Welsh tuition fee subsidies 'should be refocused'
Poorer students and colleges in Wales should be the priorities for money used to subsidise tuition fees, opposition parties in the assembly have said.
With most universities charging £9,000 a year, the Welsh government pays around £5,000 for each student from Wales wherever they study in the UK.
Welsh universities want to see means-tested maintenance grants instead.
The Conservatives have promised a hardship fund, while Plaid Cymru said only Welsh institutions should benefit.
Students at a publicly-funded university or college in the UK can be charged a maximum of £9,000 a year in tuition fees.
All students from Wales can apply for a tuition fee grant of up to £5,190 from the Welsh government which does not depend on their household income. If the fees are higher, loans are available to cover the rest.
For living expenses, means-tested grants of £5,161 a year are also available to students whose household income is below £18,370. Smaller amounts are available on a sliding scale until income reaches £50,020. Loans are available to all regardless of income.
Prof Colin Riordan, chairman of Universities Wales, said on Monday that ministers faced difficult choices, but universities wanted them to give more priority to poorer students.
He said offering means-tested maintenance grants for Welsh students from foundation through to postgraduate level would "give many more talented people the opportunity to transform their life chances through going to university".
Nick Ramsay, the Welsh Conservatives' shadow finance minister, told BBC Radio Wales his party wanted to focus support on students who "really need it".
"Tuition fees aren't actually repaid until you reach a certain threshold of income," he said.
"There are many pupils in Wales at the moment who are finding it difficult with their living costs as well."
Mr Ramsey said the Tories had not yet decided if they would offer grants to students from Wales going to university elsewhere in the UK.
Plaid Cymru education spokesman Simon Thomas told BBC Radio Wales that £90m a year going to English universities in tuition fee subsidies was an "inappropriate" use of Welsh public money.
Unless it was for courses not available in Wales - such as veterinary science - he said people should not be subsidised to choose an English university for "convenience".
He said he expected the ongoing Diamond review of student finance in Wales to show that "Chester is taking a huge wodge of Welsh government money for students that could easily be studying at Glyndwr University in Wrexham just five or six miles away".
Universities Wales has launched its manifesto for the 2016 Assembly Election, saying the current policy of subsidising the tuition fees of Welsh domiciled students introduced by the Labour/Plaid coalition is "unsustainable".
Aled Roberts, Welsh Lib Dem education spokesman, said they would replace the tuition fee grant with maintenance grants for students and more direct help for cash-strapped universities.
He said the policy introduced by the Labour/Plaid coalition government in 2010, had "left Welsh universities drained of cash" with money "following students over Offa's Dyke".
A UKIP spokesman said the party had "always advocated cutting if not scrapping university tuition fees where fiscally possible".
The Welsh government has described its tuition fee policy as "an investment in young people", and said the Diamond review would inform policy for the future.
How it works elsewhere
Scottish students get free tuition at Scottish universities, along with students from any other EU country, except for those from the rest of the UK, who have to pay.
Scottish students going to university elsewhere have to pay tuition fees but can apply for loans of up to £9,000 a year.
Northern Irish students pay tuition fees of up to £3,805 a year to study in Northern Ireland, and up to £9,000 elsewhere in the UK. Loans are available to pay these fees, but no grants.
Students from England have to pay tuition fees at any UK university but can apply for loans of up to £9,000 a year.
Do you like this story?
If so, head to our Facebook page and join today's debate.