Analysis: Locals grab at their chance to lead

January 12, 2001

The impact of devolved government across the United Kingdom has been felt nowhere more strongly than in further and higher education.

The controversial tuition fees policy was a handy stick with which opposition parties could beat Labour in the run-up to Scotland's first parliamentary election 18 months ago. And when Labour failed to win an overall majority, setting up an independent inquiry into student finance proved to be the price of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

Scotland is now overhauling its student finance system: tuition fees have already been axed, and means-tested grants will come on stream next year. The Scottish Executive may have cherry picked the Cubie committee's package of 52 proposals, but the widespread battle to have these implemented in full is not yet over.

Cubie's proposal that graduates make a £3,075 contribution to a graduate endowment scheme once their salary tops £25,000 has been controversially reduced to a £2,000 contribution once a graduate earns more than £10,000.

But the government's graduate endowment bill is being scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee. The committee has been taking evidence from a range of witnesses - including the National Union of Students Scotland, Universities Scotland (the former Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals) and Andrew Cubie himself - all of whom have argued for a higher earnings threshold. Graduates should make a contribution when they have been shown to benefit financially from their education, their argument goes, and the threshold should therefore be above average earnings.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has backed proposals even more radical than Cubie's. The assembly's higher and further education committee not only wants to see grants reinstated and tuition fees scrapped, it is making the case for a £25,000 earnings threshold for both graduate endowment contributions and repaying student loans.

In a somewhat surreal reversal of traditional roles, the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland has criticised the committee's proposals as "disappointing". It believes they cannot be implemented for administrative and legislative reasons, given the Inland Revenue's UK-wide control of loan collection and, potentially, graduate endowment contributions. But committee chairman Esmond Birnie said that there has been no adequate test yet of whether the thresholds can be altered.

David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, believes that the student finance debate has run into intractable issues that can only be sorted out at UK level. This includes not only the Inland Revenue's role, but also students' status under the benefits system. And while Cubie demonstrated that a radical solution could come from the new Scottish politics, Mr Bleiman questions whether this was a purely Scottish initiative.

He notes that David Blunkett, education secretary for England, launched his student funding initiatives to coincide with Scottish Executive moves, and that the Welsh Assembly is following the Northern Ireland Assembly with a review. "Although for a time it looked as if the Scottish tail would wag the UK dog, it soon became apparent that while the tail was wagging vigorously, the dog was slow to move."

The future shape of the student finance package in the UK's four countries is still uncertain, but it is clear that the shift in political focus makes divergence in higher education policy ever more likely.

"The things that make (a devolved higher education system) a better position are the things that make it a more dangerous position," admits Robin McAlpine, public affairs officer for Universities Scotland.

"We have politicians who have the capacity to take a genuine interest and who follow up closely what is happening. We have politicians significantly more responsive to issues that affect Scotland. For example, the commercialisation of research has caught the imagination of the parliament, and we are moving ahead of the rest of the UK because of that."

Scottish higher education therefore has the challenge of being more active, of promoting its agenda to the MSPs before being overtaken by political caprice. Mr McAlpine confesses to some disquiet, for example, that the economic role of tertiary education is being overemphasised by the parliament compared with its cultural or social role.

"People down south think they have a big change when the government changes, but we have had a complete change of the structure of government. There has been an amalgamation of further education, higher education and enterprise."

Henry McLeish, former enterprise and lifelong learning minister and now Scotland's first minister, was a key architect of devolution. "What has happened with further and higher education has exceeded my expectations by a mile," he said.

"I have tried to generate a lifelong learning revolution in Scotland, and that has been helped enormously by linking, for the first time in Europe, enterprise and learning in one department.

"Because of the scale of Scotland, the intimacy of 16 higher education institutions and 47 colleges, I have been able to work very closely with them. It is clear that there is a new(er) sense of collaboration and cooperation between sectors than exists anywhere else in the UK. I have put my money where my mouth is, and that has generated enormous goodwill."

Over the next three years, further education will get 22 per cent more cash - a 13 per cent real-terms increase; and cash to higher education will rise 14 per cent - a 6 per cent increase in real terms. Mr Bleiman said the marriage of portfolios produced one of the most palpable benefits of the new parliament, giving ministers a budget of more than £2 billion.

By prioritising tertiary education, Scotland was able at least to match the rise in funding south of the border despite having to work within the constraints of the funding squeeze imposed by the Barnett formula, Mr Bleiman said.

Scotland's devolutionary blueprint included giving the all-party parliamentary committees the de facto role of an advisory chamber. "They can initiate inquiries at will. This keeps everyone on their toes," Mr McAlpine said.

But some have got on their toes more quickly than others. Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, said it is only in the past year that Universities Scotland has begun to take a more active political role. The Scottish universities have had an ambivalent, if not downright hostile, attitude towards devolution in the past, and, Professor Paterson said, the body that has taken the lead in anticipating a Scottish Parliament is the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

Even before the election, it commissioned a review into wider access that fed straight into the Scottish Executive's social inclusion agenda. Professor Paterson predicts that Shefc's options paper on funding research will almost certainly shape any future debate by the enterprise and lifelong learning committee.

