Wales politics

Cabinet not shown £9,000 fee costs, released documents suggest

University students
Image caption What ministers were told about the potential costs of the policy has been at the centre of a political row

Welsh cabinet members were not shown financial models of the cost of £9,000 tuition fees when approving the student subsidy policy, documents indicate.

The Wales Audit Office (WAO) has claimed such detailed costings were only circulated to certain ministers before the decision was taken in 2010.

But former education minister Leighton Andrews said the cabinet was clear about the policy's potential cost.

The WAO said the policy's projected costs rose from £653m in 2010 to £809m.

The £653m figure was based on the Welsh government's assumption of an average fee level of £7,000, which the WAO now says was "optimistic".

This is disputed by Mr Andrews, who says that the maximum estimate held by the government was just over £1bn over a five-year period.

Under the policy, brought in from 2012-13, Welsh students studying anywhere in the UK have up to £5,535 of their annual tuition fees paid for by the Welsh government.

The paper put before the full cabinet on the day the decision was formally taken - 23 November 2010 - makes it clear that the costings were on the basis of an average £7,000 fee level, but noted that some institutions could charge more.

It said: "The financial modelling assumes that average fees in England and Wales from 2012-13 will be £7,000.

"While it is difficult to predict how institutions will respond to the new funding regime, it is likely that the elite institutions will increase their fees to the maximum £9,000 immediately and that, over time, others will seek to match them so that average fee levels may rise."

However, it does not include the detailed costings which had been drawn up by officials about the implications for the Welsh government budget of an average fee level closer to £9,000.

'In the dark'

Earlier at First Minister's Questions, Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies challenged First Minister Carwyn Jones about the WAO findings.

Mr Davies said: "First minister, were the Wales Audit Office wrong last week when they stated that cabinet colleagues were kept in the dark over the tuition fee policy?"

Mr Jones replied: "Yes, and I'll be releasing the cabinet papers and minutes which illustrate the conversations that took place at that time."

In last week's report, the WAO said: "The Welsh government based its policy decision on what has proven to be an optimistic assumption of an average fee of £7,000 in 2012/13 across Wales, England and Northern Ireland but with an assumed fee for Scottish institutions of £2,190.

"Although officials had also produced a model based on a maximum £9,000 fee across Wales, England and Northern Ireland, this model was not presented to the full cabinet to support its decision making.

"However, the £9,000 model had been shared with and discussed by the then minister for education, children and lifelong learning (Mr Andrews) and certain other cabinet members."

On Tuesday the Conservatives welcomed the papers' publication, but Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns said they "shed little light specifically on whether a number of senior cabinet ministers were not given access to the detailed costings of Labour's tuition fee subsidy based on £9,000-a-year fees".

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