The policy roundabout started by devolution shows no signs of slowing, says Stephen Court
Devolution has been one of the big new Labour projects over the past eight years, and higher education has acted as a kind of political laboratory for it.
The result has been a fast-moving policy roundabout, with decisions in one country in the UK creating pressure for change elsewhere. Now, the winners and losers are beginning to emerge.
In 1998, the Labour Government brought in upfront tuition fees for full-time undergraduates throughout the UK and scrapped what was left of maintenance grants. But since then, England and Northern Ireland have decided to introduce variable top-up fees, Scotland has replaced fees with a one-off payment by graduates and the Welsh are still agonising about what to do.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have brought back some means-tested maintenance grants, and grants are coming back in England from next year.
For students and staff alike, the country variations are critical. The increasing numbers of students studying from home have no choice but to accept what is on offer locally. For those who are more mobile, the country variation in fee policies can be confusing. For universities outside England, the opportunity to help forge a new identity, a set of policies designed to suit local needs, has been marred by the question: will the English end up better funded and better paid?
Under devolution, Scottish students have emerged as winners. Scotland has led the way on scrapping upfront fees and restoring grants. In 2001, a year after Scotland, the Welsh Assembly brought in non-repayable learning grants. But the Assembly will not decide about fees until after elections in 2007.
The final report of the Rees review of variable fees and student support - expected at the end of May - is likely to be influential. If the proposals in the interim Rees report in March are anything to go by, students in Wales are likely to be paying more than they do at the moment.
In England most full-time undergraduates will be liable for annual tuition fees of £3,000 from next year. To some extent, this will be offset by means-testing and maintenance grants. Legislation passed this month means Northern Ireland will follow suit on fees.
It is too early to tell which universities have fared best. But there are indications that devolution is entrenching existing inequalities in funding.
The generous recurrent funding policies of the Scottish Executive have put Scottish institutions in a competitive position vis-a-vis universities south of the border, once extra income in England from variable fees starts to come on stream next year.
Last week, however, the Scottish Parliament passed legislation allowing the Scottish Executive to charge fees for particular courses - subject to Parliament's approval - largely as a measure to prevent Scottish courses being flooded with English fee refugees. Scottish-domiciled students will not have to pay these fees.
Worst off are institutions in Wales, where the Welsh Assembly has been parsimonious with recurrent funding and dithery about whether to make students pay more for their tuition.
The Assembly has undertaken not to introduce top-up fees in its current term, although it has promised additional supplementary income to try to keep Welsh institutions competitive in 2006-07.
But that is only a stop-gap. By this time, institutions in England will have started getting extra income from variable fees. Welsh universities fear the funding boost for their English counterparts will make them uncompetitive and lead to Wales being swamped by English fee refugees.
On top of that, the Assembly has imposed on institutions a policy of collaboration under which they are expected to make links within and outside the sector. These "reconfigurations" are expected to cut costs.
Extra funding for institutions beyond the rate of inflation is tied to making progress. The concern is that this policy will divert resources from the key areas of teaching and research.
Meanwhile, devolution in Wales and Scotland has seen a plethora of policies and targets from the fledgling governments keen to get the most out of the universities on their doorstep.
Targets in Scotland have been broad-brush and aspirational, while in Wales they have been more dogmatic - for example, the insistence on reconfiguration - with the result that a number have been revised or dropped.
From next year, increased income, via variable fees, could make universities in England less dependent on the state. That, in turn, could make institutions in Scotland and Wales hanker after their own top-up fees.
The policy roundabout kick-started by devolution has not stopped yet.
Stephen Court, senior research officer, Association of University Teachers.