Friday, 19 September 2014

Neverendum? Neverlegislatum!

Blimey! An extraordinary day yesterday in Scotland, and already an extraordinary morning in UK politics. Here’s a lesson from higher education, and a consequence for higher education.

David Cameron’s commitment to address, at the same fast pace, both further devolution to Scotland and the anomalies for the rest of the UK is quite a promise. Draft legislation by January to resolve the West Lothian question in ways which also take into account Wales and Northern Ireland is breakneck speed.

Less significantly, I’ve seen this kind of pace before in universities, when either a VC or a Council decides that committee structures are too cumbersome, and can’t we rationalise them. Quickly. What tends to happen is that some apparently big changes get identified quickly, but these are either found not quite to do the job necessary, or need further detailed work for some years. Or alternately some Registrarial sleight of hand gives the impression of change without the disruption. But neither approach really does what the VC/Council want.

The comparison might not be so out of place. Several reforms of university governance have required acts of parliament, or have stalled on a vote when put to the people. With confidence I can predict, based upon university experience, that there will be complications which either prevent the timetable being adhered to, or have in the footnotes and subsidiary clauses an argument which lasts for years. Not neverendum but neverlegislatum.

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That’s the lesson from higher education. What about the consequence?

The debate is squarely about what matters are UK-wide and what matters are devolved to a different level – nation, (city) region, county – within the UK. There’s also an incommensurable: maintaining the Barnett formula implies continued central state disbursement of money, if it is to be meaningful; against this is a commitment to devolve tax and spending decisions. It’ll be tricky to have both.

At the moment higher education is devolved, with one important caveat, which is the unified funding of research councils via the dual support mechanism. This has up to now been protected by intense lobbying of the relevant minister in Westminster. But will universities have a powerful voice to protect this? If there’s greater regionalism, isn’t it likely that some nations or regions will want to have control of all money for HE in their purview? The hubbub of the bigger question will be large, and it may be that universities complaints fall on ears which can’t hear: not deaf, but too busy. Watch this space!

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