HE review 'timed to avoid election', says Huw Lewis

University students The issue of student finance has long been a thorny issue amongst politicians in Cardiff Bay

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A review of university fee subsidies is being deliberately timed to report after the 2016 assembly election the education minister has said.

Huw Lewis told AMs an "enduring settlement" was needed, above the "sound and fury" of election campaigns.

Currently Welsh students pay about £3,500 tuition fees with the Welsh government paying the rest, wherever they choose to study in the UK.

The cross-party review will look at the funding system and report back in 2016.

The review has been ordered by Mr Lewis who said it was right to take stock at a time of "rapid and unpredictable change" facing universities.

For each Welsh student that goes to university across the border it costs the Welsh government around £4,500.

About £33m is estimated to be leaving Wales with this year's 7,370 first-year students.

Welsh universities claim money is draining from the system, saying it could be used in the higher education sector within Wales instead.

Start Quote

It is incumbent on all parties to set out in detail their proposals for higher education funding before the assembly elections”

End Quote Aled Roberts Welsh Lib Dems

Mr Lewis has said the commission would examine many aspects of higher education in Wales, including the future of fee subsidies.

Answering an urgent assembly question on Tuesday, Mr Lewis told AMs: "I've made it clear (that) in 2015 we will see a general election and the debate that goes with that.

"(In) 2016 we will see a Welsh general election and the debate that goes with that.

"What we must have from this review is an enduring settlement which is above and beyond the sound and fury of any particular election campaign, and hence the timetable".

Speaking earlier on BBC Radio Wales, Mr Lewis denied he was delaying the issue so he did not have to tell the electorate what the policy would be at the 2016 assembly election.

"Reviews advise governments, they don't direct them," the minister said.

"The next assembly election is a little way off yet.

"Between now and then I'd like to see us have a sensible, all-party, all-opinion discussion here in Wales about how we can assist our young people and how we can make sure we have a good stable future for higher education."

This has been one of the most talked about policies by the Welsh government in recent years and the last 24 hours was no exception.

Last night Education Minister Huw Lewis announced a review of long-term funding of higher education and widening access, not controversial in itself but controversy surrounded the timings of when it will be completed after 2016.

The accusation is that voters will be left in the dark on a major policy when they go to the polls in the next elections in two and a half years' time.

Huw Lewis this afternoon made the point that the "sound and fury" of an election campaign gets in the way and is the wrong time to talk about these issues.

The response to that from the opposition parties is that an election campaign is exactly the right time to discuss it.

'Simply unsustainable'

The three opposition parties have all questioned the timing of the review.

The Lib Dem's education spokesman Aled Roberts said: "We have all been waiting for the moment when the Welsh Labour government become up front with people about the faults of its higher education funding policy. Last night's announcement finally recognised that the current policy is simply unsustainable.

"The timeline for the review couldn't be more cynical.

"Having the review report back in autumn 2016 means that the people of Wales will have no idea of Welsh Labour's higher education policy prior to the assembly elections.

"It is incumbent on all parties to set out in detail their proposals for higher education funding before the assembly elections."

The Conservatives described the existing Welsh government policy as "an uncosted election gimmick" and welcomed the review "wholeheartedly".

"Further details on the cross-party commission are now urgently required and its bizarre timeline clarified.

"The report should be forthcoming before the 2016 assembly election."

'Reluctance'

Plaid Cymru education spokesman Simon Thomas also welcomed the commission, as "an admission that the current policy is unsustainable".

"However, the remit and timetable for the commission's reporting should be determined by its chair and panel," he said.

"A commission that does not report until after the next election will be seen as saying as much about the minister's reluctance to engage with his own party on reform as it does about anything else."

Welsh students pay about £3,500 in tuition fees with the Welsh government paying the rest through a grant, wherever they choose to study in the UK.

On average, English universities charge around £8,000 a year in fees.

This year's first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m in Welsh government support with them.

Including last year's students, the total figure is more than £50m.

Earlier this year, universities in Wales told BBC Wales they were not on an even playing field with institutions in other parts of the UK.

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