Regional differences in funding may be affecting students' choices of where they study, argues Stephen Court
LINKS between universities and their regions, including the "nation-regions" of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, are likely to be one of the defining elements of United Kingdom higher education in the 21st century.
One reason for this is movement towards learning throughout life. This is at the heart of the government's thinking and its legislative programme for higher education - at least it was until the Department for Education and Employment downgraded its lifelong learning plan from a white to a green paper.
Lifelong learners want higher education on their doorstep. Unlike the archetypal school-leaver undergraduate wanting university life as far away from home as possible (now in the minority, anyway), the student of the future needs higher education near home and work.
Closely linked to lifelong learning is the emphasis on universities preparing graduates for employment and meeting the needs of local and regional businesses. There is a wide range of services higher education institutions can offer companies in their region.
If the goals are clear and the resources adequate there can be benefits for both sides of the university-business equation.
The government is going ahead with plans to set up regional development agencies in England. These agencies, with a primarily economic focus, will make central and local government more aware of the potential resource regions have in their universities. Devolution will give Scotland and Wales a greater sense of national ownership of higher education than under the current regime, ruled by Whitehall's funding priorities.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has acknowledged the importance of the regions by appointing regional consultants and putting extra resources into this area.
But the introduction of student contributions to tuition fees from September has muddied the waters. The drop in the number of applications from mature students suggests that the students who are more likely to want higher education in their locality, ie potential lifelong learners, are being put off by increased costs.
On the other hand, the desire of the traditional undergraduate to study far from home may be undermined by fees, since there has been an almost 80 per cent increase in English applicants wanting to enter a Scottish institution in year two, three or four.
One regional factor that has received little attention so far is that the amount of funding per student differs from one part of Britain to another.
The level of cash from public funding that universities receive for each student in Scotland is 19 per cent higher than in England and 22 per cent higher than in Wales. In the latest allocations, for the 1998-99 financial year, the funding per student (or unit of resource) is as follows: Scotland Pounds 5,645 (no change from 1997-98); England Pounds 4,760 (up 2.6 per cent); Wales Pounds 4,611 (up 2.3 per cent).
However, in a recent study of the comparative costs of higher education in Scotland and England, Arthur Midwinter, of the University of Strathclyde, says such figures present an incomplete picture of Scottish spending because they exclude the impact of the net inflow of students to Scotland, and they isolate only one component of education costs. And, in fairness to Scottish institutions, I should point out that their grant and fees income for the 1998-99 academic year remains unchanged in cash terms from the current year - a real-terms cut of 3 per cent.
Quite why England and Wales have made so little fuss about being Scotland's poor relations is unclear - particularly when the government funds students north of Hadrian's Wall for four years, compared with three years elsewhere in the UK, on standard full-time undergraduate courses.
With the introduction of fees, regional differences in funding, and possibly the quality and standards, of higher education may be affecting students' choices of where they study.
Depending on the final form of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill going through Parliament, Scottish-domiciled students at Scottish universities will have to pay fees only for three years, while UK students from outside Scotland at Scottish universities on four-year courses will have to pay fees every year.
That sounds unfair - especially since students from the rest of the European Union will have to pay fees for only three. But at current levels of funding, it may not be such a bad deal after all.
Stephen Court is deputy senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers and writes in a personal capacity.