Cross-border provision of public services for Wales: Further and higher education - Welsh Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 980-991)


15 JULY 2008

  Q980  Mr David Jones: Mr Scott, clearly you have concerns about the potential economic impact. Professor Rees, what do you think are the potential implications for Wales because the answer you gave was we would not start from here in the first place; it is ongoing; what are your concerns about the implications for Wales?

  Professor Rees: Again, it is the lack of a strategic framework that concerns me. We have to take into account in devolution that the four countries are not of the same size; it is this issue that one country, particularly England, in making a decision has effects on the other countries whether anybody intends it or not. If one does not take that into account—and I think after 10 years we have seen enough examples of this—then in a sense how can the Welsh Assembly Government plan for what might be the outcome? We do not know what the outcome of these reviews may be—it does not make any sense to me.

  Q981  Mr David Jones: To what extent are Welsh universities engaging with the Denham review?

  Professor Rees: Through Higher Education Wales we will be engaging, but there is a question to what extent is one invited to the table. I am very concerned about the particular review about lifting the fees cap, and what we were hearing from the minister is of course the other countries will be informed, but that is in a sense, in my understanding of it, not enough, you need to do a scenario of if this happens in England, what will be the effect on these other countries? That needs to be factored into the decision-making.

  Q982  Mr David Jones: I was just about to ask you, what are your concerns about lifting the fee cap?

  Professor Rees: If the fee cap is lifted in England, which I personally think should happen because the sector, not just in Wales, is under-funded—we are expected to be as competitive and leading edge as we are and provide mass education—then it will have very serious effects in Wales, particularly as the Assembly has committed itself up to 2009-10 to providing this subsidy for Welsh domiciled students going to Welsh institutions. I do not see how that can be sustained so there would have to be a policy change on that, but that would be a policy change brought about in response to what has happened over the border rather than as the politicians and the Welsh Assembly Government might see it, driven by what they think is best in Wales.

  Q983  Mr David Jones: Is it fair to say that the funding gap is likely to increase?

  Professor Rees: Certainly. If the cap is lifted in England and the situation in Wales remains as the status quo well, frankly, that is pretty much the end of higher education; why would you want to go to university in Wales even if you get a subsidy when the investment is such that it just cannot deliver the business.

  Q984  Mr David Jones: Do you know to what extent the Welsh Assembly Government is engaging with the Denham review; are you aware of that?

  Professor Rees: I am not aware of that. I am sure there are communications there, there are bound to be, between ministers and civil servants, but I think what I have been trying to argue all along is that we need much more proactive dialogue and planning between ministers and senior civil servants on higher education across the UK. The absence of that has already caused enormous difficulties and if we do not address that it will be disastrous, frankly.

  Professor Scott: I would agree with that.

  Q985  Chairman: It occurs to me that without demeaning the relationship what you are describing is a very serious situation and this occasional chat or this meeting three or four times every year is not what you would aspire to, a strategic framework.

  Professor Rees: No. There is a joint ministerial committee but my understanding is that for many years it never met.

  Professor Scott: Chairman, I would fully support that. I was asked to a meeting with John Denham last week; I thought it was a very valuable meeting but I was the only person from Wales there and I certainly felt on the periphery of it, even though they made me welcome and so on. The issues really were not focused at all on Wales, they were focused on England. Similarly, I had a breakfast meeting with Bill Rammell and on that occasion again I was the only person from Wales, although Deian Hopkin from South Bank was there. Again, it was very clear that this was an English discussion.

  Chairman: Mr Jones, have you finished?

  Mr David Jones: I could go on, Chairman.

  Chairman: We will try and round this up now. There are a few more questions; Mr Alun Michael.

  Q986  Alun Michael: This is one that could open up and become very wide as well so can I suggest it might be useful for some thoughts afterwards; it is really what do you hope will come out of the recently announced Welsh Assembly Government review of higher education in Wales? I suppose a secondary question really is do you hope that it will look at higher education in Wales in the wider context of the UK and beyond and not just look at it traditionally in terms of the comparison between the situation in Wales and England?

  Professor Rees: Absolutely. We are in an international market for students and for research funding; they do not know barriers and national borders so I certainly hope that will be the case.

  Alun Michael: It is clear that there is a parallel situation that is bound to be there between the final stages of our cross-border inquiry and the work of that, and the more synergy we can have between the two the better. May I suggest that you could let us have a note about your hopes for the outcomes of that which we can then take into account in our work?[3]

  Q987 Chairman: You began by making reference to the fact that there should be consultation and I alluded to your closing remarks in your memorandum which have been the theme really of your evidence today, "The next stage of devolution should ensure that there is more consultation across borders and more decision-making informed by the new landscape, otherwise the unforeseen consequences, especially those for Wales, will be highly detrimental." We posed the question to Higher Education Wales and to HEFCW about the nature of the debate, the dialogue, going on in Wales and now, clearly, across the United Kingdom. It seems to me highly unsatisfactory; would you share that view?

  Professor Scott: It is the lack of a framework. There are conversations going on between different bodies—Universities UK addressed the issue of devolution recently for about an hour in one of its meeting. I do not think anybody quite knows what to do about it; it is one of those difficulties where, because of a lack of an arena where people can sit down and sort it out, it becomes a thing that one learns to live with in a sense and gets increasingly worried about.

  Q988  Chairman: It seems that the priorities are somewhat askew. There is a stated science policy in the Assembly without a budget line.

  Professor Rees: Yes.

  Q989  Chairman: And it does not relate to the science policy of the UK Government?

  Professor Rees: Yes, exactly.

  Q990  Chairman: It seems that the science policy was a knee-jerk reaction to a very strongly worded memorandum led by Sir John Cadogan rather than a proper policy debate within the Welsh Assembly Government.

  Professor Rees: I absolutely agree and I think again it is strange if the UK ends up with four or even five science policies because, again, science does not know national boundaries, it just does not work like that. I think what the Welsh Assembly Government did was to look at its own manifesto priorities and try and identify what science it would need, what research it would need, to try to inform those policies, and that is one way I guess of developing a science policy. In a sense, however, you would not want to be restricted to just choosing what research happened to go on in your backyard, you would presumably take the best science from wherever it was to inform that policy. Science policy is another area where there is a lack of joined-up thinking and we could end up with something that looked rather odd if we do not try to have a UK approach as well as whatever priorities the devolved administrations and England want to put on their own version of it.

  Q991  Chairman: It seems to me that Secretary of State Denham had a responsibility within his own department to help lead the debate on a UK-wide strategy which it appears he has failed to undertake.

  Professor Rees: I do not know whether he tried to undertake it and people did not respond, I have no idea, but it does seem to me that there is a danger of thinking, right, it is just England now.

  Professor Scott: There is an issue, Chairman, about devolution, if I may say so. I began by saying that devolution is a very good thing and it has boosted the confidence of the people of Wales. I believe that absolutely fully and I think the country itself is trying to go forward. I do not think that when devolution came about these sorts of issues that are now coming to the surface were actually thought about within the context of England and its relationship with the Government here and its relationship with the Government in Wales or Scotland. I do not think it was thought about and I think we are playing catch-up a bit.

  Chairman: Short of opening up that debate no doubt the members of the new convention will be addressing this matter very thoroughly. Could I thank you for your evidence today? It has been a very comprehensive discussion but if there is anything further that on reflection you wish to add to it, in light of the open-ended questions at the end, please feel free to write to us, we look forward to receiving anything you want to add. Thank you very much.

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