Good riddance to tuition fee grants?

graduation Image copyright PA

In policy terms, the tuition fee subsidy has been one of the big devolved headline-grabbers of recent years.

It's not only a major point of difference between Wales and England, but something that has offered significant financial assistance to parents, regardless of their financial circumstances, looking to put their children through university.

Politically, the Diamond proposals look like a done deal. I understand the cabinet has signed off on all of the major elements, and judging by the tone of the opposition response, there won't be any problems at the Senedd either.

This review has been rumbling along in the background for a number of years. It meant that Labour danced around the issue during the assembly campaign, other than saying repeatedly that Welsh students would not be laden with debt.

That now will not be strictly true with tuition fees having to be paid by student loans, rather than grants.

University

Interestingly, Professor Ian Diamond told me that the big lesson from England in recent years is that having to get a student loan to pay for tuition fees does not deter young people from going to university.

Instead, he believes the big deterrence is the day to day cost of student life, and that argument has clearly been won in the higher ranks of government.

The other big change is to go for means-testing rather than a universal system.

There is a basic £1,000 maintenance grant that everyone would receive but in reality this review has made access to those from low-income households, or the "squeezed middle" as the Professor put it in a briefing, the priority.

The principle of portability is also secured with the cash following the student, rather than the institution.

Ambition

This means that one of the biggest criticisms of the current system, that around £90m out of a £240m tuition fee annual budget ends up in English institutions, would in theory continue but in reality because of changes to the system the amount leaving the higher education sector in Wales would be smaller.

Also, unlike in Scotland, where local students are given financial help if they attend a Scottish university, the current administration in Cardiff believes that kind of a system would put too much of a limit on ambition.

However, there will be talks between the education secretary Kirsty Williams and Plaid Cymru on how to create incentives for graduates to return to Wales from England.

The Welsh government believes it is easier said than done to create a set of rules to allow the cancellation of debt for those who return.

And finally, if the policy is adopted then the universities will be happy because much of the savings from cutting the tuition fee grant for undergraduates - which amounts to more than £100m a year - will be redirected within the higher education sector in Wales.

This may have happened anyway but was a central part of the agreement when Kirsty Williams, as a Lib Dem, was given the education brief in a Labour cabinet.

So it looks like good riddance to the Welsh university tuition fee subsidy. It was a generous system, but in the end its generosity looks like being its downfall.