WELSH voters will be asked next week to back devolution proposals which jeopardise a pioneering approach to funding strongly endorsed in the Dearing report on the future of higher education.
Sir Ron Dearing said that the Welsh system, in which the Further and Higher Education Funding Councils for Wales share a chief executive and a secretariat, would also be appropriate for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
But the Government's proposals for the Welsh Assembly, to be voted on in next Thursday's referendum, include separate arrangements for the two bodies.
The assembly will have complete control over the FEFCW, but its sway over the HEFCW is limited. The HEFCW is named in clause 3.25 of the white paper A Voice for Wales as an example of bodies excluded from the assembly's power to restructure existing Welsh quangos because they "operate at arm's length from the Government, specially to guarantee the independence of their decisions".
Most observers expect that the assembly will want to restructure FEFCW. Jeff Cocks, principal of Pontypridd College and chair of Fforwm, the Welsh further education pressure group, said: "I expect they will want to reconstruct it in order to broaden the membership and make it more representative, and to make it answerable to a committee of the assembly."
Considerable confusion surrounds the precise extent of assembly influence over higher education institutions. "We haven't been told anything and the only answer is that nobody is certain," said one senior figure this week. The HEFCW will continue to receive a grant from the Welsh block allotted by the Treasury.
John Williams, principal of the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education, said: "With one body continuing as a quango and the other coming under democratic control and likely to be restructured, it may be very difficult for the two councils to continue as they are at the moment."
The difficulty was acknowledged by Kevin Morgan, chairman of the Yes for Wales campaign and professor of European regional development at the University of Wales, Cardiff. "The chief executive will have to pursue a rather schizophrenic existence," he said. But he added that the key factor in this would be the calibre of the people involved. "It is very complex, but it will be a matter of striking sensible balances and building good working relationships." He said that, whatever the strict procedural position, it was likely that the HEFCW chief executive would want a good relationship with the chairman of the assembly's education committee.
John Andrews, chief executive of HEFCW, is not, as a public servant, allowed to comment on devolution-related issues during the referendum campaign.
Mr Cocks said he was comfortable with the new arrangements, and that they should not be seen as threatening the extensive collaborative arrangements between the two sectors in Wales.