Thursday, November 27, 2008

Top-up fees.

Listened to Called to Order' on Radio Wales tonight. I'd allowed myself to be pre-recorded in discussion with Patrick Hannan for the programme. Subject was top-up fees in Wales. If it hadn't been Patrick, (I like his programme) I might just have claimed that I was boarding a plane to Barbados, and couldn't do it. It wasn't going to be straight forward for me. But I did it, and I felt able to report back to Richard Hazlewood, our 'Alistair Campbell' equivalent in Wales that it had gone OK. Now, I'll tell you what I said - conceding that it was tempered by a desire not to rock my own party's boat.

First up was the accusation that when all the opposition parties ganged up in 2004 forcing the Assembly Government to compensate students for their top-up fees, we were putting opportunism before principle. "Not fair or accurate", I responded, as did Dai Lloyd, Plaid Cymru AM, one of Patrick's studio guests tonight. I was probably the most reluctant Conservative (probably the most reluctant AM for that matter) to vote against top-up fees, (that's what it amounted to) but even I had been content to vote with my colleagues to resist them. It was one of those 'on balance' decisions. The desire to help students financially, balanced against concerns about the funding of Welsh universities. And there was the issue of whether it is possible (or desirable) to have two separate funding systems within what is essentially an integrated UK further education system.

Then Patrick moved on to where we are now. As part of the budget agreement four years ago, the funding gap between the income flowing to Welsh and English universities was to be closed. Its actually grown wider. And now, the Labour/Plaid Coalition (yes, its Plaid as well, even if they are hiding under the desk) are proposing to end the compensatory grants to students. This is all being dressed up of course - as directing more help towards poorer students. But there's no disguising that this has been a humiliating climbdown by Plaid Cymru. Dai Lloyd was stuttering like a goldfish out of water. And Patrick kept at him, taunting him, letting him become ever more tangled in his own stream of words. As it turned out, my own contribution was small, but I wouldn't have missed Dai's cameo for anything.

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