There are signs of some muddled thinking in this report today. The report notes that the number of English students applying to study in Wales has dropped, and the usual suspects proceed to provide the customary quotes.
The Conservatives' Education spokesperson wins the prize for squeezing the most clichéd phrases (and the most hyphenated ones too) into the shortest space (‘headline-grabbing’, ‘wafer-thin’, ‘half-baked’ and ‘wake-up call’, all crammed into two sentences). Stripped of rhetoric however, her point seems to be that the policy is wrong because it’s going to cost more than planned.
In fairness to the Government, they have admitted previously that the costings for the policy were based on estimates. Indeed, they had to be estimates. No-one could have known in advance what the level of applications was going to be; apart from any other factor, this was the first year with the new higher fees level – no-one really knew what the effect of that would be on applications.
We shouldn’t castigate governments for proceeding on the basis of estimates rather than hard figures, which seems to be part of the Tories’ pitch. All governments do it; very little would happen if they did not. If the estimate could and should have been closer to the out-turn, then there is a potential criticism of incompetence, which is rather a different matter. But from my reading of the figures, it seems to me that the government took a reasonable and reasoned view in arriving at its numbers.
The question is what happens next. The Tories’ position seems to be that the policy should be abandoned because it costs more than planned. That sounds rather like a way of trying to sink it on practical grounds rather than arguing with the principle, which is what they really dislike but are afraid to say.
Clearly, it will be challenging for the government to find what looks like significant extra funding for the policy, but having taken the bold decision to go down this route, it would be an enormous shame if they decided to change tack at this stage, quite apart from the impact on the financial planning of students.
One thing which does deserve more attention, though, is the comparison between Wales and Scotland when it comes to the numbers of students choosing to stay here to study. There are many factors involved in this, but the difference is nevertheless stark.
One of the advantages of the previous policy, before it was abandoned by the One Wales Government, was that there were signs of an increase in the number of ‘stay-in-Wales’ students. Encouraging that trend wouldn’t solve the financial problems, but it would help to direct the expenditure into Welsh universities. There’s scope for some tweaking of policy, but it doesn’t need to be abandoned.