Scotland has often been a trendsetter for UK education, and the furore surrounding the proposed merger of its further and higher education funding councils is no exception. The English system may be too large to contemplate having a single body to oversee both sets of institutions, but it is only a matter of time before there is a similar debate on central planning. Paradoxically, the move to a fees market in England is likely to bring that moment closer if institutions or whole subjects are perceived to be under threat. The question of when, if ever, state intervention would be justified has already been raised by officials and should be answered before the situation arises for real.
In Scotland, attention is focused on a potential redrawing of the binary line with the Scottish Executive's proposals to place new and old universities in separate categories. The division may have little practical import, but there is understandable anxiety. Ironically, universities have been equally concerned that closer integration with further education colleges might endanger their distinctive brand overseas. As a strategy to facilitate lifelong learning, the executive's proposals make some sense.
Although large numbers of students take higher education qualifications in further education colleges, there could be more mobility between different types of institution. But the planning role envisaged for the merged council will sound alarm bells beyond Scotland. Its role would be "broadened" to take account of the nation's skills needs, and it would even have the power to require institutions to consider merging.
On one level, it goes without saying that a funding council should take account of skills needs, and the absence of an official planning role has been a source of frustration north and south of the border. But university autonomy is a jealously guarded principle that will not be surrendered lightly. Marrying the two imperatives will be a difficult task for any politicians. There will be legal implications, too, if top-up fees arrive.
Any subsidy designed, for example, to preserve regional provision in a subject judged important on economic or cultural grounds may affect courses in other parts of the country. But to leave the shape of the higher education system entirely to market forces would be a dereliction of duty on the part of ministers and their advisers. The Scottish debate will at least bring the arguments into the open.