Universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to lose freedom?
A report on the impact of devolution on higher education has said that universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may face having their autonomy reduced to that of further education colleges. This is because of the rejection of England’s market approach that has come at the cost of increasing government intervention.
Universities and Constitutional Change in the UK is a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), published on 19 April, highlighting the impact of England’s switch to a system that is primarily funded by tuition fees rather than from direct public funding, and how this move will affect other nations.
The Barnett formula – a system which assigns planned spending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the basis of comparable departmental spending in England – has warned that it is set to deliver cuts as a result.
The report says, the “social democratic governments in the devolved countries have shown little appetite for the market-based reforms adopted in England and…seem to be moving in some respects in the direction of a more traditional European model of higher education.”
It continues that the universities’ relationship to government in those nations “may soon be similar to that of the further education colleges or to the polytechnics in England and Wales before incorporation.”
This report from HEPI comes after the Welsh government’s radical redistribution of student places led to a cut of more than 20 per cent from new entrant numbers at two universities.
The Scottish government recommended placing a statutory duty on universities to take into account applicants’ backgrounds, and to produce widening access agreements that can be enforced by fines in their White Paper on post-16 education, released in September 2011.
The report’s author, Tony Bruce said that if the proposals in the Scottish White Paper were to be adopted, “then the Scottish would probably be a bit further down this road than anyone else.” He also said that the drift towards a level of autonomy similar to colleges was only a “direction of travel” as Scotland and Wales have not confirmed any policies.
Earlier this month, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) confirmed that for 2013-14, it would create a “margin” of 53 per cent of new undergraduate and postgraduate certificate of education places. Half of these will be reallocated according to priorities handed out by the government such as raising institutions’ research and total income, and the other half to universities charging tuition fees that are less than £7,500 a year.
The policy has a left Aberystwyth University facing a 20.6 per cent cut in new places with a further five Welsh universities facing a reduction in their fees.
A spokesperson for the Welsh government has said: “There has been no erosion of autonomy…Wales needs universities with the capacity and critical mass to operate dynamically, effectively and efficiently.”
The HEPI report also states that the “devolved administrations have made their decision according to national priorities without reference to the Barnett calculations of the proportion of funding that is attributed to higher education expenditure in England”.
The different education proposals and fees regimes followed have brought confusion for prospective students and “significant equity issues to consider with England and Scottish students (for example) being admitted to the same course on radically different terms.”