out that getting there had been pretty tortuous. And there's the thing. From my limited memories of "Dwbwl Maths" it was always drummed into us that showing your workings out was nearly as important as the answers themselves.

When he made his headline-grabbing pledge that Welsh domiciled students would pay no more than £3,290 in tuition fees for the next six years, the Education Minister faced a chorus of sceptical voices. While some were cheering, others - not least Welsh Conservatives - were demanding to see his "workings out".

The promise appeared to be so expensive that it was hard to see how Leighton Andrews was going to find enough cash to pay for it.

Today he's published the numbers behind the pledge in a ministerial statement. It's called "The Forecast for Income for the Higher Education Sector in Wales from 2011-12 until 2016-17" - a bit less headline-grabbing certainly - but it makes interesting reading.

The top line conclusion of the statement, not surprisingly, is that the figures add up. At the time of his announcement the Minister said he would pay for the pledge by top-slicing the public money that goes to Welsh universities by 35%.

What does that mean in pounds and pence? It means that the public money going to fund the Welsh higher education sector from HEFCW will fall from £395m next year to £301m by 2016-17.

At the same time, fee income is forecast to rise from £224m to £411m over the same period.

So, some back of the envelope workings out show that while public income is down by £94m, fee income is up by £187m by 2016-17.

The conclusion, then, is that it looks as though the Welsh higher education system will be benefiting by a net £93m in cash terms as a result of the changes. All the Minister's other assumptions are for modest inflation rises in research income, contracts and other fees.

Interestingly, his estimate for the average level of fees being charged from 2012 is £7,000, suggesting there's an expectation that not all universities will go straight for the £9,000 maximum.

With all the changes being proposed - and stirring strong feelings in some parts - it all adds up to a picture where income for the sector as a whole will be flat in real terms after the six years.

So the Conservatives have got the figures they pressed for and now they'll be making some calculations of their own.

It's fair to say there was general surprise that when the Conservative "Shadow Budget" was published last week, one of the proposals was to scrap the Assembly Government fee subsidy policy. Their view seems to be that it's a "robbing Peter to pay Paul" policy - taking the money off the universities, giving it to the students, who then give it back to the universities.

Now assuming they would maintain public spending on universities at something like its current level, while allowing fees to be raised in line with England, then in theory at least, it's win win for universities. There should be an eager queue of vice-chancellors outside polling booths in May, lining up to put their cross in the blue box, keen to see a pretty substantial rise in income for higher education establishments.

Students, of course, are unlikely to be as enthusiastic. They like the deal they've been promised and won't want to give it up. Mind you it may have struck them - just as it's started to strike others - that the Assembly Government's policy will only be sustainable if it's coupled with a strict cap on student numbers at Welsh universities.

Why? Because a free for all for university recruitment would blow a hole in the figures pretty rapidly. And what if subsidised Welsh students flock to English universities in their droves? An unanswered question.

Another unanswered question so far is the impact on individual institutions. Each Welsh university is now frantically modelling what the changes will mean for them. Some will certainly benefit more than others - some will find themselves in real difficutly.

Their workings out are unlikely to be as straightforward as the Minister's.

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