Welsh election 2021: parties set out plans for higher education

As polling day draws near, we review the HE policies of the three main parties defending seats in the Senedd Cymru

The Welsh Senedd elections will be held on 6 May 2021.

All 60 members are up for election, and the latest polls suggest Welsh Labour will remain the largest and return to Senedd Cymru in government. After a bumpy start to its campaign, which saw the party slip to its lowest polling position in Senedd election history, the Labour vote appears to have rallied, according to an Opinium/Sky News poll.

The Welsh Conservatives are likely to increase their representation and achieve a historic best, polls suggest.

Plaid Cymru is predicted to lose representatives, while the Welsh Liberal Democrats and UKIP, which both have 1 MS each, are likely to remain the parties with the fewest representatives.

What have the parties promised?

Welsh Labour

  • Pass the tertiary education and research bill
  • Establish the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research
  • Boost mature learners in HE and FE

The party has said it will continue to invest in learning, teaching and research in colleges and universities “to help them maximise their contribution to the local economy and national life and develop further as centres of international excellence”.

Labour will take the tertiary education and research bill through the Senedd. The primary feature of the bill is a new regulatory body to oversee all tertiary education in Wales. The proposed Commission for Tertiary Education and Research will oversee all post-16 education, with the hope it will bring renewed organisation, efficiency and strategy to the sectors. The consultation on the plan concluded in December 2020.

The party promises a review of adult education, with the view to increase the numbers of mature learners in FE and HE.

Plaid Cymru 

  • Reduce tuition fee cap to £7,500
  • Cut vice-chancellor pay and administration costs
  • New National Innovation Body

Plaid Cymru has many policies relating to HE: it wants to reduce the tuition fee cap to £7,500 and boost the numbers studying at Welsh universities. The party wants to create a life-long learning entitlement for retraining, worth £5k for everyone over 25. It wants to phase out GCSEs, A-levels and BTECs in favour of an International Baccalaureate. The manifesto promises a “structural review of the HE and entire post-16 education sector in the first six months of a Plaid-led government”.

The party will also improve lecturers’ pay and conditions “to retain and attract high-quality professionals”. 

Plaid Cymru would increase government investment in R&D, with the “goal of helping Welsh universities rise up the global rankings”. The party wants UKRI funding to be devolved to the Senedd – and boost government investment from 1% of GDP to 2% by 2030. Welsh innovation strategy and delivery will be driven by a new National Innovation body, the manifesto adds. 

These new funds would come with strings, the manifesto says – universities must reduce the “rising administration and management salary costs”, cut vice-chancellor pay, and diversify senior management teams. 

Welsh Conservatives

  • Tuition fee refunds for NHS and schools staff
  • Tuition fee cut for strategically important degrees
  • New standards for student accommodation

The Welsh Conservatives have several policies that relate to the Welsh tuition fee model. The party would refund tuition fees for those who work for five years as doctors or nurses in the Welsh NHS or teachers in Welsh schools, and halve tuition fees for Welsh students studying science, technology, maths and engineering (STEM) and modern foreign languages (MFL). 

The party wants to increase intensive two-year degrees, write a Student Accommodation Quality Standard and boost mental health support for students.

The Conservatives also want to see more collaboration between the private sector and universities “to create a centre of excellence and research in energy storage and transportation”.

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