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Labour seeks ‘nuanced changes’ to student finance



Labour ‘dishonest’ on higher education fees: Simon Thomas

Labour ‘dishonest’ on higher education fees: Simon Thomas

A DECISION to kick announcements regarding the future of student finance in Wales made by former Education Minister Huw Lewis appears to have spectacularly backfired following comments made by former minister Julie James during a media interview.

Speaking at a Labour campaign event in Aberdare on Monday, Julie James, a Deputy Minister in the Education and Skills department of the last Welsh Government told BBC Wales: “We’re committed to continuing our current policy until Professor Diamond reports in the autumn.

“And then we’re committed to an evidence-based policy after that, with the commitment that Welsh students will always be better supported than their counterparts elsewhere.”

The Diamond report into Welsh Higher Education was commissioned as long ago as 2013 and a summary of evidence presented in December 2015 made uncomfortable reading for the then Welsh Government.

Speaking to The Herald at the time, Plaid Cymru’s Simon Thomas, a candidate in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said: “The report (by Professor Sir Ian Diamond) could not be clearer. All of those bodies which responded to it agreed that the current tuition fee policy is completely unsustainable.

“The evidence is overwhelming and unanswerable, but the Welsh Government has decided to wait until October and then probably feign surprise when it is told things have to change. The Welsh Government’s position on tuition fees is dishonest.”

Indeed, every education institution – including the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales – that provided evidence to Professor Diamond said that the Welsh Government’s commitment to its student finance policy – especially tuition fees – was damaging the Welsh higher education sector and was untenable.

On the campaign trail, Labour has been combative on the issue, claiming that only it will maintain the favourable settlement on tuition fees that Welsh undergraduate students have. Leighton Andrews, the former Minister who can always be depended on to stick a spoon in a pot and stir it, has even taken to social media to deride parties who have failed to commit to maintaining an unaffordable and wasteful policy.

Now, Ms James, a former minister who was actually in the Education and Skills ministry when Professor Diamond’ summary of evidence was released has hinted that Welsh Labour’s approach may change ‘depending on what Professor Diamond says’. In particular, Ms James has hinted that the Assembly Learning Grant (currently set at around £5,000) will be targeted by any new Welsh Labour Government as a way of making up the shortfall in subsidising tuition fees for Welsh students.

Ms James suggests that: “There might be nuanced changes.”

Taking the fight to Plaid and the Conservatives on student finance when one of its own candidates and a former minister has now hinted at change and, moreover, claimed that a future Welsh Labour Government’s policy will be determined by a report which it kicked back until after the election, has drawn predictable fire from both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives.

A Welsh Conservative spokesperson told The Herald: “Welsh Labour’s stance on this issue changes from one day to the next which is indicative of a party in complete disarray.

“Welsh Conservatives have long campaigned for a reform of Labour’s unsustainable tuition fee support policy and would introduce ‘Student Rent Rebate’, offering undergraduates timely and sustainable help with university living costs.

“We would further support students in reducing their debt by exploring the viability of fast-track degrees studied over two academic years.”

Responding to a Labour politician’s admission that the current level of support given to university students may be cut, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Education Minister Simon Thomas said: “This is the first sign that Labour politicians are realising that they cannot maintain the fiction of their tuition fee policy as it is.

“Plaid Cymru has always said that the current system is unsustainable and our manifesto has committed to a more sustainable model of funding, whereby students who live and work in Wales within five years of graduating will have £6,000 of their loans written-off, up to £18,000.

“Voters deserve an honest answer about Labour’s plans. Pretending that things won’t change is unsustainable and there will be a huge black hole in Labour’s budget if they don’t explain what they will do with their tuition fee policy.”

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Flying Start needs ‘significant change’



'Postcode Lottery': Some children in poverty are excluded from support

A SIGNIFICANT change is needed if the flagship Flying Start early years programme is to succeed in reaching out to those in most need of support, according to a cross-party Assembly committee.

The Children, Young People and Education Committee found that more flexibility is needed so that funding can be used to help children who live outside existing Flying Start areas.

The Flying Start programme provides services to children under the age of four in some of Wales’ most deprived postcode areas. It is cited as one of the Welsh Government’s top priorities in tackling child poverty, and has four key elements: free part-time childcare for two to three-year-olds; an enhanced health visiting service; access to parenting support; and access to early language development support. However, with nearly two thirds of people who are income deprived living outside geographical areas that are defined as deprived, the Committee heard that a significant number of children living in poverty were likely to be excluded from Flying Start support.

While the Committee welcomes recent changes which will give councils more opportunities to help children outside Flying Start postcode areas, more flexibility is needed to make sure that those most in need are supported.

The Committee was pleased to hear anecdotal evidence from users and front line service providers about the benefits of Flying Start. However, in light of the fact that the Welsh Government has provided funding of more than £600 million to Flying Start since its creation in 2007, it is concerned that there is limited hard evidence at this stage to show that children and parents supported by the programme have experienced improved outcomes.

Lynne Neagle, Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, said: “We welcome the hard work of those delivering Flying Start services across Wales. Nevertheless, with the majority of children living in poverty falling outside defined Flying Start areas, we believe that more flexibility is needed to allow the programme to reach those most in need.

“We also believe that more needs to be done to demonstrate the benefits of the programme, and we welcome the Welsh Government’s assurances that it is looking at different ways to show the direct improvements Flying Start is making to the lives of children and families in Wales. We will monitor this work closely, and believe it to be particularly important given the large amount of money invested in this programme annually, with just under £80 million allocated in this financial year alone.”

