Universities and constitutional change in the uk: the impact of devolution on the higher education sector Tony Bruce Introduction



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Universities and constitutional change in the UK: the impact of devolution on the higher education sector

Tony Bruce

Introduction

  1. This report considers whether the process of devolution has encouraged the development of more distinctive higher education policies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since 1999. The main aim of the devolution of legislative powers was the preservation of the United Kingdom by responding to pressures for self-government, which intensified from the late 1980s. The powers of the three devolved legislatures initially varied although subsequent changes mean that the differences between them have been substantially reduced if not entirely eliminated. As a result, responsibility for higher education was transferred to the devolved countries although the research councils remain a UK-wide responsibility.

  2. The UK government’s policymaking process often considers devolved concerns late, or not at all, and the appropriate coordination mechanisms have not been fully developed. There are, however, strong links between the higher education funding councils (and with the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland) where there are long established arrangements for coordination and liaison as well as a significant amount of joint activity.

  3. Changes to the UK government’s grants to the devolved countries are generally determined by the Barnett formula which has been applied since 1978. Under the formula, they receive a population-based proportion of the changes in planned spending on comparable UK government services in England. The comparability of services is assessed at each spending review in order to establish the extent to which services delivered by UK government departments correspond to services provided by the devolved administrations. Funding council grants, student loan subsidies, and bad debts are included in this comparability calculation but student fee income is not. A switch in university funding from funding council grant to student fee income in England, as is planned from 2012/13, will therefore result in the funding to the devolved countries being reduced.

  4. The three countries now all have similar legislative powers enabling them to reshape their HE systems according to their own national priorities. However, in shaping these priorities they are strongly influenced by the wider market in which they operate for the recruitment of staff and students and the funding of research. In many respects, UK higher education remains a single market for students, staff and resources.

  5. As well as market constraints, the devolved administrations face a number of common pressures affecting the direction of their HE systems, including the dominance of England; demographic decline; public expenditure reductions, increased competition for UK research funds; the need to improve economic performance; and the promotion of national identity, economic self-determination and cultural awareness.



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