Higher Education funding and student support in Wales is set for significant change. As the Welsh Government responds to Professor Sir Iain Diamond’s review and consults on a progressive new funding regime, Hannah Pudner, Assistant Director (External Strategy) at the OU in Wales, considers the implications for part-time students in Wales.
When it was set up in 2014, the Independent Review of Higher Education and Student Support led by Professor Sir Ian Diamond (‘the Diamond review’) had a broad and ambitious brief that left many sceptical. Indeed, it is no mean feat to create an affordable, sustainable higher education funding system that works for all students – not just the full timers, but part-time and postgraduates too. A system that has both widening access and world class quality at its heart. A system that can drive forward the economy and deliver social justice. And all under a finite and pressurised budget.
Other nations in the UK are struggling to create long-term approaches to higher education funding that suit all parts of the sector but now the Review has concluded its work and the Welsh Government has responded, is Wales set to provide the most progressive blueprint for HE in the UK thus far?
All modes, all levels
The Diamond Review wasn’t just looking for a solution on tuition fees, or research funding, or reducing costs in a time of difficult budget settlements. Most importantly it sought to create sustainable funding for the whole sector; students and institutions of every variety. You might not think that’s radical, yet it will be the first in the UK to offer something for everyone, and more for those who need it, when they need it most.
Like the sun in the solar system, full-time undergraduates have been at the centre of our Higher Education (HE) system, with other types of students and study having to revolve around them.
Of course, this is an important cohort of students, but their dominance in policy was disproportionate and it came at the expense of funding for part-time and postgraduate students. The Welsh Government’s decision to accept the majority of the Review’s recommendations and, in particular, to enable a fundamental shift to a system that provides financial support for the daily living costs of students – both full and part time – through a mixture of grants and loans is significant, and seeks to redress the balance of public funding for different modes of study.
Part-time and postgraduate matters
There is a strong social justice imperative for part-time HE. For many the responsibilities of jobs, mortgages and caring mean a full-time course is simply not possible. For others, a disability means a full-time course will not meet their needs.
There is also an urgent rationale for Wales (and the rest of the UK) to be investing in part-time provision. Demographic changes mean that the proportion of young people is shrinking. To stay economically successful, the UK needs to expand and develop its workforce, and the Welsh Government supports this aim.
Likewise, by not providing support for postgraduate study, are we not implicitly saying that postgraduate study is just for those who can afford it, and therefore encouraging the mantra that advantage breeds advantage? Again, the Welsh Government now seeks to address this as it looks towards a system that provides a package of support for postgraduate taught study.
Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance
Tuition fees have dominated the debate for decades. Fees are important, but the focus on this ignores the killer issue for fair access and affordability: maintenance. Current levels of maintenance – in either loan or grant form – don’t cover the actual cost of living.
The greater focus on maintenance recommended by Diamond and to be delivered by the Welsh Government bolsters the chances of the least advantaged students starting and succeeding at university – whether that’s full or part time. It will mean the outcome of their study is richer in substance and stature. And it means the public investment in that individual’s study is a sounder one, more likely to generate a healthy return.
Progressive is progressive, even when it’s relative
The Diamond recommendations on maintenance are the most progressive in the UK, but progressive is a relative concept – relative to rising fees in England, slow economic activity in Wales, and austerity everywhere. But if there is only money available to fund maintenance for students or reduce tuition fee debt for graduates, a commitment to social justice demands that maintenance for students be prioritised.
The status quo, or the removal of fees in their entirety, was not a viable outcome of this review. Instead, with the financial backdrop as it is, the focus must be on offering support to students in all modes of study to access and stay in university. A progressive maintenance system, with a universal element at its heart for all students, delivers this objective.
There is now an important opportunity for the Welsh Government to create a higher education funding system that supports and incentivises part-time study; this will work for learners, employers and providers and will have a significant impact on the Welsh economy and the lives of individuals in Wales.
Photo by Shane Global Language Centres