No top-up fees around here...

Students attending universities and colleges in Wales are subject to a different funding regime. Grants have been reintroduced and top-up fees have been postponed. Lucy Hodges looks at what this could mean for higher education in the principality
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The Independent Online

Just as Welsh schools have developed their own personality to set them apart from their English counterparts so Welsh politicians have fashioned a distinct identity for the universities in the principality.

On top-up fees and grants Wales has pursued what might be called a compassionate or Old Labour road in contrast to England. Top-up fees - so unpopular among the English electorate - will not be happening in Wales, at least not during this term of the Welsh Assembly, which runs until 2007. That way Jane Davidson, the Welsh Education Secretary, got herself off a difficult hook. It is not for nothing that this attractive and articulate woman is being tipped as the next First Minister.

The Government's proposal to allow universities to charge up to £3,000 a year is giving Tony Blair a bad headache. He is facing a rebellion from Labour MPs that could spell defeat. The likelihood is that Davidson would have found it impossible, given the Welsh electorate's inclination towards social justice and community ties, to follow the Prime Minister's lead and push top-up fees through the Assembly. So she took the next best route and postponed the issue. That way, she has kept Welsh Labour MPs on side and made friends with the National Union of Students in Wales and the Welsh branches of the lecturers' unions, though the Welsh higher education institutions are less sanguine.

If variable fees are introduced in England, as expected, the politics could change. Certainly, the Welsh universities are anxious about what will happen to them in the long term if their English rivals are able to charge more and thereby boost their funding and their competitive position. "Jane Davidson is burying her head in the sand," said the head of one Welsh higher education institution.

The decision to put off a decision on top-up fees may, however, prove to be a canny one. Davidson couches her policy in the language of pragmatism rather than ideology. "We will not know how many English institutions are proposing to charge top-up fees until they publish their plans in 2005," she explains. "What I have said is that at that point we will have a clear idea about what the impact of the variable fees will be on budgets and which courses and higher education institutions will be charging the extra amount."

Significantly, she adds that she has committed the Welsh Assembly to making up the gap in funding that would result if top-up fees are introduced in England in 2006, bringing in lots of lucre for English higher education. So Welsh universities and higher education colleges can rest easy for that one academic year, 2006-7. They will be taken care of for those 12 months, though after that who knows what will happen.

Davidson announces all that before saying she has two very clear agendas. One is to ensure that higher education institutions in Wales can be world-class. The second is to operate on the basis of evidence. As Welsh Education Secretary she has pursued a policy of widening participation with more passion than her English colleagues and says that up-front tuition fees cut against encouraging more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education. She wants to be sure the introduction of variable fees does not exacerbate this.

She is not against top-up fees in principle, she emphasises. "I am entirely content with them paying towards their higher education," she declares. "But I am extremely antagonistic to the idea that people have to pay fees upfront." That's because young people starting out on a degree don't know what they are letting themselves in for. They don't know how well they will be taught or whether the degree will be any use in the marketplace, she points out. Once they have completed their degrees, they have a much better idea of what they have gained and how much benefit it will be to them. So it makes sense for them to contribute afterwards.

It is perhaps surprising that the Welsh Education Secretary is so calculating about her position. One might expect her to employ a little more tub-thumping, but then she probably saves that for Labour Party meetings. It is a measure of her strength as a politician that she is capable of being so cerebral, yet so caring at the same time. The signs are that, overall, Welsh universities and colleges like her. With a degree in English from Birmingham University, she is no slouch academically and has the advantage of knowing about education through her experience as a teacher.

Some may look askance at her background - she is the daughter of a doctor and attended Malvern Girls' College, the independent school (which makes her a member of the Welsh Toffia) - but there is no doubting her commitment to Wales, to Welsh education and the Labour Party. "She's very ambitious," says the head of a Welsh higher education institution. "She's bright, she works her socks off and she really understands her brief."

As well as holding off top-up fees, she has also steered through the introduction of what are called Assembly Learning Grants for students from poorer families and is overseeing a radical restructuring of Welsh higher education institutions. Students in England no longer receive grants - though the Government intends to change that in its White Paper proposals. The Welsh grants are fairly modest, yet reach a higher level than the planned English grant of £1,000. Paid to those whose families are on incomes below about £20,000, they range from £750 to £1,500 a year. And, significantly, they apply to further education students over 18 as well as higher education students.

One of Davidson's first actions on becoming Welsh Education Secretary was to set up a committee chaired by Professor Teresa Rees, of Cardiff University, into student hardship in Wales. Her report reinforced Davidson's worries that young people were put off applying for courses by the thought of student hardship and debt. The grants were introduced to answer those worries.

Arguably, the Assembly's most radical action is a comprehensive restructuring of higher education institutions in Wales. This has been driven through with immense energy and smart talking by Jane Davidson.

It is not an easy task. Universities do not like being told to merge with others - and she has certainly not done so. However, the facts have been made quite clear, and they are not in the universities' favour. Wales has too many small institutions containing too few students. As the Assembly said in its "Reaching Higher" document in March 2002, Wales, with a population of 3 million, has 13 institutions, compared to 14 institutions in Scotland, where the population is 5 million, and two institutions in Northern Ireland, where the population stands at 1.5 million. It means that Welsh universities have higher administrative costs than those elsewhere.

"In the research assessment of 1996, although some departments did very well, we were really underperforming in attracting research funds," says Davidson. "We had to think what we could do to change that. We wanted to drive forward an agenda of collaboration between institutions to ensure that we had the critical mass to get the research funding."

The aim is to put Welsh universities onto a footing where they can compete internationally, as well as serve the people of Wales and the one half of all students at Welsh universities who come from England.

A number of mergers and alliances are now being negotiated more or less painfully (see box) between higher education institutions and between further and higher education institutions. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has allocated £5.3m to sweeten the pill. Whether all the mergers/alliances will happen is anyone's guess. Mergers are extremely difficult to engineer. Staff feel threatened, students don't like them, alumni are hostile and sometimes the vice-chancellors are lukewarm. But with outright closure almost impossible, this is the only way to contract the system to make it leaner and meaner and more able to take on the global competition.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

MERGERS AND COLLABORATIONS: CHANGES IN WELSH HIGHER EDUCATION

* Cardiff University and the University of Wales College of Medicine. This is virtually a done deal. Merger has been agreed.

* North East Wales Institute of Higher Education and the University of Wales, Bangor. This will create a university of North Wales. Talks have gone some way and concrete proposals are expected.

* University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. This is an important merger proposal which is now out for consultation. It has been suggested that the new name should be Cardiff Metropolitan University but some people in the valleys don't like the idea.

* University of Wales, Aberystwyth, the University of Wales, Lampeter, and Trinity College, Carmarthen are talking about getting closer together, though this may not mean merger. The head of one Welsh higher education institute described these talks as the least far forward but the most necessary.

* The University of Glamorgan has been talking about merger to Merthyr College of Further Education, but talks have stalled.

* University of Wales College, Newport and Coleg Gwent are talking

about collaboration and integration.

* The University of Swansea and the Swansea Institute of Higher Education have agreed a subject reconfiguration, with the transfer of law and nursing from the institute to the university and the university's school of education moving to the institute.

* University of Wales, Bangor, and Coleg Menai are talking about collaboration in support services.

* Finally, the Royal Welsh College of Music is expected to remain as it is.

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