Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews has laid out the government's plans to reform higher education in Wales, which may include capping the number of spots for students-to-be. The White Paper said the aim is to give colleges more freedom:
The Welsh Government intends to remove a number of restrictions and controls on colleges without changing the principal powers of colleges to provide further, higher and (within some limits) secondary education."
These new freedoms will allow colleges to borrow money or dissolve themselves, both of which currently require ministerial permission.
However, as Graham Henry writing for Wales Online reports, there is a significant downside. Andrews has stated that in order to control the total cost of higher education, the number of student places paid for with public funds would have to be capped. Although Andrews is downplaying the significance of this statement, it is a definite contradiction of the Welsh Government's previous commitment to maintain further education funding for all Welsh students.
Shadow Minister for Education Angela Burns said that the proposed cap was an acknowledgement of a failed tuition costs policy.
"Student number controls imply that the minister has finally woken up to his tuition fees blunder and is now desperately treading water.
"This uncosted policy has always been a runaway train lugging bags of public money.
"Now the newly-educated minister appears to be suggesting that student numbers must be controlled in order to afford it.
"This absurd idea can only lead to the restriction of places on Welsh courses and the gerrymandering of what students learn."
Dr Phillip Dixon, director of ATL (The Association of Teachers and Lecturers) Cymru also noted that the White Paper proposals were bizarrely at odds with the School Standards and Organisation Bill currently going through the Senedd.
"The Bill concentrates power over schools in the hands of the minister, whereas this White Paper proposes to give FE colleges even greater autonomy over their affairs for reasons that are not entirely plausible.
"We will be pressing for the colleges to become more accountable to the taxpayer not less."
Dr Dixon also echoed Angela Burns concerns about the fundamental contradiction between the Welsh Government's long stated promise of maintaining affordable education for everyone, while now proposing to cap the number of publicly funded student places that will be available.
The release of the White Paper will be of significant concern to students throughout the country, and especially to parents of children who will be entering the higher education system over the next few years. However, a Welsh Government spokesman has retorted that controlling students is nothing new.
"To be clear – the control on student numbers by Hefcw is a key part of the funding process of higher education in Wales and this will continue to be the case."