Sunday, 12 April 2015

Inseparable

Two weeks into the election campaign and it seems that despite university and student funding being a matter for the devolved administrations, it’s becoming an election issue where Westminster policies will drive devolved decisions.

The headline issue is Labour’s £6k tuition fee policy. I’ve blogged on this before, and noted that, in my view, this will need an Act of Parliament if there aren’t to be quite significant unintended consequences. Looking at the impact of this on other administrations makes me doubly sure.

Take, for instance. English and Welsh fees policy. They are the two most similar in the four UK nations; universities are allowed to charge up to £9k per year Home/EU undergraduate fee, subject to a test around fair access. The difference is that the Welsh Government pays some of the fees for Welsh domiciled students (that is, students who come from Wales, wherever in the UK they study).

Suppose there’s a Labour Government, and it caps English universities at £6k fees. This creates four different scenarios.

For an English university, there’s two policy worries. Firstly, will HEFCE actually make up the £3k difference? Maybe in the first year, for forms sake, but it would be a brave bet that said it would carry on as a ring-fenced spending item in perpetuity. And secondly, will they be allowed to charge £9k for a student from Wales?

For a Welsh university, slightly different worries: will the Welsh Government continue to fund undergraduate education for Welsh domiciled students at a rate about £9k, regardless of where the funds come from? That’s a question for the Diamond review, but a dramatic change in English arrangements would be bound to have an impact. And secondly, would they be allowed to charge English students £9k? And, perhaps more pertinently, if they did, would any come?

The market for higher education and UK politics intrude inexorably on the devolved administrations. There’ll be similar dilemmas for universities and governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even when we’ve understood, as a political culture, how to do devolution, there’s still the unavoidable reality that England is by far the largest of the four home nations, in population and economic terms. That reality won’t be changing any time soon.

Most of the answers to the questions above require both political consensus and amendments to Acts of Parliament. If there’s a government with a small majority HE funding might become a touchstone issue. Again.

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