Huw Lewis orders review of higher education funding in Wales

Graduating students
Image caption Welsh universities have already called for a funding review

A major review into higher education (HE) and student finance has been announced by Education Minister Huw Lewis.

He said it was right to take stock at a time of "rapid and unpredictable change" facing universities.

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

The cross-party examination of the funding system will report in 2016.

Universities claim the current funding policy results in tens of millions of pounds leaving Wales.

Last week, vice chancellor of Glyndwr University, Prof Michael Scott, told an Assembly committee student tuition fees "cannot be sustained in the long-term".

Mr Lewis's review, starting early next year, will also aim to widen access to universities to students who would not normally see themselves as "university material".

But financial issues will be the biggest challenge facing the review, and it will examine full-time and part-time tuition fees policy, student finance arrangements and HE cross-border funding policy.

Prof Sir Ian Diamond, vice chancellor of Aberdeen University, will lead the panel and report to the next Welsh government after the 2016 assembly elections.

In a speech at Cardiff University on Monday, Mr Lewis said: "I want to see a successful higher education system in Wales supported by a robust and sustainable funding regime.

"I want that system to be genuinely world class. I also want to see a robust student support system, linked to principles of access and fairness."

He said more details on the review would be announced soon, adding: "Our tuition fees policy is popular, affordable and sustainable and will be in place for the lifetime of this government.

"But now seems the right time for us to take stock and to consider the future in the light of the rapid and unpredictable change facing the sector."

On widening access to university education, Mr Lewis said he was not satisfied that the measures in place were "either comprehensive or sufficiently stretching".

He added: "In my view we should be looking, in a more sustained, structured and determined way, at the relationships universities have with their communities to raise expectations and support achievement on the part of individuals who might never have seen themselves as 'university material'".

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.

For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border it costs the Welsh government about £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 more than £50m.

The universities claim that is money that could have been used in the HE sector in Wales.

'Expensive gimmick'

At the time, the Welsh government said the policy was "fully-costed and is sustainable".

The Conservatives said they have long claimed that the tuition fees policy should be taken back to the drawing board.

Angela Burns AM, Conservative shadow education minister, said: "While this announcement is being dressed up as a wider review of HE funding, it looks like wolf's clothing for scrapping Labour's unsustainable £3.6bn tuition fees policy, which had been due to run for nine years.

"Labour's tuition fee subsidy has sent tens of millions of pounds of Welsh government funding to universities outside of Wales at a time when Welsh universities should be aiming to compete on the world stage."

She said Welsh universities had been put under considerable financial pressure by "an expensive gimmick".

Plaid Cymru education spokesman Simon Thomas AM called it a positive move.

"Plaid Cymru has long questioned the affordability of the current system due to its dependence on students from other UK nations studying at Welsh universities to maintain it.

"So I'm glad if the Welsh government has acknowledged this and is taking action to address it."

Mr Lewis said political parties in Wales would be invited to nominate candidates to join the review panel.

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