The lady's not for unfair learning

December 3, 2004

Theories abound as to why Jane Davidson, the Welsh Assembly Education Minister, has made universities in Wales wait for a decision on whether they can charge top-up fees.

Some of her opponents have suggested her motives are political. The Rees review of student funding, due to present its final report to the minister next April, might take some of the flak for Ms Davidson if it concludes that top-up fees are right for Wales, they argue.

Her supporters counter that setting up the review is typical of her approach to policymaking, which, as she frequently reminds her critics, is always "evidence based".

Ms Davidson gives a more straightforward explanation, however. It has to do with upholding a "sense of fairness" - a principle that has taken on particular significance through her life and career in education and politics.

She said: "For me, the whole agenda has been about inclusion - how you ensure that people are included and that they have opportunities, and how you ensure that policies do not negate opportunities. That is why I was not prepared to just adopt variable fees.

"I wanted to test, and still want to test, what the effect of variable fees will be on a widening-access agenda, because that is something I am not prepared to compromise on."

It was during her schooling that she was first struck by the consequences of unfair policies. Both her parents were doctors, and her father's work took the family from Birmingham to live abroad, first in New York and then for a longer period in the former Rhodesia.

In 1971, she was sent back to the UK to board at Malvern Girls' College, to escape the civil war in Rhodesia. But the social injustices she had observed in Rhodesia left a lasting impression.

She said: "I never could understand why in Rhodesia a small percentage of people who were white were running the country. That just seemed unfair. It is the kind of thing that develops your beliefs."

After graduating with an English degree from Birmingham University and then completing teacher training at Aberystwyth University, she took up a teaching post at Cardigan Secondary School. It was not long before she encountered new issues of access and inclusiveness.

She said: "I was the only person on the staff who was not Welsh-speaking."

She got to grips with the language at a summer-long course at Lampeter University. Though she admits she is not fluent, her skills have progressed to the point that she can now handle a live interview in Welsh.

Ms Davidson blames the policies of Margaret Thatcher's Government for her decision to leave teaching in 1984 and to take up what she considered at the time to be the "perfect job" for a disillusioned teacher who loved walking: a three-year development officer post with the Youth Hostels Association.

She then moved on to become a youth and community worker in charge of a youth centre at Dinas Powys, a village on the edge of Cardiff that was split, with an affluent population on one side of the railway tracks, where the youth centre was based, and a deprived council estate on the other.

"I saw it as my mission to ensure that the youth centre attracted people from the other side of the tracks. For me, it was about giving people opportunities," she said.

But once again Thatcherism intervened and Ms Davidson said that she felt a growing sense of unfairness about the fact that opportunities for young people were being removed. She was persuaded to change career, this time deciding to take the plunge into politics.

She became a Labour councillor for the Riverside ward in Cardiff, but her political career really took off when, in 1989, she became a researcher for Rhodri Morgan, who is now the Assembly's First Minister.

Subsequent appointments as Welsh coordinator for the National Local Government Forum Against Poverty, head of social affairs for the Assembly Government, Assembly member for Pontypridd and Deputy Presiding Officer for the Assembly, and then Education and Lifelong Learning Minister in 2000, brought the opportunity to tackle "unfairness" on several fronts.

The Assembly's Reaching Higher agenda for Welsh higher education, which aims to widen access to university for the poorest, is a priority for Ms Davidson.

Another priority is the reconfiguration of higher education in Wales through mergers and closer collaboration between institutions. This was necessary, she said, if Welsh universities were to compete internationally, especially in research.

But big is not the be all and end all.

"We are acutely conscious that the new merged Manchester University is bigger than the whole of the University of Wales combined, yet our small friendly institutions attract not only a lot of Welsh students but also many from all around the UK," she said.

The comparison with England's biggest institution also underlines why it would have been unfair to expect Wales to leave its higher education policy in the hands of Westminster, she added.

"It seems to me that what is so important is that policy that is right for a country the size of England is not necessarily right for a country where I can gather all its representatives of higher education together in one small room.

"That is why it was utterly right that we should have and use our own policy levers," she said.

Birmingham University with a degree in English

as a teacher at Cardigan Secondary School

maintaining a consensus on the Welsh Assembly's Reaching Higher agenda for higher education

are split infinitives and apostrophes in the wrong place

I will still be influencing the education agenda

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