‘Yes Prime Minister‘ is playing at the Wales Millennium Centre all this week, right next door to the Senedd. It’s based on the long-running television series in which the Minister (later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker would come up with an idea; his civil servants would then try to turn it into something workable, sparing the minister any public embarrassment.
As luck would have it, an email exchange just released by the Welsh Government under the Freedom of Information Act suggests that really is the way the system works. The protagonists are Phil Gummett, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the civil servants who work for the education minister, Leighton Andrews.
They are grappling with the minister’s announcement that students from families living in Wales will have the increase in tuition fees paid for by the Welsh Government. In order to stop the costs of the scheme spiralling out of control, there has to be a limit on student numbers. Their problem is that the funding council is obliged by law to “have regard to the desirability of not discouraging any institution from maintaining or developing its funding from other sources”.
As Prof Gummett points out, that would appear to rule out penalising a university that boosted its income by recruiting more fee-paying students. “Our inclination is to continue to say nothing more specific about the nature of any sanctions for offending institutions than we have already said. There is considerable tactical merit in leaving the scale of the consequences uncertain”.
However, the professor certainly doesn’t appreciate being left in a state of uncertainty himself. “We in HEFCW remain unable to understand the formulation that is being used officially to explain how the new arrangements are to be funded. This is after a number of conversations with officials in the period since the minister’s statement of 30 November, and after serious efforts on our part”.
He reminds the civil servants of the need to protect the boss: “We are concerned that the minister may be exposed to criticism that the official account of how Wales is funding the new fees and finance system does not make sense. I know of no one with higher education interests outside the Assembly Government who would say that they understand the official account”.
This is no problem for the razor-sharp minds at Leighton Andrews’ disposal. Prof Gummett finds himself landed with giving a power-point presentation at a slightly-mysterious event at the Glamorgan cricket ground. With three days to go, he pleads: “I still haven’t received the programme for the day, nor information about who is coming. Nor confirmation of power-point projection equipment”.
The civil servants then go through his slides. There are a couple that they’re not so keen on. In particular, they don’t like the suggestion that meeting the cost of paying the extra fees could involve taking more money from the universities’ teaching grant. “Our modelling shows that there will be no extra call on the teaching grant above the 35% mentioned in the minister’s statement. Including this message in a consultation event would be less than helpful, especially given Higher Education Wales’ perceived lack of understanding of the way in which the grant is being funded”.
Also, “Slide 6 highlights that EU students are an outstanding issue. There are no outstanding issues for EU students; their legal position and their eligibility for grant is clear”.
It is, of course, clear that students from other EU member states qualify for the same deal as Welsh students. But what Prof Grummett wants to know is whether that only applies if they come to Wales. As he puts it: “Are we absolutely clear that no EU student entering a university anywhere in the UK could argue that they are entitled to the same Assembly Government support as any EU student entering a university in Wales?”
The next email does not give the answer, only referring to a meeting that was “well worth the price of a round of teas and coffees”.
The whole correspondence can be read here.