Thursday, June 14, 2007

'Snow Wark-ing, so it isnae

I don't know how many saw this package on Channel 4 news last night about Barnett and all that, but what a muddled presentation it was by the usually excellent Mr Snow. First there was (again) great confusion about what the Barnett formula is - it is not the formula for assigning monies to the devolved administrations. It is the mechanism for adjusting the block grant annually in light of annual changes made to the funding of counterpart (to devolved administration) Whitehall departments. Second, under the 1998 Scotland Act it is for the Scottish administration to determine Scotland's spending priorities for devolved policies, not UK Government. That's what devolution was all about. If the Scottish administration decides that reducing the obstacles preventing students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering the University sector (or to provide free care for the elderly) is a desirable policy, it is for the Scottish electorate to judge whether this is a good or bad use of resources. After all, asigning monies to that end is not a free good - a consequence is that some other policy is not being financed. Of course it was Michael Forsyth's persistent interruption of John Swinney to make the point (sic) that per capita public spending in Scotland was 20% above the equivalent in England that was explicitly intended to whip up the fabled "English backlash" - not the education policy of the new Scottish government. Third the present discussion masks the fact that students ordinarily domiciled in England and Wales have been discriminated against in the Scottish university system since 2001. That was when up-front fees in Scottish Universities for Scottish domiciled students were scrapped by the Labour-led Scottish Executive, but continued to be applied to students domiciled in England and Wales. We heard nothing from the current critics of SNP policy back then, when Labour introduced this element of discrimination. The point being - never believe the Lord Forsyth is worried about discrimination. Had he been he'd have been sounding off way back then. Instead, this is just another simple case of attacking the SNP policy, regardless of what the people of Scotland want or what they voted for. Finally, if English and Welsh voters want University education south of the border to be offered on the same terms as Scotland's then let them campaign for that. I for one would support that. A number of European countries have either no, or merely token level, fees for students attending University. Why not the UK?

I share the concerns of many that the discrimination that is now a feature of the Scottish university system is not desirable. But unless and until there is a change of heart in England, the only way of avoiding this would be to return the Scottish system to that prevailing before 2001. Permitting students domiciled in England and Wales to have access to Scotland's university sector on the same terms as locally domiciled students is just not practical - the system would be swamped. That it is not swamped by non-UK students who, under EU law, are able to access the system under the same terms as locally domiciled students is easily explained by a combination of obvious informal barriers to trans-national student mobility and the existence of cheaper alternatives closer to home.

Instead of engaging the debate with the SNP over higher educaton on essentially sectarian terms, critics would be better advised to enquire just how the SNP intends to fund Scotland's University sector over the longer term. For if we consider that timeframe, then under the current situation the higher fee-funded Universities in England stand to benefit considerably from a flight of Scotland's best academics to better remunerated and better appointed posts in the University sector south of the border.

Very finally, wouldn't it be really nice if that, for once, a journalist working in a UK-networked current affairs show could be properly briefed.

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