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The Basics

Betsan Powys | 14:21 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

I've just flown past what looks like a distribution centre for the Daily Mail. Ok, I haven't flown by literally - I flew past on the train - though I will be taking to the air on tomorrow night's Wales Today as it happens. All in the aid of giving an over-view of how the process of scrutinising new Welsh measures or laws works now, given the issue has become such a key one in this campaign.

But back to that distribution centre. It was the Daily Mail who reported that the Assembly Government's policy on tuition fees could lead to "education apartheid" and though the wave of comment has calmed down, the ripples show no sign of abating.

Yesterday, the Education Minister announced that the basic fee that universities in Wales will be allowed to charge their students from 2012 will be £4,000 - that's significantly less than the £6,000 in England. Another clear policy divergence but it's left people scratching their heads.

What will it actually mean?

Leighton Andrews said his decision was based on the contribution he believed higher education should make to social justice.

He added, "The feedback from the consultation exercise has informed my decision to prescribe the basic fee amount as £4,000."

Let's have a look at some of the actual consultation responses from within the HE sector in Wales on whether there should be a lower basic fee level in Wales, released overnight on the Assembly's website as part of the background to the regulations which will introduce the new fees regime.

Margaret Phelan,University and College Union :"UCU would be extremely concerned at the perception that a such a move might create. It is our view that given the rate set in England that Wales must not take a decision which could suggest that the fees are cheaper in Wales because the education one receives is not as good as England."

Mike Williams,Coleg Sir Gar: "We see no advantages in setting a lower basic fee rate in Wales compared to England and agree that it would be sensible to have a basic rate that is in line with England at £6000."

Dr David Grant,Cardiff University: "While there may be some superficial attraction in setting a basic rate at a lower level the consequences could be serious and would need to be carefully considered. From a marketing perspective having a lower basic fee rate than England would make Welsh higher education look cheap to non-Welsh students and may therefore pull in greater numbers of applications from beyond Wales, but under the proposed arrangements for tuition fee compensation, the lower fee level would offer no competitive advantage in attracting Welsh students."

Kym Roberts,Skill Wales "The concern of Skill Wales for those HEIs who wish to retain fees at lower than the revised fee level, is that conversely, access to higher education by young disabled people could be affected adversely."

David Moyle, Higher Education Liaison officers Association (HELOA Wales) "HELOA Wales cannot see any real advantages of implementing a fee rate lower than that proposed by the Minster for Education. Given the reductions in public funding for higher education over the coming years, the raising of the basic fee rate would appear to be the most likely mechanism of bridging this shortfall to ensure that the HE sector in Wales continues to deliver excellence in teaching, research and the student experience."

Professor Noel G Lloyd,Vice-Chancellor Aberystwyth University: "We believe the substantial reduction in resources available at Welsh Universities which would be the direct consequences of the introduction of a lower basic fee rate in Wales would be detrimental to the delivery of two major WAG policy priorities of supporting a buoyant economy and improving social justice. A major disadvantage of a lower basic fee would be that students would eventually find the student experience in Welsh HEIs degraded and inevitably therefore move in larger and larger numbers to study in English HEIs."

Phil Gough,Swansea University: "The lower basic fee level should be set at £6,000 (uplifted by GDP). This will be comparable with England and will give HEIs more flexibility to set differential fees below £6,000."

National Association of Student Money Advisors: "If the basic rate is lower than the proposed £6K there may be a number of issues. If lower, would there be a significant rise in applications from English applicants which would result in less places for Welsh domiciled students?

NUS Wales :"NUS Wales does not believe that higher education institutions have done anything to deserve the automatic right to charge above the current rate, As a result, we would suggest that the basic tuition fee rate should be at the current maximum rate of £3,375 rather than at £6,000 per annum."

So with the strong exception of the NUS, and some organisations who saw both advantages and disadvantages in a lower basic rate, it would seem the HE sector is dead against. A case of 'they would be, wouldn't they', I hear you say?

So what is the Minister up to?

Is it a crafty attempt to undercut England, to make Wales a cost-effective destination in the higher education market as fees rise sharply over the border to £6,000 and beyond? Is he just out to make Wales an attractive option for young people in the towns and villages that I can see through the window on this journey?

My guess is strongly no, it isn't and no, he's not.

Remember that for any university to charge more than the prescribed basic fee, they must produce a set of plans, showing how they are widening access and collaborating with other institutions, among other things.

What's likely to be going on here is that the Minister has realised that a number of universities in Wales would pretty much settle for a £6,000 basic fee income per student, without the need to draw up those pesky (and I suspect that's one of the politer adjectives that spring to the minds of Vice Chancellors) plans to get their hands on any more cash.

So in a very cute move, he's set the basic fee in Wales at a level that is pretty much unsustainable from a university's point of view, forcing every institution in Wales into drawing up a plan on access and collaboration and therefore following his agenda, whether they like it or not.

The only issue is that, as I've blogged before, this policy is already full of Donald Rumsfeld's "known unknowns." There are so many variables around student numbers, cross-border flows, budgets and funding streams that it's nigh on impossible to work out how it will all play out in practice over the coming years.

You can take the responses from the HE sector as the kind of special pleading one would expect when this much money is at stake but if they're right, then the £4,000 basic level introduces yet another curve ball into the process in Wales.

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