Finance Committee: Higher education

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English universities are 'poaching' disadvantaged Welsh students in order to justify charging the highest possible fees, it has been claimed.

The Finance Committee was told on 27 November 2013 that high achieving poorer Welsh students are 'gold dust' to English institutions.

Under the fee plans drawn up by all universities in order to justify charging close to the maximum £9,000 fees per year, a key criteria is widening access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The committee also heard that the removal on limits for the number of students with ABB results or higher for English universities was having a "massive impact" on Welsh institutions.

Plaid Cymru education spokesman Simon Thomas AM asked representatives from Higher Education Wales whether there was any truth in stories that English universities were "trying to poach" students from poorer backgrounds here.

John Hughes, vice-chancellor of Bangor University, speaking on behalf of HEW said, "If you travel around the country and you look in the train stations, you'll find that English universities, both the top institutions and the so-called former polytechnics are all over Wales trying to recruit both ABB students and above and widening access students because those are the two areas where they can recruit to their heart's content."

Dr David Blaney, from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales added, "Welsh students from relatively economically disadvantaged backgrounds are coming in with the Welsh Government paying their tuition fee - so they are like gold dust, particularly a highly qualified widening access Welsh student (is) like gold dust to English institutions."

HEFCW added that the number of students attending state schools in Wales made them particularly attractive as this was a key criteria in being allowed to charge the maximum £9,000 fee level.

Committee chair Jocelyn Davies AM questioned, "Because that counts on their statistics for proving that they are widening access and that is the justification for the higher fee? So our students from state schools in Wales are counting towards the justification for £9,000 - a bit ironic."

The committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the Welsh Government's controversial tuition fee policy, which has been criticised for giving more than £50m a year to English universities to support Welsh students who choose to study there.

The higher education sector in Wales claims that the policy is resulting in a growing funding gap between them and other universities around the UK.

They say this is hitting investment and damaging their ability to recruit students in an increasingly competitive market.

Mr Hughes also warned that the UK Government's decision to relax limits on the number of students gaining the highest A level grades for English universities was having a serious effect in Wales.

The number of students both English and Welsh universities can take on is capped by government, but in England, institutions can recruit unlimited numbers of students with results of ABB or higher.

He said, "What effectively it has done, it has taken the around 120,000 students every year who get ABB or better and has effectively put them into a free market which allows the so-called more elite institutions to sweep them up.

"As an example, last year, Bristol University took 600 extra students above its normal quota. That had a big impact on South Wales. We're finding it also in the North in terms of competition with universities in the North West.

"So yes, it's having a massive impact on the ability of Welsh institutions to attract the better students."

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