Universities in Wales call for funding review over cash drain
Universities in Wales have called for the Welsh government to review the way they are funded to prevent millions of pounds going to institutions around the UK.
Currently, Welsh students have the majority of their tuition fees paid wherever they study.
As a result, tens of millions of pounds from the higher education budget in Wales goes to universities elsewhere.
But the Welsh government said higher education funding was increasing.
Welsh universities told BBC Wales they were not on an even playing field with institutions in other parts of the UK.
For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border it costs the Welsh government around £4,500.
It means this year's 7,370 first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m with them. Including last year's students, the total figure is over £50m.
The universities claim that is money that could have been used in the higher education sector in Wales.
Professor Colin Riordan, chair of Higher Education Wales which represents Welsh universities, said if the money was spent in Wales it could be used to improve their research and student support.
He insisted the Welsh government was fully supportive of the higher education sector and its funding had improved year on year.
Yet he said more could be done with the millions of pounds that left the Welsh higher education sector and went to universities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
He said: "If we were able to retain all the funding that's supplied to higher education in Wales it would clearly give us an opportunity that we don't currently have.
"Opportunities not just to universities in terms of their research, which is absolutely critical for the future of the knowledge economy in Wales, but also in terms of our students who could be better supported in Welsh universities if the funding were more concentrated on Welsh universities."
Professor Teresa Rees, former pro vice chancellor of Cardiff University, has reviewed higher education funding for the Welsh Government twice previously. She believed the middle classes were being subsidised.
She told BBC Radio Wales: "The current set up is, I think, a mistake. The idea of the Welsh government is that they want to ensure that able people from Wales who go to university should be able to do so, whichever university they want to do so irrespective of how well off they are, and I think that's excellent.
"The mistake is instead of subsidising students from non-traditional backgrounds, who are poor, they have actually subsidised the fees of everybody wherever they go.
"It's still the case that the majority of students who go to university are from middle class backgrounds, so in effect, it's a subsidy to the middle classes and because lots of students choose to go across the border - I think that's absolutely right - it means that money that could be going into supporting widening participation in Wales and Welsh universities is leaking to across the border."
When the UK government allowed university tuition fees to rise, Welsh ministers wanted to cushion their students.
Students from Wales pay the first £3,500 of their tuition fees and the Welsh government pays for the rest.
The Scottish Parliament also pays the fees for its students but only if they study at Scottish universities.
On average, English universities charge around £8,000 a year in fees.
Education Minister Huw Lewis did not respond but a spokesman for the Welsh government said it noted Professor Riordan's comments.
"We believe we have a responsibility to all of our students wherever they choose to study in the UK," the spokesman said.
"As we have outlined on a number of occasions, total income available to the Welsh HE (higher education) sector will increase significantly when compared to the previous funding model.
"HEFCW's (Higher Education Funding Council for Wales) latest funding circular confirmed this - in fact the average increase in funding for HE institutions in Wales is 13.8% in 2013/14."
The spokesman said the policy was "fully costed and is sustainable".
He said: "It is time to acknowledge that whilst the policy does mean that a significant amount of fee grant is being paid to Welsh students studying at institutions in England, it is also important to consider that Wales is a net importer of students from other parts of the UK.
"Institutions in Wales receive far more fee income from those students than we pay in fee grant to English institutions."
But Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns AM said it was clear the tuition fees policy was unsustainable.
"The evidence is stacking up against the policy's senseless details and our most senior higher education experts are right to highlight the glaring mistakes," she said.