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The doors are open, but has anything changed?

Wednesday 28-09-2016 - 10:59

Whilst many students’ unions are welcoming students back, in Cardiff Bay the future of student funding is a hot topic for the Welsh Government. Having lived and breathed Diamond Review over the last few weeks I wanted to run you through the things you should really be thinking about.

If you read Fflur’s blog yesterday you’ll know that the Diamond Review set out its recommendations for the future of higher education in Wales. I wanted to take some time to reflect on what the recommendations achieve. When the previous Education Minister, Huw Lewis, commissioned the review he wanted to see a system that widened access, supported the skill needs of Wales, strengthened part-time and postgraduate provision and for it all to be financially sustainable.

So the current system is one that buffered Welsh students from the full impact of £9,000 fees. When the UK Government in 2012 tripled tuition fees to £9,000, the Welsh Government put in place a non-repayable tuition fee grant of £5,100. This was great for Welsh domiciled students. But over the years more and more students have gone to university and now the tuition fee subsidy costs the Welsh Government £237 million (and this increases every year). What’s more around £100 million of this has gone to universities in England when Welsh students go across the border. The argument has always been that with an already underfunded education budget, we can ill afford to send so much money to English institutions. This combination led to the Welsh Government commissioning the ‘Diamond Review’.

At the same time NUS Wales’ “Pound in your pocket” report found that 63% of welsh students ‘regularly worry about not having enough money to meet basic living expenses such as rent and utility bills’ and that ‘financial difficulties are pushing students to the brink of dropping out.’

The financial situation for many students has become untenable. Some students rely on payday loans and overdrafts to meet basic living costs. Overdrafts are the most common debt incurred, with 48% of undergraduates reporting that they have taken on this type of commercial debt since beginning their course. Furthermore, 20% of postgraduates have taken on credit card debts. Research has also found that students from lower participation backgrounds and mature students are the most likely to be carrying debts in excess of £5,000 in addition to their student finance debts.

Debt has quickly became the norm for students. And these aren’t government loans – it’s high interest private debt that can mount up and cost far more in the future. Even when managed well, this commercial debt can stop graduates accessing tenancies or loans for cars and homes for years to come. When debt becomes the norm for young people, we know that things need to change. The proposed system does a lot to alleviate the daily pressure of meeting the cost of living through a much more generous maintenance package – directed at those who would have to take on the most risky types of commercial debt. The more generous maintenance package will be directly linked to the National Living Wage, in relation to 37.5hrs per week for a period of 30 weeks.

Diamond has a number of recommendations that, if implemented as a package, would see the removal of the tuition fee subsidy. But in turn, would implement additional targeted support. The report recommends that care leavers will automatically be eligible to the full maintenance grant of £8,100 per academic year regardless of household income. This is a huge and exciting win for the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in society, who are all too often shut out of education because they simply can’t afford it.

As a priority this year I will be working with Welsh Government to see if this recommendation can also expand to include students who are caring, unpaid, for a family member or friend who is ill, frail, disabled or has mental health or addiction problems. Officially there are 29,000 carers under the age of 25 in Wales, however the actual figure is likely much higher. I was a student carer from the age of 15 for my Dad who suffers from Dementia – through school, college and University. I have experienced the day-to-day barriers that can make getting a qualification a difficult challenge as a carer. Since becoming Deputy President, I have met with Carers Trust Wales and have attended their Young Adult Carers Network to open up discussions around making education a more accessible and supportive place for carers. I will continue conversations with the Welsh Government in making these discussions a reality.

These recommendations are a direct investment into students’ pockets at a time when they need it the most. Students don’t just need to be supported to get through the shiny doors of Higher Education, they also need to be supported throughout their time of study. The skyrocketing cost of living under austerity has evidently hit students hard, as well as Wales as a whole. West Wales and the valleys are known to be the poorest regions in Northern Europe. Our education funding system needs to reflect Wales’ social context and financial situation.

These recommendations if implemented as a package will be a step further towards a fair and equitable funding system. They are responsive to the current needs of Welsh students in its supportive measures around greater maintenance grants to meeting living costs. Especially when the holistic cost of education is taken into account i.e. overdrafts and payday loans. Education in my view is a public good and deserves proper investment and respect. Students should not have these grave debts weighted on their shoulders just to balance the government’s books. The Welsh Government can only raise 6.6% of its annual budget and until the UK Government invests more into education or devolves further powers to Wales, there remains a journey to free education.

Get in touch if you want to talk about the recommendations.

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