The government in Westminster will limit the number of students from England who can go to university in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland next year, leading to accusations that it is “trampling on devolution”.
As part of its plans to cap the number of undergraduates that universities in England can teach in 2020-21, the Department for Education (DfE) is also to announce on Monday that it will extend the cap to include English students applying to higher education outside England.
The new policy will restrict the number of students from England that, for instance, the University of St Andrews and Queen’s University Belfast could admit.
The move has provoked “considerable anger” and opposition from the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which wanted a UK-wide approach to stop damaging competition for students between institutions seeking to fill empty places left as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
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Kirsty Williams, the education minister for Wales, said England’s proposals were “regrettable” and cut across efforts to coordinate responses by all four nations.
In a letter to Michelle Donelan, the DfE’s universities minister, Williams wrote: “I am deeply concerned that you have chosen to place a control on Welsh institutions rather than work with the Welsh government to achieve a solution that is compatible with devolution.
“I do not believe this approach [is] in the best interests of the UK as a whole, and demonstrates a surprising unwillingness to respect complementary policies in each nation.”
Williams also hinted the government in Wales was prepared to respond further: “My chief concern is to protect the interests of Welsh students and Welsh higher education institutions. I will consider the consequences for Wales arising from the UK government’s policy and take further action to ensure that those interests are protected.”
Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s minister for higher education and science, said: “We do not support these proposals and they should not apply to Scotland.
“That view is widely shared within the Scottish higher education sector, given this proposal came like a bolt out of the blue this week with no consultation generating considerable anger.
“Putting up barriers that stop students going to Scottish universities is in principle wrong and at this late stage is disruptive and unreasonable.”
A Welsh source described the DfE’s move as “trampling on devolution” but said that the government in Cardiff was not going to penalise students.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We will shortly be setting out further details on how the student number controls will be implemented, including how they will work in the devolved administrations.”
The DfE said its aim was to bring stability to the higher education sector, during “an incredibly difficult time for universities and their students” since the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown closed campuses.
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With education a devolved area of policy, each government is able to set its own tuition fees and student support. Scotland does not charge tuition fees for students attending its own universities but students from England are charged £9,250 a year, as are Scots who travel to England.
Placing a temporary cap on institutions in England and Wales has been sketched out by the Universities UK lobby group, and is to be based on forecast numbers plus an additional 5% growth.
Wales is still consulting with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales over mitigating the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, which is likely to cause a fall in the numbers of international students studying in the UK.
There are fears that sought-after institutions will recruit more UK students to compensate for the lost international applicants, setting off a lop-sided admissions round that leaves some universities with far fewer students than expected.
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