"I think the political dignity of the Scottish universities has been saved by Shefc. It is ironic that in a culture in which quangos have been brought into question, the Scottish higher education quango has served both universities and democratic debate better than any other agency."

Shefc has never undergone the usual five-yearly review since its birth in 1992, but it is about to come under the ministerial microscope. Mr McLeish's successor, Wendy Alexander, has said that rather than carry out a narrow financial audit, she plans to review Shefc's role in the Scottish Executive's objectives for higher education, principally on access, research and teaching quality.

There is bound to be a continuing divergence between Scottish higher education policy and the rest of the UK because of different political priorities, Professor Paterson said. North of the border, there is complete consensus about democratising access, with top-up fees completely unacceptable.

Professor Paterson is sanguine about the impact of differences in student support: Scotland has already axed tuition fees for Scottish students, and this has had no effect on the prestige of Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, he said. "Look at any federal system elsewhere in the world, and you will find an enormous variety in the role of student finance and support. It does not prevent the University of Virginia or the University of California having high international standing."

He can see an even more radical future for federalism north of the border, with the prospect of regional federations, and semi-autonomous campuses including links between universities and further education colleges.

Almost half of Scots going into higher education do so through a further education college, and federations could mean colleges becoming part of universities without a takeover, Professor Paterson said. Such a shift would be even more likely if funding came by discipline rather than institution.

"I think none of that will come to pass in England. I cannot see it being acceptable because it is such a big and diverse place."

Amid any change, Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University and convener of Universities Scotland, believes it is critical to keep research council funding on a UK basis. "The pots of money should be UK-wide so that the money can go to places where it can best be used in the UK. We need to be competing for large sums of money rather than inevitably smaller sums of money in Scotland."

But there are occasional uncertainties, Sir Stewart said, citing the example of the Joint Infrastructure Fund, in which Shefc could not match the large input from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

"There will come a point where the English universities say: 'That's our money - why are the Scots putting their nose in the trough?' There are sums of money in the Department of Trade and Industry. Are they for UK-wide activities or for English activities through English regional development agencies? I do occasionally have the feeling that the fences are not all exactly in place."

There has been less chance for Northern Ireland to assess the impact of devolution. Glitches in the peace process led to the assembly's suspension for months almost as soon as it was set up.

Sean Farren, minister for higher and further education, training and employment, said: "Definitive judgements will have to await a longer period of time for people to experience what a new administration can do. We are taking over the reins of office, inheriting decisions that have been made by the previous administration, but we are beginning to put our own stamp on things."

Nevertheless, tertiary education has undoubtedly gained an enormous psychological boost from easy access to a local politician, as opposed to a largely Westminster-based minister responsible for a number of portfolios as well as higher education.

George Bain, vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, said: "With a dedicated minister and an assembly committee shadowing him, the issues relating to higher education are now at the top of the political agenda. Crucially, we have a champion when the executive is trying to make difficult decisions about the allocation of resources."

Bob Osborne, professor of applied policy studies at Ulster University, said many people believe that the recent £40 million boost for research in the province's two universities is a devolutionary dividend.

"It was perceived as very important for the two universities, because they had in effect taken a cut in research funding. The initiative was put in place quickly, and the general perception was that Sean Farren had taken up the issue and secured money for it."

Dr Farren said further and higher education have been helping to regenerate local economies throughout Europe. "Given that Northern Ireland is coming out of a period of conflict when the economy was not performing as well as it might have, what we are focusing on is how to meet the skills needs of a rapidly expanding economy. There is great enthusiasm within further and higher education to respond to the needs and challenges, and one of the roles of someone like myself is to help mobilise that."

Dr Farren and the assembly are also tackling the problem of a lack of student places, which leads to thousands of "reluctant leavers" from the province, many of whom never return. But Northern Ireland's new committee members may have to learn some tough lessons. Thirty years of direct rule have resulted in widespread "protest politics", in which people demand to be given whatever they want. Now they must make their own budgetary decisions.

Professor Osborne said the assembly's higher and further education committee represents the full spectrum of political parties. "From time to time, the past does invade the present, in that they get caught up with traditional arguments that may be tangential to what is being discussed."

More tension is likely to emerge as links strengthen between the north and south of Ireland. Dr Farren has stressed the importance of these links, and he recently signed a north-south education protocol. But this could create friction with unionists, who want to see dominant east-west links with Great Britain. Unionists may also be alarmed by the prospect of too great a divergence from England, even if Scotland has few such qualms.

But Professor Bain said: "We have to accept that devolution means locally accountable politicians making decisions for the benefit of their own communities."

At its best, devolution should allow regions to act in their best interests, drawing on best practice wherever it is to be found, he said. "But I am sure that Northern Ireland, like Scotland and Wales, will want to retain those good things about our higher education system, transcending national boundaries, that enable an institution to be benchmarked against the best in national and international terms."

Dr Farren has pledged to ensure that Northern Ireland's colleges and universities maintain, if not exceed, the standards of the rest of the UK. But his commitment to devolution is firm.

"I believe it brings people closer to decision-making. Institutions may cost a bit more, but democracy is worth that. There was a sense of distance that persisted throughout the period of direct rule, and priorities very much reflected the priorities being set in London. If we make mistakes, they're our mistakes."

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