University tuition fee confusion raised by HEFCW

The body implementing Welsh Government policy on subsidising university tuition fees did not understand how it would work, it has emerged.

Questions are asked in emails from the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW).

He warned in one that nobody outside the Welsh Government understood the education minister's public statements.

A Welsh Government spokesman said there was "no confusion" and "operational level discussions go on all the time".

The information came to light after a freedom of information request by the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Baroness Jenny Randerson, a Welsh Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, said the emails showed HEFCW "did not understand the minister's maths".

She said that while she supported anything which helped students, there was a question about how the funding would be sustained.

"I think this was a good idea, [but] basically it looks to me as if it was drawn up on the back of an envelope, as it depends on so many variables and things you can't predict," she said.

In November, Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that students from Wales would qualify for a new grant when tuition fees increased in September 2012, meaning they would pay no more than they pay now.

Image caption An email from HEFCW chief executive Prof Philip Gummett in February said there were questions to resolve

Mr Andrews also announced that "the income of Welsh higher education institutions will be at least the same in real terms in 2016-17 as it will be in 2012-13".

However, an email from HEFCW chief executive Prof Philip Gummett to a Welsh Government official on 1 February this year said there were "urgent" questions to resolve over the policy.

'Clarify and testing'

"We in HEFCW remain unable to understand the formulation that is being used officially to explain how the new arrangements are to be funded," he wrote.

"This is after a number of conversations with officials in the period since the minister's statement of 30 November, and after serious efforts on our part.

"Our council shares this view and is anxious that the necessary clarification be achieved urgently.

"Let me be clear that I am not questioning whether there is in fact enough funding provision to cover the cost of the new system. We believe that there is. The issue, rather, is about how it is being presented publicly..."

In a later email on 9 February, Prof Gummett wrote: "Let me say that within HEFCW we believe that we do now understand the modelling that lay behind the minister's statement on 30 November."

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "The email exchanges between Welsh Government officials and HEFCW are simply practical discussions about how to implement the tuition fee policy approved by the National Assembly, which involves changes to complex and technical financial and administrative systems.

"These operational-level discussions go on all the time."

'Extremely difficult'

A HEFCW spokesperson said the correspondence "forms part of a standard process of clarifying and testing our understanding of the detail of the Welsh Government policy for student tuition fees".

Meanwhile, Higher Education Wales, which represents universities in Wales, said: "Until we know if fee plans in Wales or access agreements in England have been approved on 11 July 2011, and understand any effect of the new system in Wales or England on cross-border flows of students within the UK, it will be extremely difficult to accurately estimate the long-term cost of the new graduate contribution and HE [higher education] funding regime in Wales.

"We have no reason to believe that the Welsh Government is anything other than committed to a competitively and sustainably funded university sector in Wales and we wish to work with the Welsh Government to that end."

BBC Wales revealed in February that the cost of the tuition fee grants would be £1.5bn over nine years, based on the Welsh government's assumption average fees would be £7,000 in Wales and England.

It later emerged the cost could rise to £2.3bn if fees were nearer £9,000 on average.

Five Welsh universities have so far submitted fee plans to HEFCW, with each hoping to charge £9,000 per year.

The remaining five universities have not declared what fee level they intend to charge but all ten proposals were initially rejected by the funding council.

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