Commenting on the report, Shadow Education Secretary, Darren Millar, said: “We’ve been saying for a long time that Flying Start simply isn’t working for the overwhelming majority of families in need of support.

“The Welsh Government must put an end to the Flying Start postcode lottery which excludes families in need simply on the basis of their address.

“The programme needs radical reform to make it more flexible and Wales-wide so that local Councils can deliver help and support to those who need it most.”

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Talks call in lecturers’ strike



Pensions dispute: Lecturers plan four weeks of action

UNIVERSITIES UK has called University and College Union (UCU) to meet to engage in ‘serious, meaningful’ talks on the future of the USS pension scheme.

A strike by UCU members in the week ​of February 19-23 was only the first of a planned four weeks of industrial action as employers and lecturers battle out a dispute over the future shape of the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

Universities UK claims that the current scheme – the largest funded scheme in the UK – is unaffordable and that a projected £6.1bn deficit means that retirement benefits have to be cut. The union claims that the deficit is overstated and that, having already eroded some pension rights, further cuts to it are unfair.

In a press statement which accompanied an open letter to UCU members, Universities UK said: ​”​It is of paramount importance that both side make every effort to meet – despite the ongoing industrial action – to stop any impact and disrupton to students.

​”​Universities UK has never refused to continue to try to find an affordable, mutually acceptable solution. We would be willing to discuss a credible proposal that addresses the significant financial issues the scheme is facing.

​”​The problem that we share as interested parties in USS is that, to continue to offer current benefits, contributions would have to rise by approximately £1 billion per annum. The scheme has a £6.1 billion deficit and there has been an increase of more than a third in the cost of future pensions.​”​

Responding to that statement, UCU said it would certainly be attending as it had been calling for talks for weeks, but refused to call of scheduled industrial action.

However, it said that unless the employers were prepared to talk about the January decision to slash pensions then it did not see how the dispute could be resolved. In its statement UUK said ​’​talks would not re-open the Joint Negotiating Committee decision made on 23 January​’​.

That decision is the very reason staff are on strike.

UCU said it was disappointed UUK had ignored the wishes of universities minister Sam Gyimah who stated explicitly that the talks should be without preconditions.

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: ​”​Because this is so serious for students and for staff we will of course attend. I am however very concerned that UUK has explicitly ruled out discussing the imposed changes that have caused the strikes.

​”​The universities minister was very clear that he wanted talks without preconditions and we hope UUK will reconsider his words before we meet. We remain committed to serious negotiations aimed at resolving this dispute.​”​

Universities UK’s position is not assisted by the long-running dissatisfaction with some of the extraordinary pay packages its members dole out to some university vice chancellors.

University vice-chancellors have enjoyed huge pay rises in recent years. The average pay (excluding pensions) for vice-chancellors in 2005/06 was £165,105. Over the next decade it increased by 56.2% to £257,904 in 2015/16.

Professor Peter Mathieson, recently appointed as vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University, will be paid a basic salary of £342,000 – £85,000 more than predecessor Sir Timothy O’Shea. Professor Mathieson will also receive £42,000 in lieu of pension contributions and relocation costs of £26,000, taking his package up to £410,000. He will live in a five-bedroom grace-and-favour home in central Edinburgh.

Professor Mathieson quit his contentious and controversial tenure as vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University to take the Edinburgh post.

Stuck in the middle of the dispute between lecturers and universities are students.

The programme of strikes is taking place at one of the most sensitive times of the year for higher education students, with many final year students rapidly approaching the end of their courses. A suggestion has been made that some universities will take account of disruption to studies when making degree awards, In addition, while many students sympathise with their lecturers’ predicament there is growing frustration among those who are likely to be most severely affected by strikes that will last 14 days initially, with the possibility of further action during summer final exams.

Some students are contemplating demanding compensation, with The Guardian quoting one saying: “I am a third-year student in his last term of university and the fact that my vice-chancellor has told me that I could be without any assistance for a whole 14 days over four weeks in my most important term of education is a joke.”

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New lease of life for rescue dog



Duke the dog: Complete with 3D printed leg

A DOG that could hardly walk has been given a new lease of life after a 3D printed leg was made for him by CBM, a research company established by UWTSD.

Rescue dog Duke, an Irish retriever, was born with a birth defect in his front right leg and faced having it amputated.

But he is now running around after Swansea printing firm CBM made him a leg similar to blades used by Paralympians.

New owner Phil Brown, from Bristol, said it had been ​’​life changing​’​.

When Duke was found abandoned by the Irish Retriever Rescue (IRR) charity in Ireland in 2016, his paw was deformed and he could not walk on all fours.

He was taken to the pound and rehomed with foster owners the Browns, who have since adopted him as their own as they could not bear to part with the loveable pooch.

After a massive fundraising campaign by the charity Duke has been fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic by CBM, after narrowly avoiding having his foot amputated.

His new owner said Duke, who is now three, was delighted by his new ​’​super leg​’​ which meant he was walking on four paws for the first time.

Mr Brown, who owns other dogs which Duke is enjoying playing with, said: “He had a very tough start in life.

“This is an absolute life changer for him, it really is. He can now walk on it, he can now run at a slow speed.”

Mr Brown said the three-dimensional leg was about a year in a making, and a few months down the line Duke is getting so much use out of it he has already had to have it refurbished.

The leg was entirely printed out of a machine apart from a rubber foot, some Velcro and foam at the top to make it more comfortable for Duke.

CBM product designer Benjamin Alport said creating Duke’s leg was a real challenge for the team, who worked with his new owner and a consultant orthopaedic surgeon on the design.

“We had to go down and assess Duke. We had to consider right down to the thickness of the hairs because you have to take into account the smallest things,” he said.

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