RETAINING student tuition fees at their current rate for all students studying in Wales would cost more than £122m within four years, according to Education Minister Jane Davidson.
In a series of written answers, Ms Davidson has revealed details of the Assembly Government's latest calculations relating to several options in the top-up fees debate.
Two weeks ago Labour suffered its first major defeat at the Assembly since losing its majority, when Blaenau Gwent AM Peter Law left the party to stand for Parliament as an independent. He won with a crushing majority and now sits in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay.
With Mr Law's support, the combined opposition parties instructed the Assembly Government not to introduce top-up fees for students living in Wales attending universities and other higher education bodies here.
In advance of Labour returning with its own proposals, Ms Davidson has now released the Assembly Government's latest relevant cost estimates.
She said, "The estimated cost of retaining tuition fees in Wales at £1,200 while ensuring that Welsh higher education institutions are not financially disadvantaged are:
2006-7 - £50.5m;
2007-8 - £84.3m;
2008-9 - £112.5m;
2009-10 - £122.2m."
If existing fees were also scrapped, the cost would be even higher, said Ms Davidson:
2006-7 - £72.4m;
2007-8 - £122.7m;
2008-9 - £163.7m;
2009-10 - £176.9m.
Explaining how this calculation was made, Ms Davidson said, "The figures are based on a demand-led system and are subject to various assumptions. Estimates are subject to change as more recent data become available.
"The calculations include the cost of providing fee-loans for Welsh domiciled students in institutions outside Wales. They are based on the estimate that from 2006-7 onwards, Welsh domiciled students in England and Northern Ireland will be charged an average fee of £2,980, while those in Scotland will pay a fixed fee of £1,900.
"It is assumed that there will be an 83% take-up of fee-loans."
The calculations also assume that the universities will need to have extra funding to make up for fee shortfalls from 91% of publicly-funded students.
Based on Westminster government estimates of student growth, the figures do not take into account any savings from non-payment of the Assembly Learning Grant, or the financial transfer from Westminster associated with the devolution of student finance powers.
If the Assembly decided to introduce top-up fees, there would still be costs if the same level of student support being introduced in England were introduced here. Depending on whether the 2006-7 students were protected from variable fees or not, the costs of this option are estimated to be the following:
2006-7 - £51.4m;
2007-8 - £32.4m-£54.6m;
2008-9 - £43.1m-£59.8m;
2009-10 - £47.8m-£51.5m.
From 2007-8, the cost of retaining a £1,200 fee would increase in comparison with the cost of introducing variable fees, due to the amount of extra funding required by Welsh universities.
Asked how much it would cost to refund students living in Wales with the cost of fees they will have to pay elsewhere in the UK, Ms Davidson said, "The Assembly does not have powers to fund or refund tuition fee support for Welsh domiciled students for the academic year 2005-6. It is proposed that statutory student support powers be transferred from the Department for Education and Skills to the Assembly with effect from academic year 2006-7.
"Assuming that all Welsh domiciled students studying at universities outside Wales, but within the UK, took fee loans which were subsequently refunded by the Assembly, the cost is estimated at:
2006-7 - £26m;
2007-8 - £40m;
2008-9 - £53.1m;
2009-10 - £58.8m.
"However, if the Assembly were to give fee support to Welsh domiciled students studying at universities outside Wales, there would be a risk of the UK being in breach of its EU obligations."