Welsh Government opens door to privatisation of further education

And cap on university places shows failure of fees

The Welsh Government intends to allow privatisation of Welsh colleges, according to a White Paper published this week.

Trade unions hailed Welsh Labour's 2010 promise to dis-incorporate Wales' 14 colleges, a move which would have returned the institutions to public control. Incorporation of colleges in England & Wales in 1993 by the Tory UK government took colleges from local authority control and made them independent institutions. It also led to the bankruptcy of 10% of colleges in the first four years, along with huge cutbacks in courses as colleges became profit-driven institutions. The granting of sweeping powers to college principals in England launched a wave of empire-building mergers of no educational benefit.

Welsh Labour has now gone back on the promise to dis-incorporate colleges. Instead, the role of college principles and chief executives will be enshrined in law. Colleges would be forbidden from keeping reserves. Rather they would be allowed to borrow money and to dissolves themselves and hand over all their property to private companies an obvious route for selling off or even giving public resources to the private sector.

While college students in Scotland are close to winning autonomous students' unions, the White Paper makes no mention of college students' voice. The need for fighting FE unions will increase as the Welsh Government plan to force further college mergers, meaning students would have to travel longer, at greater personal expense, to attend larger classes.

The shorter section of the White Paper deals with higher education. Labour now propose to cap the number of Welsh students receiving places in publicly-funded universities reducing access to education for even more students, after cuts in student numbers of up to 20% have already been imposed on universities in Wales. The Paper admits Wales' fee system is to blame but offers no alternative despite both lecturers' union UCU and the National Union of Students calling for the abolition of fees.

Instead, the Welsh government plan to create a new grant for students studying at private universities, of which there are none in Wales yet. This government handout to the private sector comes as some Welsh universities are losing all their public funding for teaching.

Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews and Deputy Minister for Skills Jeff Cuthbert have both previously said while they oppose privatisation, they consider themselves powerless to stop it. The White Paper they now propose surrenders power to stop privatisation, while keeping the direct responsibility for sell-offs out of ministers' hands.

Students, education workers, and the broader community should mount a vigorous response to the proposed legislation. Doing so through the consultation will prove difficult: the consultation closes before colleges & universities begin the new academic year, and the only public consultation event will be held in remote Llandrindod Wells.

The Welsh Government, under Labour's stewardship, casts itself as different from the ConDem coalition, just as it claimed differ from the New Labour governments of Brown & Blair. Instead, the Assembly are bringing in the same cuts & privatisation to, in a different way. Students and staff, organised into unions, can run colleges and universities together for public benefit, under genuine democratic control. To accomplish this they must unite with the broader community, through the vehicle of a mass working-class party, to fight all cuts to public services and to make education free for all for the good of all of society.

Edmund Schluessel, UCU Wales Council (pc) & NUS (pc)

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