Model answer from Wales

September 12, 1997

Unexciting it may have been so far, but that does not mean that next Thursday's Welsh referendum on devolution does not matter.

Those who hoped to see a livelier exchange of ideas on the fundamental issues concerning Wales's future have been triply unlucky. National media and political attention has, perhaps inevitably, focused on the Scottish poll. The political truce following the death of the Princess of Wales carved a week out of an already short campaign. And some of New Labour's less attractive aspects, the control and bullying tendency, plus memories of the way Neil Kinnock and others scuppered the 1979 devolution proposals, have ensured that many of the weightiest of the principality's dominant party have been effectively silenced.

This is a pity. The discussion over what historian Kenneth Morgan rightly says will be the first elected assembly devoted to Wales as a whole is too important to subordinate to short-term party exigency. If, as some "Yes" campaigners are arguing, the proportional element in the assembly's electoral system is to lead to a more inclusive, plural style of politics, this stifling of debate is an unhappy start.

But it is appropriate that academics should be playing their full part on both sides of such debate as there is. The history of Welsh national institutions has been, from the campaign for the University of Wales in the late 19th century to the creation of the Further and Higher Education Funding Councils in the 1990s, intimately linked to that of post-compulsory education.

The funding councils in particular epitomise the vices and virtues of the Welsh status quo. They are by their very nature a part of the quangocracy - unrepresentative of the bulk of Welsh opinion, accountable only to secretaries of state whose deep unpopularity served over the last decade to renew demands for a Welsh assembly.

But they can at the same time point to positive achievements, acknowledged by the Dearing report's recommendation that Scotland and Northern Ireland should adopt the Welsh model of twin councils sharing a chief executive and staff. The model has been highly effective in fostering cross-sectoral cooperation, developing a quality assessment system broadly acceptable to institutions and generating innovative funding models. If further and higher education are to move on from the competitive model of the Conservative years to a more collaborative style of operation, Welsh examples should have an important role.

All of this makes one wonder why the Government should be putting this at risk in its arrangements for the two funding councils. To allow the assembly the right to reconstruct - a term potentially including abolition - the FEFC for Wales at the same time as denying it similar rights over its higher education equivalent is to take a serious risk with the long-term stability of the joint model which has so far served Wales well. Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales, has taken to defusing criticisms of the assembly's limited powers by pointing out that devolution is "a process, not an event". Some reprocessing of the arrangements, placing the two councils on a common footing, would be extremely welcome.

Perfect it is not. But the imperfections are far outweighed by the case for the assembly. Last week we argued that Scotland should vote yes, yes. This week we hope Wales will vote for the moderate degree of self-determination on offer.

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