Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Selling out the students

I'm a Welsh-domiciled ex-student who graduated in the past 2 years from a Uni here. At the time I didn't qualify for the Assembly Government's policies such as the Assembly Learning Grant because my family was not that low-income (although we were not particularly wealthy either), although several of my friends benefited from this. I did access another Assembly-funded student support scheme which was the Student Hardship Fund, a kind of non-repayable emergency grant when the debt gets a bit out of control. That aside, the fact I did not have to pay the top-up fees was a huge help. It means my debt now going into a recession is alot less than it could have been. I would have gone to University in Wales anyway personally, but it is a financial incentive to stay (Adam Price quotes a 63% to 66% increase- small but over ten years has huge implications for education in Wales). The great benefit of universal help is that it includes everyone, so those that wouldn't seem like they typically need help will not be left out. Incidentally, during University and my Welsh politics course I read a good article by Mark Drakeford and Rhodri Morgan citing 'progressive universalism' as Welsh Labour's core ideology. It's a shame that this position seems to have been deserted by the disastrous course of action over top-up fees.

Student fees is one of the infrequent but striking areas where Welsh Labour has not been any different from New Labour. It took an opposition-led sabotage of their aims to put is in more debt, to get the fair and sensible Welsh approach to tuition fees. Now it's payback time, and the majority of the Plaid Assembly group are culpable in this. Difficult choices have to be made, but I think transferring debt onto students is the easy choice, not the difficult one. The obvious thing for the politicians (who all probably got grant-funded education) is to charge the students. I am a realist and I know that times have changed and that higher education has become marketised: but to further encourage University education down this road is an awful position to take. A £61m funding gap (even though I question the wisdom of comparing Wales to England every single time an issue comes up- we should not necessarily be chasing England all the time) is not the end of the world, and although narrowing it would be positive I think decisions should only be taken based on manifesto commitments and election results. It's a non-democratic stitch up.

The leadership of the student movement must also share the blame for this. The NUS Wales appeared to deliberately fail to advertise the consultation exercise, part of which happened, I am told during half-term. They could have asked students who benefited from this policy for their views, or recent graduates...Instead it was a fake consultation to whitewash Labour policy. The NUS Wales leaders are sell outs.

Plaid Cymru policy admirably remains clear and focused on this. Plaid led the Assembly victory against top-up fees. They, along with the other two parties, forced the Labour administration of the time into an historic u-turn. Their AMs must now be brought to book, but who can blame them for backing Labour if they don't know the full facts about the consultation? I hope Adam Price's revelations today can refocus a few minds in the Plaid Group. Time to email your AM! CymruX should also be asking these questions and lobbying the AMs. I think this might pick up, students didn't respond to the consultation because they didn't know about it. Plaid's Spring Conference could be interesting, isn't it themed around young people?

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