Minister wary on devolution

August 1, 1997

A SCOTTISH parliament could take a more generous approach than Westminster to student support, but "realism must accompany idealism" in the Government's devolution proposals, Scottish education minister Brian Wilson has warned.

Mr Wilson, speaking at a Scottish Office media briefing on the Government's white paper on devolution, conceded that there was scope for a future Scottish parliament to have different higher education funding arrangements from the rest of the country.

"But they would be subject to the same constraints as we are at present. If they could discover an additional pot of gold within their resources for Scottish higher education, they could do it, but they would face exactly the same decisions we've being trying to face up to," he said.

Scotland would continue to retain its formula-based share of United Kingdom public expenditure, but the parliament would be free to determine its own spending priorities. The white paper proposes that a Scottish parliament would be responsible for further and higher education, including the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and student support; science and research funding supported through SHEFC or supporting other devolved areas; and training policy and lifelong learning. Scots will vote on a parliament, and whether it should have tax varying powers, in a referendum on September 11.

Mr Wilson opposed the Government's devolution proposals in 1978, which did not include higher education which was then funded through the University Grants Committee. He said the current proposals were "far in advance" of the 1978 white paper, with the devolution of higher education making "absolutely common sense and contributing to the overall stability of the package".

The Welsh will vote on September 18 on the Government's proposals for a Welsh assembly, which would fund further and higher education, training and enterprise councils, lifelong learning, and links between education, training and work.

The Welsh white paper could open the door to the Further Education Funding Council for Wales having the "buffer body" status of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. The two bodies share a chief executive and secretariat, but the FEFCW inherited its funding responsibilities from the Welsh local authorities, while the HEFCW replaced the Universities Funding Council.

The white paper says a Welsh assembly would have no power to restructure the HEFCW, since it "operates at arm's length from the Government, specially to guarantee the independence of their decisions". But it gives the assembly powers to restructure the FEFCW if it thinks this would achieve "more economic, effective and efficient working".

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