Universities must make more of the devolved picture

January 12, 2001

Whatever else the first Blair administration is remembered for, its devolution of power to new assemblies and parliaments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh is guaranteed a place in the history books. But our analysis of the changes in Scotland and Northern Ireland - plus our look next week at the picture in Wales - suggests that universities have been among the laggards in making the most of the new political picture.

Students have been quick to use the new system to press for fees to be abolished in Scotland and to apply pressure against them in Wales and Northern Ireland. By contrast, staff in Scotland's better-resourced universities are no better paid than their English counterparts. The new Scottish universities have even swum against the tide by joining the creaking United Kingdom-wide pay bargaining system at a time when everything else in Scotland is looking to London less and less.

In Wales the situation is even more stark. Despite the enthusiasm many academics feel for devolution, the evidence is that it will not prove positive for Welsh further and higher education. The unit of resource per student is less than in Scotland or England, and assembly members have said that universities are not a priority. In the same spirit, trainee teachers in further education will miss out on the £6,000 a year award available in England because the Welsh are not short of FE teachers. The lesson that local decisions can leave some groups disadvantaged is a tough one. The Welsh Assembly seems to have decided, even before its higher education inquiry reports, that an exodus of staff and students to England is an outcome that it is prepared to accept to allow cash to be spent elsewhere.

Universities looking at the devolved landscape will do so from a wide range of perspectives. Big research-based institutions, like the ancient Scottish universities, see themselves as actors on the world stage, and they need research funding and capital to stay that way. Their needs are apparently being met by the Scottish funding council's proposal to concentrate cash in departments with top research assessment scores. Newer universities with a comparatively local, access-based mission have other priorities. At the moment, the funding councils realise this but most politicians do not. Universities must do more to persuade them of the importance and diversity of higher education.

One part of the UK in which the worst errors have so far been avoided is Northern Ireland, because the slow pace of the peace process has meant a disrupted start to the assembly. But higher education minister Sean Farren has made good progress. The English-based cap on student numbers had encouraged emigration from the province. Setting up a local higher education funding body - as Dearing recommended four years ago - will be tricky, but it ought to be the next step.

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