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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 July, 2003, 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK
Assembly power to scrap tuition fees

By David Cornock
BBC Wales' Parliamentary correspondent

Student graduation
The assembly could scrap fees from 2006
The National Assembly for Wales is being given the power to scrap university tuition fees in Wales.

Most students leave university with a degree - and an average debt of several thousand pounds.

Those debts could increase once universities are allowed to charge top-up tuition fees of up to 3,000 a year.

That will happen in England within three years. But students at Welsh universities may escape once the assembly takes control of student funding.

Students usually feel in a good mood come July.

Their exams are over, the sun is shining, and there are no lectures to interfere with a daily dose of Neighbours on the telly.

Welsh students - or more specifically, those who want to study at Welsh universities in the next few years - may have an added spring in their step.

The Welsh assembly is being given the power to scrap tuition fees from 2006.

Students at English universities may then be paying up to 3,000 a year in fees.

In Wales, in theory, students could escape those fees. I say in theory because, even in Cardiff Bay and Westminster, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

University student
The assembly will have to sort out how to fund scrapping fees

There's no extra money from the UK Government to allow the assembly to scrap fees and still fund universities as well as their English counterparts.

So if the assembly wants to scrap fees, it will either have to short-change universities or find the money from elsewhere in its budget.

Tough choices, indeed, as Peter Hain has said.

The Welsh secretary has spent the last six months negotiating a deal with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Education in England.

Things have been made more complicated by the fact that many Welsh students choose to study in England. They could end up paying tuition fees, even if English students at universities in Wales do not.

Not surprisingly, some details still have to be worked out.

The Welsh Assembly Government is trumpeting the announcement as a manifesto commitment delivered - there will be no top-up tuition fees in this Assembly term, which ends in April 2007.

Tough choices

This conveniently overlooks the fact that students in England won't pay top-up fees before the autumn of 2006.

So that commitment is worth six months' grace for students in Wales.

You may wonder why the assembly government chooses not to rule out tuition fees forever.

The answer is money. It also knows that universities like Cardiff have to compete with those over the border - and an income of 3,000 a year less per student won't help them do that.

Tough choices indeed.

It was so much easier when the decision AMs had to make was where to plonk their backside in the assembly chamber.


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