Monday, 25 March 2013

What's the aim?

According to the treasurers of our universities, Welsh Government policy on student fees is diverting “their” money to English universities.  They don’t quite say it, but the implication is that it would be “better” (for them at least) if students were charged full fees rather than having their fees paid wherever they choose to study.

The opposition parties were quick to jump on the bandwagon.  Any stick with which to beat the government will apparently do.  They were more than a little short on positive alternatives though.
The question that struck me was about what we are trying to achieve with the money we spend on higher education.  There are at least two - very different - choices:
  • providing the very best higher education for our young people.  If that is our aim then paying their fees wherever they study – which is effectively current Welsh government policy – is probably the best way of doing it; or
  • making our universities as good as we can – in which case, funding the universities directly and keeping all the higher education spend in Wales would be the better approach.
In an ideal world, the two might, in effect, look very similar.  If our institutions were the very best – and they are certainly striving to be that – then the best education for young people would be that provided by our own universities.  There are some complications though:
  • Universities in Wales have expanded way beyond what is necessary to meet the “home” demand.  Even if we assume that there will be some transfers in and some transfers out, the imbalance between those transfers means that to sustain their current size – let alone support ambitious expansion plans – our universities need to attract a significant net inflow of students to Wales.  To what extent do we want to use our higher education spending to fund the education of “foreign” students?
  • Wales is a small country, and it is unlikely that our universities will ever be able to even provide for every possible academic discipline, let alone be the best in all of those.  Do we want to limit the choices of young people to what is available in Wales, or do we want to facilitate learning wherever they go?
  • Many of those who go elsewhere to study choose never to return (although by the same token, many of those to come to Wales to study choose to settle and stay here).  Leaving aside any considerations about the desirability or otherwise of the population exchanges involved here, to what extent do we wish to pay for the education of our young people, even if “we” don’t see the return on that investment?
None of these are easy questions, and politicians reducing them to simplistic sloganeering aren’t really shedding a lot of light, nor do they seem to be offering much clarity of direction.
I find myself torn – I want us to invest in the best education we can for our young people; I want them to stay in (or return to) Wales and help us build the nation we can become.  And I want a world where people are free to go where they wish to follow their dreams and aspirations.  My problem is that I’m not sure we can do all of those things at the same time.
And my problem with the political reactions highlighted in the BBC report is that it left me unclear as to which – if any – of those objectives either the government or the opposition is actually trying to achieve.


Anonymous said...

There are I believe 3 choices, the third you do mention latert on which is that a large percentage of UK students take up posts in the area where they studied. For the benefit of the future of Wales and its culture, those from outside Wales who settle in Cymru must realise they are in a different country! Wasn't it John Redwood who sent Welsh money back to the UK treasury, is this not the same as the Welsh Senedd subsidising Non-Welsh universities?

Anonymous said...

Cant we only fund students who study here bv also those who study elsewhere when those courses r essential to our Welsh economy and r shortage subjects?

John Dixon said...


Not sure in what sense this is a 'third' choice. But seeing the funding of Welsh students who choose to study elsewhere as a 'subsidy to non-Welsh universities' strikes me as being more than a little perverse.

John Dixon said...

Anon 6:40,

In principle, that would be an option, although I suspect that we'd have to be an independent state first; EU rules probably wouldn't not allow such differentiation within a member state.

Whether it's desirable is another question. I don't think that it is.