Conclusion The most distinctive change associated with the process of devolving higher education has, of course, been the adoption of different student fee and maintenance arrangements. However, as a part of a UK market for domestic students, the devolved countries have not had an entirely free hand in shaping these arrangements. They have had to try to ensure that there is a balance of inward and outward student flows because of the need to avoid reducing opportunities for home students while maintaining the necessary income levels by attracting fee-paying students from the other countries of the UK.
There has been a mix of policy convergence and divergence since devolution although the pace of change is now increasing as the devolved countries undertake major reviews of their higher education policies. The policy conservatism that has been evident since 1999 is now being replaced by strong political pressure for change. Reform is being driven by demographic and financial pressures and the need to drive economic growth. There is a belief that higher education performance needs to be enhanced in order to maximise its impact and secure greater value for money in a period of economic stringency.
The social democratic governments in the devolved countries have shown little appetite for the market-based reforms adopted in England and while acknowledging the autonomy of universities they seem to be moving in some respects in the direction of a more traditional European model of higher education. The sector is seen primarily as serving economic and social objectives and the devolved governments are increasingly interventionist in their approach. This includes the enhancement of funding council powers, the abandonment of formula funding, the planning of provision on a regional basis, setting widening participation targets under statutory powers and specifying national priorities for research.
Devolving higher education has brought benefits to the devolved countries but there are also significant disadvantages. As we have seen policy autonomy is constrained by the impact of changes in the financing of higher education in England and the need to maintain funding at competitive levels. For the prospective student, the funding changes have meant additional layers of complexity with differences in fee and maintenance arrangements that may be difficult to understand. The evidence suggests that the impact of devolution on performance has been mixed. The highlights include recent increases in research income, growth in student numbers and a strong performance in the recruitment of international students in Scotland and Wales. In some other respects – participation rates of young people, social access to higher education and research quality – performance has been less consistent.
The devolution process has given the devolved countries the powers to make their own policy choices with the overall aim of securing the long term future of the United Kingdom. Whether this broader objective will be achieved seems increasingly doubtful but there is no doubt that devolution has provided the four countries with the opportunity to shape their own higher education sectors in a new direction even though these choices may have been constrained by the complexities of the devolution settlement, the existence of a UK market and the dominance of England. Whether those policy choices will lead to stronger and more competitive national systems remains to be seen.