Uncertainty remains for University and SU funding despite Higher Education cuts reduction

Jobs and services at Cardiff University and the Students’ Union remain under threat despite the Welsh government’s decision to reduce a proposed cut of £42 million to Higher Education in Wales to £11 million.

Both Vice-Chancellor Colin Riordan and SU President Claire Blakeway have acknowledged the continued uncertainty over the funding of Welsh universities.

In an email sent to all staff, Professor Riordan emphasised that the University was “not out of the woods yet” despite three quarters of the proposed cuts to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) being removed at the Welsh budget announcement on Tuesday.

Riordan expressed his gratitude towards the government’s decision to amend proposals to cut funding to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), but stopped short at guaranteeing that jobs that he had previously suggested could be under threat would be saved.

At the end of January Professor Riordan emailed every staff member at the University, informing them that the potential cuts to HEFCW would “plunge universities into crisis with no understanding of what the subsequent solution might be”. He also wrote that a cut of 40 per cent or more to public funding for universities in one year was “not reasonable to expect”, especially ahead of the Diamond Review into Higher Education funding and Student Finance arrangements in Wales.

However, the Assembly Member for Cardiff Central, Jenny Rathbone, told Gair Rhydd that Riordan had “completely over-played his hand” and “compared apples to pears” in the email sent two weeks ago.

Ms. Rathbone was critical of the Vice-Chancellor’s approach, stating that he had caused “unjustified alarm about what was being proposed”. When queried on whether she believed that Professor Riordan’s email was a political manoeuvre, Ms. Rathbone said: “I can’t say what his intentions were but his figures were incorrect.”

She also took the opportunity to respond to accusations made by Plaid Cymru’s AM Simon Thomas, who had said that the Labour government had “bowed to pressure” from his party.

“It’s daft to badge listening to people who put their case coherently as ‘bowing to pressure’; the point of having a consultation is to find out what people think about the way we plan to use their money.

“It certainly lobbied the Education Minister about the extent of the Higher Education reduction.”

Finance Minister Jane Hutt announced the cancellation of £31 million in cuts to HEFCW on Tuesday as the Welsh budget was passed by ministers. The original proposed cut of £42 million would have represented approximately one-third of the Council’s budget.

£21.1 million of that was planned to be reallocated to covering student loan subsidies, but Ms. Hutt announced to the Senedd that the money would now be retained by HEFCW, while it would also be given an extra £10 million in order to support students studying part-time courses and research.

Ms. Rathbone was keen to praise the additional £10 million granted, saying that it had been “ring-fenced to to support two Welsh Labour priorities”.

The President of Cardiff University’s Students’ Union, Claire Blakeway, was delighted with the result of the Welsh Budget, describing it to Gair Rhydd as “a massive win for the student movement and the wider university sector across Wales.

“I feel this really shows the influence and lobbying power that we have in Wales and that students are starting to be taken more seriously by the Welsh government.”

Blakeway was also critical of the stance taken by Labour AM Rathbone, who met with the Students’ Union President earlier in the week to discuss the HE cuts.

She described her meeting with Rathbone as “disappointing”, citing the AM’s decision to toe the party line, despite the large student population of her Cardiff Central constituency, as being a source of frustration.

“I felt that she put the party line before representing the people of her own constituency, which are predominantly students who will be affected by these cuts.

“Although it wasn’t a particularly positive meeting, it hopefully influenced her views on the matter as the cuts were significantly reduced from what was previously envisaged.”

Much like Professor Riordan however, Blakeway refused to rule out the possibility of the Students’ Union being affected in future by funding cuts.

“The Students’ Union receives funding from Cardiff University as well as generating revenue through its commercial activity.

“With recent decisions within the Welsh government to reduce funding into HE, albeit smaller cuts that were initially proposed, it is possible that funding the Students’ Union could be affected.

“We are not aware at this stage whether this will have an impact upon Students’ Union funding or service provision.”

In a statement, HEFCW expressed its relief at the decision to reduce the cuts: “A cut of 32 per cent to HEFCW’s budget would have had a real impact on universities’ ability to meet Welsh Government priorities.

“We are delighted that the contribution of Welsh universities to the economy and society of Wales has been acknowledged.”

The future of university funding in Wales is currently under review, with a comprehensive review by the Vice-Chancellor of Aberdeen University, Sir Ian Diamond, expected to be delivered by September of this year.

The Diamond Review will consider the long-term sustainability of the university funding system at all universities across Wales, where currently Welsh students see a significant proportion of their student loans subsidised by the government.

In December Gair Rhydd reported that the Students’ Union would oppose any attempts to change the current system of loan subsidies. Professor Riordan, in his role as Chair of the Universities Wales, had suggested that tuition fee subsidies should be replaced by means-tested maintenance grants.

Recent figures suggested that the cost of subsidising tuition grant loans was estimated to be almost £100 million, which led Professor Riordan to brand the system “unsustainable”.