Is a EU-turn for Tuition Fees on the Cards for the Welsh Government?

27/10/2011 13:37 BST | Updated 27/12/2011 10:12 GMT

Education is a devolved issue in Wales, which is why the Welsh Government is perfectly entitled to take its own view on the levels that Welsh students pay in tuition fees when they go to university. However, following a recent article in the Sunday Times I wrote to the Education Minister requesting clarity over an EU funding loophole that could see 1000s of EU students having their fees paid by the Welsh Government - wherever they study in the UK.

As things stand, EU laws preclude member states from discriminating against EU subjects, which already means that non-UK EU students choosing to study in Wales are entitled to receive the same financial support from the Welsh Government that is on offer to Welsh students in Wales.

The Sunday Times article itself focuses on legal advice allegedly received by the Scottish Government whilst they were drawing up their own policy on tuition fees. According to Scottish Government sources this advice had indicated that by offering financial support only to Scottish students elsewhere in the UK they could have been in breach of EU law - which would have meant that they would have had to provide an equivalent subsidy to non-UK EU students in England as well. In the end a decision was taken to limit the subsidy to those who remained in Scotland; so as to avoid drawing claims from European students. This revelation could have huge consequences for the Welsh Government's policy too, given that they have decided to go further than Scotland and support their students throughout the UK.

If the legal advice given to the Scottish Government proves to be accurate then the Welsh Government's policy as it stands is in tatters; it would be forced to take the decision to stop paying the fees of Welsh students in England in order to head off the threat of bankrupting itself! This will, of course, be of great concern to those who have already applied, or are considering applying, to English Universities based on the fee offer currently available to them.

Following the publication of this article I wrote to the Education Minister to express my concern. His response to my request for clarification should be commended for its brevity; he dismissed the story as "a nonsense", and was even less constructive when appearing before the Business & Enterprise Committee; repeatedly dismissing the concerns as "tosh"...

Not-withstanding these new developments, I have consistently called into question the financial viability of the Welsh Government's flagship policy. The financial costings, which appear to have been drawn up after a long night in the pub, were based primarily on the premise that Wales is and has been a net importer of students; which has been true in recent years. Indeed in 09/10 while 18590 Welsh domiciled students left Wales to study elsewhere, there were almost 29000 enrolments from elsewhere in the UK to study in Wales.

But these statistics are only relevant in relation to the conditions that existed prior to the implementation of this policy. After all, any sociologist will tell you that if incentives (or disincentives) change, patterns of behaviour will follow suit. Therefore, the introduction of a policy that enables Welsh students to receive the same level of financial support wherever they study in the UK is likely to result in very different decisions being taken - why not, for example, head across the border in greater numbers to England where the vast majority of Russell Group universities are located, if it will cost no more?

We already know that the European Union doesn't recognise the internal borders of member states. That's why it is possible for both Scotland and Wales to charge English students more. But EU law does dictate that both of the devolved administrations are obliged to offer the same level of subsidy for non-UK EU students. In time this is likely to lead to a rise in EU students opting to study in Wales or Scotland over England, safe in the knowledge that they are protected from full exposure to tuition fees of up to £9000 a year. This will also add to the pressure on an already precariously balanced policy.

A favourable balance in the cross-border flow of students is crucial to the sustainability of this wafer-thin policy. It is a costly subsidy that is reliant upon an influx of English students in greater numbers than those leaving Wales in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, early figures from Ucas show that the gap is already closing dramatically; the number of English-domiciled learners coming to Wales has fallen by 13.4% this year, while the number of Welsh students opting for courses in England is down by just 4.3%.

It's just this kind of development that concerns those, like myself, who fear that the Education Minister's policy is going to end up 'leeching money' from the Welsh Government's budget to subsidise the English education system. As my colleague Angela Burns noted earlier this week, this policy is a "runaway train gathering bags of taxpayers' cash every month" - and there's no end to the line in sight!

Returning to new developments isn't any more uplifting either...

We are expected to retain faith in a Minister for Education who seems more comfortable burying his head in the sand than engaging constructively with his critics. The same Minister who just two weeks ago, when asked about the financial basis of his tuition fees policy, declared without a hint of embarrassment that:

"the one thing I can say about all of our calculations is that they will be wrong"

We can add to this toxic mix the possibility that the Welsh Government may now have to offer the payment of tuition fee subsidies to non-UK EU students who wish to study anywhere in the UK - not just in Wales. And that's where the foundations of this policy start to crumble.

However, if the Welsh Government is so confident of its legal position then surely the sensible action to take would be to make that legal advice publicly available in order to alleviate the concerns of the electorate and opposition parties alike. The only alternative to such an open and transparent approach is surely for the Minister to hope against hope that a legal challenge is not made to his policy. Such a challenge could open the proverbial floodgates - which would effectively and ultimately bankrupt his Government.