There have been many critical comments about the decision to alter the structure of higher education funding in England and impose much higher fees on university students. However, the decision by the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) not to raise fees for Welsh-domiciled students. This means that Welsh students will, for the present, continue to pay fees of £3225 per annum irrespective of whether they attend a Welsh or English university has really put the cat among the pigeons. This move has caused huge consternation in the right wing media where English Tory and Lib-Dem MPs will no doubt be concerned how they will explain to their constituents why Welsh students will pay much lower fees than students living in their own constituencies.
I am not always a fan of the WAG but they seem to have pulled off a blinder here. They seemed to be aware of three things:-
• Having an educated workforce is essential for the Welsh economy and tripling university fees was likely to have a huge impact on the numbers of Welsh young people going to higher education. This had to be avoided at all costs.
• Access to higher education is a very sensitive political and social issue in Wales and raising fees to the levels proposed in England was likely to be seen as a policy designed to deter students from working class backgrounds from going to university.
• The UK coalition government made great play about “protecting” the NHS and schools budgets even though these are two areas of public service provision which have had a dismal track record of performance over the last 10-15 years. As a consequence they had to drastically chop the HE budget to make ends meet. Wisely the Welsh Assembly Government did not go for the cheap headline of “protecting the NHS” but chose its priorities carefully.
I have commented elsewhere that the policy of dramatically increasing university fees might prove a disaster for the UK Government likely to alienate both the poor and the middle classes at the same time. The student protests might just be the start. It may also result in a disastrous electoral performance by the Liberal Democrats in the forthcoming by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth generating a panic among Lib-Dem MPs which could damage or destroy the coalition.
For me the key lesson is that the Welsh Assembly Government was closer to the people of Wales and had a good understanding of their hopes, aspirations and fears. On the other hand the UK Government, closeted in offices in Whitehall, made decisions in almost complete ignorance of how people would react. Even though there was a perfectly workable and more acceptable alternative approach to HE funding (i.e. the graduate tax) the Government chose to be influenced by a small group of right wing Tories hostile to a graduate tax and out of touch with the mass of the population.
Next time an English region gets the opportunity to have its own form of devolved government they should think carefully before saying no again. Welsh devolution is not perfect but, at least, Welsh politicians seem a bit more in touch with their constituents than is the case in England.