Tuesday 02-02-2016 - 19:30
Welsh students find themselves at a crossroads.
In some ways, we have a system which has focused on students far more than elsewhere in the UK. Full-time undergraduates don’t have to pay the bulk of £9k fees. Living costs support is far more generous than in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. While support for disabled students across the border has been scaled back, Wales is holding firm. For now. But there are huge swathes of post-16 education that have been left behind. We’ve seen further education (FE) decimated as budgets have been slashed by 12% since 2013. Adult learning funding has nearly disappeared - reduced by half in the last year alone.Part-time student numbers have gone steadily down as fees policy bites.
Now, we face the spectre of higher education (HE) taking its “turn” - with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) budget set to drop by a third next year. Many of the already-poor sections of HE - like part-time provision, Welsh-medium education, expensive subjects support and research funding - will be forced to fight over the scraps left from a policy of decreasing investment in our post-16 education system.
NUS Wales and our membership predicted this, and we were outspoken on it. But the Welsh Government has so far taken little notice of those warnings.Three years ago, we published the results of a two-year consultation with university and college students, our Imagine Education commission, which set out a vision for the future of education in Wales. One that invested in all students, regardless of age, background or what type of education it was. Students called for an education that was:
- Accessible to all, regardless of their background, age, circumstances or financial status.
- Flexible, enabling study in whatever form or mode of education suits the learners’ needs and interests.
- Building a system where students are active partners, in the design and development of their education, and where the student voice is more than just a tick box evaluation form.
- Ensuring educational institutions and students are embedded in their communities.
That vision aimed to equalise and join up all the different forms of education and introduce genuine choice for all education routes - from part-time adult learning through to postgraduate students at university. But the reality is that that vision will be impossible to achieve unless we value and invest in our post-16 sector as a whole. The perpetual cycle of different parts of the education system being played against one another will start to erode the quality of the system overall. Each year, we have seen FE vs HE, part-time vs full-time, adult learning vs postgraduate...all catapulted into annual warfare over diminishing pots of money.
This year, the HE budget has lost that fight. Direct funding from HEFCW to universities has been cut by £41m - representing a third of its direct grant. This has been justified on the idea that HE has previously been protected. That it should be grateful, because other parts of the budget have taken the pain before. But while it is undoubtedly good that the annual reductions to the FE budget have been arrested for next year at least, the idea that our universities have been shielded is a misleading one.
While we’ve undoubtedly seen students invested in, the cuts to HEFCW’s budget will further damage several areas of vital, student-centred services we cannot afford to see shrivel and die. Public support for direct investment in students, so they can study in the way that best suits them and not constrained by costs, But cuts to support to part-time HE threatens to pave the way for rises in tuition fees - deterring more students from entering flexible study.With part-time study often the preferred way of re-entering study for women, disabled people and carers - among other hard-to-reach groups - a narrowing of the entrance into study can only damage the admirable focus the government has had on widening access.
Such a drastic cut to the budget will also see other areas dependent on small pots of funding under pressure - research funding for Welsh universities, the small pot of money available for Welsh-medium provision through Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and the vital source of funding for expensive subjects like medicine, dentistry and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
We realise times are tight and the Welsh Government is making difficult decisions. We know the UK Government’s austerity programme is at the heart of why we’re in this mess.But we also know that when budgets are cut, student services are usually the first in line to bear the brunt of the cuts. While welfare services creak, marketing budgets are up by 22% and estates spending is up 25%.In an era of belt-tightening, post-16 education needs to be seen more as a sacred cow, than as a sacrificial lamb.
If we are to truly open education up to everyone, to open up routes out of poverty and unemployment to the many and not the few, the era of chronic underfunding and damaging competition across post-16 education must end. NUS Wales wants the next Welsh Government to ensure the long-promised era of equality for all forms of learning and students - before one has lost the fight altogether.