The Welsh Government is currently considering a new Higher Education Bill. For those swept along by the tide of marketization in HE in England, it may be surprising to note that Wales intends to limit the spread of for-profit HE by insisting that HE provides are charities. As Greg Walker notes, this bold move may offer clues to how a future Labour administration in Westminster might regulate HE in England. If you think Wales is operating as an outlier, it is worth recalling that Denmark, Sweden and Finland do not have tuition fees, and Germany has just repealed them – hardly evidence of market fundamentalism being valued in Europe’s most advanced economies.
Although not a specific aim of the Bill (to the best of my knowledge) the scope would not preclude a HEI that was registered as a Society for the Benefit of the Community (or ‘Bencom’ -i.e. a co-op with charitable status – see the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 2010) from operating in Wales.
This legislation will hopefully induce some reflection on the nature of HEIs’ charitable role. Where a HEI’s mission is explicitly bound to the needs of an area and a range of local stakeholders, the Bencom organizational formulation might offer a superior vehicle for binding a wide range of members in to the institutional mission.
With a cross-party group on co-operatives and mutuals already in place, and a will to reform and empower local government, is this piece of legislation going to enable a radical experiment in co-operative higher education with the backing of the state?
Support for the current funding settlement in HE in England is diminishing rapidly. Wales offers the tantalizing alternative possibility of positioning HE as a public and social good, once again.