A FACTUAL summary of the evidence collected as part of the ongoing review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance Arrangements in Wales was published last week. The review, which is being carried out by a panel chaired by Sir Ian Diamond, began in April 2014. At that stage it was agreed that Sir Ian would produce a factual summary of the evidence he and the panel had collected in autumn 2015. Education Minister, Huw Lewis said: “Since April 2014 Sir Ian Diamond and his review panel have made good progress in reviewing a wide range of evidence and data relating to the Higher Education sector and to Higher Education funding. “The report identifies the key themes arising from that evidence, however it does not make any judgement about the validity or significance of that evidence.
Nor does it seek to represent the Review panel’s view or provide any recommendations. These will be presented in the final report which will be issued in September 2016.” Remarkably, the Minister’s statement contained no reference to the key evidence referred to in the report and the bald summary of facts it presented; namely that the current system of funding undergraduate higher education as it is currently constituted is unsupportable. Welsh Conservatives were swift to welcome Professor Diamond’s interim finding, which they claim confirm the party’s long-standing criticism of Labour’s ‘unsustainable’ tuition fees policy. The report’s conclusion that ‘many respondents were strongly of the view that, in light of sustainability concerns, there is a need to revisit the tuition fee grant policy’ was also highlighted by a Conservative press release which pointed out that their opinions had been reinforced by those expressed by Universities Wales, the Learned Society of Wales and in a report commissioned by the University and Colleges Union, which also called the policy ‘unsustainable’.
Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Education, Angela Burns AM, said: “We welcome the review’s interim findings, which confirm what we have always said; Labour’s policy is entirely unsustainable. “This blunder has always been a misguided vanity project and the evidence against it continues to pile up. Welsh Conservatives are committed to replacing it with a progressive system of living cost support to enable students from all walks of life to get to university.” Mrs Burns restated Conservative claims that the Welsh Government’s commitment to capping the burden of tuition fee loans on Welsh students in England was resulting in Welsh public money subsidising English universities. UCAS’s response to Professor Diamond was particularly telling on that last point: ‘The 15 January (2015) statistical release shows that application rates for Welsh applicants choosing to study at English institutions have further increased, whilst numbers choosing to study at Welsh institutions have decreased’.
There has been an increase of 20% in Welsh domiciled applicants applying to English HE providers since 2010. William Powell, Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales told The Herald he wanted an alternative system for student finance: “Time and time again we see evidence that the struggle to afford living costs is the number one reason why many people are put off applying to go to university. This is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats would change the system and give students financial support upfront to pay for their living costs. William Powell claimed: “This would be a far better arrangement than giving them money in the form of a loan which they have to pay back over a number of years and simply adds an additional burden of debt.” Simon Thomas, Plaid Cymru Shadow Education Minister, said: “There is a case to be made for the refocusing of student support to students studying in Wales, so that Welsh colleges and universities benefit.”
Simon Thomas was clear on the current system’s shortcomings: “The unintended consequence of the current policy – that English universities benefit by millions a year from Welsh government money – must be addressed.” A Welsh Government statement appeared to concede that point, but said the report ‘highlights that Wales is a net importer of students and that as a result Welsh HE institutions receive more in tuition fees from English and other UK students than they pay out to institutions based over the border’. Current higher education (HE) students conveyed mixed views about whether the level of tuition fees acted as a disincentive to young people considering entering HE. Several contributors argued that the sums involved were so large that potential students had become inured to it.
Indeed the fact that it was not a critical consideration for most prospective HE students would seem to support this claim and prospective HE students seemed to take it for granted that they would either earn enough as a result of gaining a degree to be able to pay their debt off relatively easily or, that they would never have to worry about paying back their debt if they did not earn enough. Similarly, HE students alike did not seem themselves as averse to running up debt which would only be repaid in the long-term once earnings thresholds were exceeded. Generally neither current nor prospective HE students were overly concerned about the wider long-term consequences of accruing debt to fund their studies – although student support representatives in particular worried that they ought to be, given that the potential consequences of such debt on longer term prospects (e.g. borrowing for mortgages) was not yet clear. Employers, who generally did not have such a detailed insight into the tuition fees policy, generally thought that the current policy did not seem to be hindering any individuals from enrolling at HE when considering that there was currently an over-supply of graduates within the workforce.
Neither current nor prospective HE students thought that the full £9,000 tuition fees represented reasonable value for money, with some of the more informed current students noting that the idea of a market in HE with institutions offering varying fees had not been realised. It would appear that few prospective HE students had actually given serious consideration to the balance between the costs incurred in attending HE and any premium they would be likely to earn as a result of gaining a degree qualification. Professor Sir Ian Diamond said: “The commitment of so many people to a healthy and vibrant higher education system in Wales bodes well, not only for Welsh Higher Education but, more broadly, for Wales. It further inspires us for the next stage of our work which will be to build on the principles in the interim report to propose a sustainable system of higher education funding for Wales.”
PhD conference hears from Welsh researchers
WELSH agricultural researchers, Non Williams and Eiry Williams, showcased their work to academics and industry representatives at the Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) 2020 Livestock PhD Conference in Nottingham last week.
Both researchers have been part of a scheme which brings the industry and universities together to undertake work which benefits key sectors of the economy. The two PhD’s are funded through the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS 2) scheme supported by European Social Funds through the Welsh Government and in these cases, Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) is working in partnership with Bangor University and Aberystwyth University on projects which will directly benefit livestock farming.
In the final year of her research at Bangor University, Non presented her work during the first day of the conference. Titled ‘Optimised management of upland pasture for economic and environmental benefits’, Non has been looking at how upland cattle systems can increase production efficiencies, the farms financial return and helping to identify opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will help meet the agricultural sector’s emission reduction target.
