Article originally published in The Times Higher Education supplement.
Over the summer, the UK chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond, if you believe reports, was mulling over a cut to tuition fees in England. The reduction – be it of 16 per cent, or maybe even a brazen 30 per cent – was, it seems, a step too far for the frugal Hammond, who instead chose to make a song and dance of keeping tuition fees at £9,250 a year.
It was, I believe, a token gesture, aimed at winning over students and the young. But in believing that such a paltry policy could do so, the government has proved how alien they are to students and the higher education debate.
There is merit in the idea that a more deep-rooting cut, or total abolition, of tuition fees could tempt the hearts and minds of younger voters – but the more pressing issue is ensuring that all students can afford to survive. This is a reality that the government cannot fathom the faintest grasp of.
At a typical English university with a relatively average cost of living, a standard room in halls of residence is around £5,500 a year, and when combined with a modest amount of food, travel and socialising – a student could be expected to need a total of at least £9,000 to live on. Such a student, however, could receive a maintenance loan as little as £4,000 from Student Finance England. That leaves about £5,000 a year – or £15,000 over the course of an undergraduate degree – for a student to find.
The fact is that in England, not everyone can afford to go to university. If that £15,000 can’t be found from a combination of overdrafts, part-time work and the bank of mum and dad, a student can’t live – or at least can’t enjoy a lifestyle a university experience is expected to provide. Such difficulties in making ends meet could prevent some of the brightest, most talented students in England from accessing higher education.
From the universities minister, Jo Johnson, there seems to be no willingness to challenge, or at least acknowledge the issue. In response to a parliamentary question, he conceded that maintenance loans are a “contribution” towards a student’s costs, rather than “covering them in full”. Where does Mr Johnson expect students to find the additional funding? Even when considering the bank of mum and dad, the state cannot assume that the disposable income of any given parent or parents is willingly handed down to fund a child’s university years.
It would be wrong to pretend such issues have never existed in Wales, but instead of turning a blind eye, the Welsh government is pursuing a strategy to ensure that every person in Wales can afford to study. Following a comprehensive review by Sir Ian Diamond, the Welsh government decided that in order to complete a degree in Wales, a student required about £9,000 per year on which to live. This is how much a student needs, and so this is how much a student should be given.
At a typical Welsh University – say Lampeter at Trinity St. Davids, or Glyndwr – this would leave about £5,500 leftover once accommodation has been paid for; about £145 a week for each week of the term. Needless to say, this is not enough to afford a lavish lifestyle – it doesn’t need to be – but it’s enough to fund a student through three enjoyable years of learning.
This Welsh model of HE funding (mooted as a possible model for England by Universities UK president Janet Beer) should help to open the sector to individuals who previously would have been concerned about the cost of living. When the new package is introduced from 2018/19, every eligible student will receive the same amount: £11,124 if studying in London, £9,000 if studying outside of London – partly as a loan, partly as a grant.
The proportion that takes the form of a grant will differ depending on the student’s background. The new model recognises that for students – particularly those from families that have experienced financial difficulties – debt can be daunting; and so a non-repayable grant removes this uncertainty.
The Welsh model will be the most generous student maintenance package in the UK. It will demonstrate that a fairer, more sustainable system is possible, and will do so despite the meagre increase of 0.3 per cent to Wales’ block grant. Most importantly though, it can enable student’s to enjoy an education without financial constraints.
I hope it will be a model that the UK government soon attempts to emulate in England. Ministers shouldn’t be embarrassed to learn from policies being adopted by the Welsh Labour government. We’ve seen Theresa May’s ability to steal the policies – and even the words – of our leaders: from Ed Miliband’s energy price cap to the pressure Jeremy Corbyn is applying on the public sector pay cap. Perhaps higher education funding is another area where Mrs May can take heed.