The shambles in the Welsh Assembly on Tuesday evening, when top-up fees were rejected without waiting two days for Teresa Rees's official report on the subject, should serve as a reminder of what could have been facing universities in England and Northern Ireland. The Parliamentary Labour Party, as presently constructed, almost certainly would have left English higher education at the mercy of the Treasury, as it now is in Wales and Scotland. It has been so far so good in Scotland, but will universities and colleges in the Principality be as fortunate?
The whole point of devolution is to allow differences of this sort. Perhaps Members of the Welsh Assembly have the interests of students and universities so much at heart that higher education will not suffer. If so, there has been little sign of it thus far: funding levels in Wales lag behind those in the rest of the UK. The danger is that English students will stream into underfunded Welsh universities to avoid top-up fees, just as their Welsh counterparts are heading in the opposite direction, armed with bursaries that make courses in England more affordable. Such cross-border traffic might be ludicrously wasteful but could work to the advantage of students of both nationalities were it not for the likelihood that many Welsh academics will be joining the exodus. The Assembly Government's next step is far from obvious. The Rees formula could still be advanced on the grounds that the report provides new evidence and a compelling argument. It is, after all, a distinctively Welsh solution that makes extra provision for bursaries while safeguarding the interests of institutions that are vital to the economy. Logic would be on ministers' side, but it appears that politics has taken over.