Welsh graduates shouldn’t pay for decisions made in England
Becky Ricketts, NUS Wales President
Last Friday, following pressure from the NUS and tens of thousands of students, England’s Universities Minister scrapped plans to drastically cut the threshold at which graduates start paying back their student loan from £27,295 to £21,000.
This planned cut would have retrospectively altered the terms of contracts which have already been signed and disproportionately hit those earning lower incomes harder, at a time of inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.
Even though I’m happy about this latest UK Government U-turn, they have still opted to freeze the threshold rather than let it rise with inflation as normal. While this might sound like a win, it will still affect graduates’ incomes – and this isn’t just going to affect English graduates, but Welsh ones too.
Martin Lewis – the Money Saving Expert and Cardiff University graduate – has estimated that those currently repaying a Plan 2 student loan (for students who started undergraduate courses from 2012) will pay on average £110 more a year in student loan repayments.
This is of course on top of spiralling inflation, stagnating wages, National Insurance increases and a £700 hike in energy bills. I don’t need to go on – you all have the same stresses that I do. That’s why we at NUS Wales have launched a petition to Stop the Freeze.
Plainly, a freeze is not a win for graduates, and it represents Welsh graduates being made to pay for decisions made in England. In Wales, we await the decision of Jeremy Miles, our education minister, whose hands are effectively tied by the devolution settlement.
Education is supposed to be devolved to Wales, but the Welsh Government does not have the tax powers to deviate from England and stop the freeze.
But will they admit that? Will the government front up to students and graduates and say that they don’t want to do this, but they can’t do anything else, because the financial infrastructure isn’t there to collect student loan repayments at different rates in England and Wales?
Wales is regularly hamstrung by these financial barriers. In winter 2020 the Treasury wouldn’t stump up for furlough payments when Wales entered a firebreak, but when England followed suit suddenly this was possible.
The First Minister said at the time, “when we were asking it was impossible to do it. Now when they have made new decisions in England it is possible”.
This is about money. It’s about taking money out of people’s pockets at a time of real squeeze. It’s about Welsh graduates being made to pay £100s more a year in loan repayments by stealth.
But this it’s also about so much more than money, this is existential. Is education really devolved in Wales if the Minister in charge doesn’t have the tools to do his job?
This episode shows that we need more fiscal powers in Wales so that we can fully capture the imagination of the Welsh public – in education and beyond. We should dare to be different and enact bold, radical policies, rather than tinker at the edges within the parameters set by Westminster.
Would you know that Labour governs in Wales and the Conservatives in England? Not if you go by the numbers on your payslip each month.
Where is the confidence? Where is the vision? Where is the fight from this government to dare to do something different? To fight for powers which will enable them to govern effectively?
They want to keep Welsh graduates in Wales – but right now, what is the incentive?
In the short term, we want to stop the student loan freeze in Wales, but we don’t believe that tuition fees should exist at all, and that education shouldn’t be marketised in the first place.
Governments – whether in Westminster or Cardiff Bay – should stop viewing education as a product to be bought and sold for individual gain, and scrap tuition fees.
Only then can we begin to build our vision of a fully funded, accessible, lifelong, and democratised higher education system.
On Wednesday 2nd March, the student movement across the UK and Ireland will Walk Out // Teach In and create space for the movement to build a new vision for education.
With the NUS celebrating its 100th birthday this year, students and activists from across the country will gather and celebrate the collective power of our movement. Within our new vision for education, I want to define what this means for Wales.
I want the student movement in Wales to grasp the opportunity we must show our counterparts across the UK what is possible with a left-leaning government.
We have a strong history and tradition here in Wales, but Wales is stagnating.
With NUS Wales approaching a birthday of its own – we turn 50 in 2024 – I’d like the student movement to approach this milestone energised, clear, confident, and bold. I’d like the student movement in Wales to push our government to come with us in grasping the opportunity that devolution presents and show what is possible – that there is another way.
But what is the Welsh way? That is what I want to explore as NUS Wales President, to set out a vision for a truly radical Welsh education system. These are big plans. But these are precarious times that call for a bold vision. We want Wales to lead the way in our new vision for education, so let’s start by stopping the freeze in Wales.
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