Assembly will stir real change

September 12, 1997


What will Welsh devolution mean for higher education? Derec Llwyd Morgan and Nicholas Bourne disagree

THE Government's White Paper on its proposals for a Welsh assembly states simply that "a directly-elected Assembly will assume responsibility for policies and public services currently exercised by the Secretary of State for Wales". Since 1992 these have included higher and further education, funded by two separate councils served by a joint executive based in Cardiff. Both councils are mentioned in the general preamble in the White Paper; but in section 3.24, which lists the bodies to which the assembly's powers "will apply", the Further Education Funding Council is named while the Higher one is not. Is its absence from the list significant or a mere, but careless, oversight?

No doubt there are several vice-chancellors and principals in Wales who would welcome the transSeverning of university funding, especially if that meant student funding would again be on a par with funding in England. Indeed, let us move it all to Edinburgh, they say, for in Scotland funding per student is very significantly higher.

Of course, this is pie in the predevolutionary sky. It is inconceivable that, at a time when responsibility for all other Welsh Office matters is transferred to the assembly, responsibility for higher education is cast back to England.

For the next few years, as at present, the formulae for funding higher education in newly assembled Wales will follow in general but not in detail those set by Westminster and Whitehall. The relationships of the constituent institutions of the University of Wales and of the University of Glamorgan with the British Government's research councils will be similar in all respects to the council's relationships with all the other universities in the United Kingdom. The Welsh vice chancellors and principals will retain their membership of the CVCP. And Wales will continue to participate in future research assessment exercises and quality audits.

So what will change? And, as far as the universities are concerned, why bother supporting what the Court of the University of Wales in April called "this important extension of democracy"?

The campaign for devolution is a general one, concerned with issues of nationhood, identity and cultural distinctiveness, as well as economic and social issues. The nature of the long and extremely complex relationship between Wales and England, or rather between the different versions of Wales and establishmentarian England, will not be changed immediately by the establishment of an assembly with minimal legislative and no tax-raising powers. But, if the Yes vote carries, future historians will recognise 1997 as a significant mark of change.

With the coming of an assembly there must be a shift in attitude and perception - the kind of attitude and perception that will more distinctly define what is natively Welsh, and where Welsh responsibility lies, and what is British or English (the responsibility of Westminster). To borrow a phrase, devolution is not an event but a process which will influence the people of Wales to seek more powers of self-determination. Education at all levels and in all guises will contribute to this process, and should be one of its greatest beneficiaries.

In the assembly there will be open debates on the Welsh Office's budget, debates which should lead to a greater general understanding of Welsh needs and welfare. That in itself will be an improvement. Strategy should replace what has been strategy edged by arbitrariness. In 1996-97 Welsh higher education lost 3 per cent of its budget mainly to help fund an inward investment programme that attracted the - no doubt, optimistic and well-meaning - whim of the former Conservative Secretary of State, William Hague.

The White Paper A Voice for Wales, published in early summer, was followed in July by the Dearing report.

It is obvious that the general effects of devolution on higher and further education in Wales will depend much on the Government's response to the National Committee of Inquiry's recommendations. And there it is not easy to disentangle difficult issues, some of which are not strictly academic.

One of the main points the heads of higher education in Wales made to Sir Ron and his colleagues was that our university institutions and colleges are the largest employers in some parts of the country.

In those parts, the report notes, the local economy "is more dependent on their continuing existence than might commonly be the case elsewhere". Moreover, their location "makes them dependent on receiving students from outside the immediate vicinity". Aberystwyth, for instance, is beautiful. The meadowland and hills that are its hinterland are pretty but sparsely populated, and to the west lies the sea. The university is easily the chief employer in mid-Wales. Bangor and Lampeter likewise are the chief employers in north Gwynedd and the Teifi Valley.

If central government insists on implementing "student support arrangements which might encourage full-time students to study closer to home" and if recruitment here fell dramatically as a consequence of those arrangements, would the assembly in Cardiff sustain funding for its beautifully located universities for the sake of their local economies? In terms of economic deprivation the consequences of contraction would be enormous. As it happens, recruitment in Aberystwyth is buoyant and the university is full. But if such a problem arose, what could the assembly do? More basically, is this matter Welsh or British?

Devolution will be a new experience. It will take time for individuals and institutions to get used to it. The assembly as now defined has restricted powers. Its establishment will probably create a dynamic of its own. And then we will have to ask the type of question about division of governmental responsibilities I have just posed.

Derec Llwyd Morgan is vice chancellor and principal of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

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