“Field trials were set up at Bangor University’s farm which is a typical upland system with the aim to determine the effect of improved and unimproved upland grazed pasture on cattle performance, improved grazed pasture on cattle urine and dung composition and consequently, greenhouse gas emissions from soil following excretion” explained Non.
On the second day of the conference, Eiry Williams presented her poster on sustainable control of gastrointestinal nematodes in sheep. Eiry’s PhD is titled ‘Design and development of a targeted selective treatment (TST) strategy for nematodes during the periparturient period in ewes’.
Eiry explains that “the aim of the project is to help better advise farmers on the most suitable worm control management of adult ewes and their lambs. This work is an important factor in preventing further development of anthelmintic resistance.” Eiry is currently in her second year at Aberystwyth University.
The aim of Eiry’s PhD is to design molecular and computational modelling techniques to develop a novel targeted selective treatment strategy for controlling nematode infections in ewes during the peri-parturient period.
Non has also been presenting results of her experiments on home turf at Coleg Meirion-Dywfor, Glynllifon and Coleg Sir Gar, Gelli Aur at two events organised by HCC as part of the Red Meat Development Programme which is supported by the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014 – 2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.
Tesco donation puts school on fundraising path.
Carmarthen children have held a charity ‘walkathon’ to mark the re-opening of a path around their school, made possible thanks to £4,000 from Tesco’s Bags of Help scheme.
The grant allowed Model Church in Wales School to carry out work on the path around the perimeter of the school field, which was previously off-limits to children as it was unsafe.
The school decided to mark the opening of the path with a charity walkathon in aid of the British Heart Foundation, during which the pupils raised an impressive £3,000.
The school was chosen for the top £4,000 award after Carmarthen shoppers used their blue tokens to support the school by voting for them in local Tesco stores.
Amanda Bowen-Price, Headteacher at Model Church in Wales School, said: “We are truly grateful for the funding from Tesco through the Bags of Help scheme and to everyone who took the time to vote. The funding has transformed a previously unsafe path to a fantastic resource for the whole school and the local community.
“We know that a high number of people don’t get their daily recommended steps in to keep fit and healthy, so we decided to put the new path to great use and hold a sponsored walkathon. Over 400 pupils from the school walked the equivalent of half a marathon between them, and I’m sure the £3,000 will be a great help for the British Heart Foundation.”
“The new path will be an asset not only to the school, but to the whole community,” she added. “We will be able to promote exercise and health and wellbeing activities through the use of this path.”
The Tesco Bags of Help grants, which are administered by the charity Groundwork, sees money awarded to thousands of local community projects every year.
Rhodri Evans, Tesco’s Communications Manager for Wales, said: “We are really proud of the impact Bags of Help has had in communities across Wales. Model Church in Wales School is just one of many schools across the nation which have benefitted from funding through the scheme, and we have awarded more than £5million to projects across Wales. We would encourage anyone with a project that could make a difference to their local community to find out about how Bags of Help could help them.”
To date, Bags of Help has provided more than £80million to more than 27,000 community projects across the UK.
Graham Duxbury, Groundwork’s National Chief Executive, said: “Bags of Help continues to enable local communities up and down Britain to improve their local spaces and the places that matter to them.
“The diversity of projects that are being funded shows that local communities have a passion to create something great in their area. We are pleased to be able to be a part of the journey and provide support and encouragement to help local communities thrive.”
Further information is available at www.tesco.com/bagsofhelp.
New lights reduce carbon footprint
A STATE of the art greenhouse at Aberystwyth University that is helping breed next-generation plants is itself cutting its carbon emissions by installing new LED lights
In doing so, the National Plant Phenomics Centre at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 60 tonnes per year.
The Centre is home to pioneering research work that sees biologists working with engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians to identify and develop resilient crops that can help combat the effects of climate change on agriculture, such as increased drought resistance and the ability to survive floods.
Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the greenhouse is the only one of its kind in the UK and one of only a handful of similar facilities in the world.
It provides open access to its technology nationally and internationally, and here Aberystwyth University scientists are contributing to global food-security by breeding ‘smart’ plants, better adapted to the climate of the future.
Dr Fiona Corke, Smarthouse Manager at the National Plant Phenomics Centre at IBERS, said: “Plant phenomics is a science that can change our lives by responding to and predicting future environmental needs. We are very lucky that the Centre features a computer-controlled greenhouse, where plants are tended and measured automatically daily.
“We then take that data and use it to identify what genes within the plants have caused the different traits, so we can selectively breed stronger plants with the features we want to make them more resilient to conditions caused by climate change, such as drought or even flash flooding.
“It is therefore vital that our Centre is not adding to the world’s carbon footprint itself, as that goes completely against the principles of work we aspire to here. By installing these LED lights, we are contributing to help Aberystwyth University’s effort to limit global warming.”
96 of the original lights in the robotic greenhouse have now been replaced with LED lights that provide the correct wavelength for plant growth, particularly during winter months.
As well as significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions the new lights will also cut the Centre’s annual electricity bill by around £17,000.
Dewi Day, Aberystwyth University’s Sustainability Advisor, added: “We have recently invested in two innovative green energy lighting projects on our Gogerddan campus. This means we will now see a saving of 12% on previous annual electricity running costs for the site and will save over 100 tonnes of Carbon dioxide – significantly reducing the facility’s carbon footprint.
“Whilst the University has already achieved substantial reductions in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions over the last 10 years, it is now developing a new Carbon Management Strategy in-line with the Welsh Government’s ambitious target of a Carbon Neutral Public Sector by 2030.”
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