Money can be better spent

September 12, 1997


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

THE White Paper proposes a directly elected Assembly to assume responsibility for policies and public services currently exercised by the Secretary of State for Wales. The budgets for further and higher education, including sponsorship of the Further and Higher Education Funding Councils for Wales, which currently rest with the Secretary of State for Wales, will come within the jurisdiction of the assembly.

The budget for 1997/98 for the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is Pounds 236 million and for the Further Education Funding Council for Wales Pounds 174 million. The assembly will not be able to restructure the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, which is at arm's length from the assembly, but it will be able to restructure the Further Education Funding Council.

The first threat posed by the Government's proposals is the cost of introducing an assembly. The Government's own figures put the cost over the lifetime of a parliament at close to Pounds 120 million. The message that was given on the doorsteps of Wales in the general election was that more money was needed for public services. Under the Government's proposals, the cost of running the assembly has to come from the Welsh Office budget. As somebody involved in higher education, I would clearly prefer the money to be used on funding education (or other public services), rather than on providing an added bureaucratic infrastructure in Cardiff.

The Government has argued that the cost of setting up the assembly is to be met by abolishing some of the Principality's quangos. It is always open to Westminster, which set up the quangos, to reform them. Some quangos which the Government is now claiming credit for abolishing were already under death threat. The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, for example, was to be abolished in 1999. The money to be saved here was therefore money already earmarked for other purposes. As has been said of the Magic Circle, "they do it with mirrors".

The fact that an assembly in Cardiff is supported by the Welsh Nationalist party just as a parliament in Edinburgh is supported by the Scottish Nationalists, must give pause to the majority of people in the United Kingdom who wish to preserve the Union. I am certainly not one of those opponents of an assembly who would paint an apocalyptic vision of an assembly in Cardiff leading to the immediate break-up of the United Kingdom.

The danger is more insidious than that. While there is a Labour Government in Westminster, and a Labour-dominated assembly in Cardiff, it is arguable that the assembly is otiose. The danger comes when a Labour Government in Westminster becomes unpopular as all governments do.

At that stage, it is likely that the make-up of the assembly in Cardiff will differ from the make-up of the Government in Westminster. The Nationalists could well be the beneficiaries of this. We will then see the assembly inevitably seeking more powers including legislative and tax-raising powers and quite possibly getting them. Currently Wales benefits under the Barnett Formula on public services to the tune of Pounds 609 per person. Essentially this means Welsh public services (and Scottish) are subsidised by England.

This subsidy would inevitably come under threat were there to be a tax-raising, legislative parliament. Taxes would necessarily have to rise to make good this deficiency or services such as higher and further education would be cut back.

Other threats exist if education is to be subject to a different regime in Wales. For example, the system of assessment of the quality of courses in higher education is currently the same in England and Wales. Students in England choosing degree courses know, for example, that the "excellent" gradings at my own institution in Art & Design or Business Studies are the equivalent of "excellents" in the same subjects in English colleges. These comparisons may become difficult, if not impossible, if devolution leads, as it inevitably will, to separate legislatures passing different laws, and administering education in quite different ways. The same could happen in relation to research assessment and research money.

How would Wales fare under a system without a Barnett subsidy? Traditionally higher education is a soft target for cuts: this could be death from a thousand cuts for higher education in Wales. While the Dearing report stresses the importance of regional strategies, these are clearly seen as operating within a uniform national framework.

Show me an assembly and I will show you a body which wants greater powers than those which it has initially been given. Some of these powers may be drawn from Westminster; others may be drawn from local government; others may be drawn from institutions such as hospitals, schools, colleges or universities.

Colleges of higher education welcomed the independence they gained on incorporation. There is the very real threat some way down the line that the powers that currently reside in colleges of higher education will be sought and gained by an assembly in Cardiff. This could pose a threat to independence and certainly hamper the current flexibility which colleges enjoy.

Constitutions should evolve and it may well be the case that the current systems of quangos should be radically reformed. Indeed, some alterations are already taking place. But this can be done without an assembly in Cardiff. Money saved by not setting up another bureaucratic layer of administration could be used on services such as education and health. I believe such a decision would be more in tune with the public mood.

Nicholas Bourne, assistant principal (academic services) at Swansea Institute of Higher Education, is a member of the co-ordinating committee of the Just Say No Campaign in Wales.

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