Tuesday 04-10-2016 - 17:06
Tuesday saw the publication of recommendations from the independent review into higher education funding and student support arrangements in Wales.
Some aspects of the Diamond Review are to be welcomed. For example, it sets out a means tested maintenance grant in line with the national living wage available for both full time, part-time, undergraduate and postgraduate Welsh students wherever they choose to study in the UK. It also sets out improved sets of grants and Disabled Students’ Allowance, while calling on the Welsh Government to improve services for student parents and to provide additional funding for care leavers. Finally it offers a £1000 grant available for all students. These are progressive measures for students that could set the stage for broadening participation in Welsh HE. These achievements are down to NUS Wales’ pressure on the Welsh Government and their campaigning for students’ rights.
However, the Diamond Review also recommended the scrapping of the £5100 subsidy for fees to every Welsh domiciled HE student. This will in practice lead to a significantly higher debt burden taken on by higher education graduates. These moves are entirely unacceptable: we oppose the idea that better maintenance support must be paid for by higher fee debts. The maintenance support proposed in Wales may mean that student debt is lower for poorer students when compared to England - but this comes with no long-term guarantees.
Back in 2010, the UK Coalition government’s bitterly opposed tripling of fees was met with promises of greater support for widening participation in the form of maintenance grants and further investment in to the DSA. This year the Tories scrapped these provisions, abolishing maintenance grants, DSA and NHS bursaries. The higher fees regime in England has also reduced applications to HE from part time and mature students.
This is why NUS supports free education and living grants. We believe students should not have to choose between accessing adequate financial support during their studies and getting into a lifetime of debt to pay for fees.
The Diamond report acknowledges that “fear of debt” is a key factor influencing people’s decision to study, especially “those from lower income families.” Research also shows that students from greater ‘risk-averse’ populations are less likely to look positively upon taking on growing debt.
In plain language, this means that students from working class and oppressed backgrounds, who will face greater discrimination in the housing and job market after education, are less likely to consider taking on debt in order to pay their way through university as a good deal.
We must also look at the longer-term consequences of accepting a system in which access to education is treated as a personal investment rather than a public good that should be funded by the state.
As Diamond makes clear, the main factor driving these proposals is “austerity and fiscal retrenchment in the UK.” This devastating squeeze on education funding controlled by Westminster is something we as a movement need to tackle together.
We only need to look at the direction of travel to see what might happen if we are unsuccessful. In the wake of the Tory’s HE Bill and White Paper, many universities have announced their intention to increase fees from 2017, with fee levels anticipated to rise to over £11,600 a year by 2025.
This follows the UK Government’s decision to freeze the loan repayment threshold – another broken pledge that will now be also imposed on students taking out loans to cover fees in Wales.
The irony is that far from easing the economic pressures on the state, the loan book has actually built up greater state debt.
The system of fees and loans may not have saved the UK Government money, but it has been used to transform the sector fundamentally: turning students into consumers and actively encouraging competition between universities. Under the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), fee rises will be linked to assessments of teaching quality. This will drive competition between institutions even deeper into the sector, exacerbating inequalities and potentially driving some providers out of the sector completely.
This week’s announcement by the Welsh Government that fees will be capped at £9000 is important in this context. However the framework of greater marketization being driven by Westminster will continue to generate more pressure on universities beyond England’s borders to remain competitive..
There is another way.
At our last national conference, we overwhelmingly passed a motion to oppose any increase in fees (Motion 201), and campaign for free education in Further Education. This motion added to the one passed in 2014 calling for free education for all, funded through progressive taxation. Conference then noted that for every pound the UK Government invests in education, it creates £2.60 in the economy.
This is a mandate that will remain at the heart of how NUS UK reacts to changes in the sector as we campaign against fees, and for a free, accessible education for all. The joint UCU NUS national demonstration on Saturday 19 November is just one aspect of that fight and I appeal for everyone to join us at this critical time for the future of students and our sector.