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Welsh Labour opens door to college privatisation

The Welsh Labour government intends to allow privatisation of Welsh colleges, according to a recent White Paper.

Edmund Schluessel

UCU Wales Council (pc) and NUS (pc)

The Welsh Labour government intends to allow privatisation of Welsh colleges, according to a recent White Paper.

Trade unions hailed Labour’s 2010 promise to disincorporate the 14 colleges in Wales, a move which would have returned the institutions to public control. Incorporation of colleges in England and Wales in 1993 by the Tory UK government took colleges out of 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.

Welsh Labour has now gone back on that promise. Instead, the role of college principles and chief executives will be enshrined in law. Colleges would be forbidden from keeping reserves while being allowed to borrow money, and to dissolve themselves and hand over all their property to private companies.

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 plans to force further college mergers, meaning students would have to travel longer, at greater personal expense, to attend larger classes.

Labour also now proposes to cap the number of Welsh students receiving places in publicly funded universities. Cuts in student numbers of up to 20% have already been imposed on universities in Wales.

The paper admits the fee system in Wales is to blame but offers no alternative – despite both lecturers’ union UCU and the National Union of Students calling for the abolition of fees. (In September 2012 students from Wales will be charged up to £9,000 per year but get a grant of up to £5,525, alongside a loan to pay the rest of the charge.)

The Welsh Government now plan to create a new grant for students studying at private universities, of which there are none in Wales – yet. At the same time, 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 that they oppose privatisation but consider themselves powerless to stop it. Their White Paper would surrender powers 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.