Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Of alligators and swamps

It's many years since I first heard the saying that "when you're up to your waist in alligators, it can be difficult to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp." Except that it wasn't 'waist' in the original.

It's a neat way of summarising something that happens to all of us – to individuals as well as to organisations, including governments. The problems of the day have to be dealt with, and they can become so pressing that there is no time left to make any progress at all towards the real aim. People in a rush, people under stress, can end up in a mindset of believing that if only they can kill a few specific alligators then all will be fine.

That's what seems to me to have happened in the case of the report published yesterday on Higher Education in Wales. It's a good stab at dealing with a few of the obvious alligators; but the swamp is taken as a given - and the group tasked with reviewing the issues wasn't even asked to consider attempting to drain it.

I'll digress for a moment here. I'm sceptical in principle about the idea of 'independent' reviews where the government both sets the terms of reference and chooses the 'independent' members of the group. I don't wish to impugn the integrity of anyone here; but really, how likely is it that any government will set the terms of reference and the membership of an 'independent' group in such a way that it will produce a recommendation to do the opposite of what the government wants to do? It reminds me of the definition that a 'consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time'. Very often consultants – or 'independent' groups - are used to give credence to what their hirer already knows, or wants to do anyway, but needs some 'objective' or 'independent' evidence to support.

The relevance of this is that in setting terms of reference which told the Higher Education Group to look at 'the extent to which student finance is targeted to enhance widening access opportunities and encourage take up of priority subjects', the minister concerned was effectively pointing out two particular alligators which needed attention. Given that meeting these objectives was not the original purpose of the current policy, it is hardly earth-shattering news that the group concludes that it isn't achieving them. But concentrating attention on these specifics effectively diverts attention from wider issues.

There is detail in the report which I would challenge, and some very valid points with which I would agree, but any detailed critique of the content would inevitably be based on an acceptance of the starting point - and I do not accept it. I will therefore concentrate on the issues of principle, and for me there are three.

Firstly, should we be charging fees for higher education at all? I find it remarkable that most of those who tell us that 'free' higher education is 'unsustainable' are people who obtained their own degrees under a system where higher education was, indeed, free. It looks at times a little bit like they're pulling the ladder up behind them. It is, of course, true that our universities need more funding; but the funding gap hasn't materialised from thin air. It has come about because successive governments have increased the numbers of students (a policy I support) whilst not increasing the funding to match.

That is not an immutable nor an inevitable state of affairs; it is the direct result of deliberate government policy over many years. Governments choose to invest in wars and nuclear weapons; they choose not to invest in higher education - it really is as simple as that. Within any given level of taxation income, governments prioritise their spending – and they have deliberately de-prioritised higher education. I have long supported the principle that higher education should be free; and I remain unconvinced by the arguments against that.

Supporters of fees argue that their principle is that graduates tend to enjoy higher incomes and higher standards of living as a result of their education, and should therefore contribute towards the costs. But income tax claws back more from those who earn more - so there are other ways in which they pay. And the tax could be made more progressive again, if the will was there. If that is really the 'principle' underlying fees, isn't it also true that pupils who leave school with a clutch of A levels do better than those who only have GCSE's, and that those who leave with good GCSE's do better than those without? At the risk of putting ideas into people's heads, if charging for the benefits which education brings is an issue of 'principle', why select only higher education?

Secondly, we need to return to the question of the Assembly's powers. This is a classic example of why the debate about further powers for the Assembly should not be an arid constitutional matter, divorced from the realities of day-to-day life. It should, rather, be about giving Welsh institutions adequate power to implement Welsh policy objectives. The One Wales government is faced with a situation where decisions taken on the funding of higher education in England constrain our freedom to do things differently in Wales. They have little choice about having to respond to that fact. That is not where we should be, and is not where I want us to be.

And thirdly, are the proposals an inevitable consequence of the One Wales agreement? I don't see that they are. One Wales commits both the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru to maintain the current system until 2009/10, and thereafter to "maintain the current level of resource throughout the four year Assembly term, doing whatever is possible to mitigate the effects on Welsh-domiciled students if the Westminster government lifts the cap on fees in 2009". Whilst the recommendations of the Working Group certainly meet that policy objective, they are not the only way of so doing; and there is nothing in One Wales which commits either party to accepting any particular approach to meeting that policy objective. It is nothing but sophistry to attempt to argue otherwise.

In 2007, I, along with the other Plaid Assembly candidates, fought an election on a platform which included the words, "we will continue to rule out top-up fees at Welsh Universities". I believed that that was the right policy at the time, and nothing has happened to change my mind. Indeed, would anyone really expect me to change my mind as a result of a policy proposal from a Labour Minister? Of course not.

But coalition government inevitably involves compromise between the parties involved, otherwise government would grind to a halt. On most issues, compromise is fairly easily achieved, and that is a tribute to the success of One Wales. On this issue, however, it is hard to see how there can be a meaningful compromise between Labour, which is determined to saddle our young people with ever larger levels of debt, and those of us who want our young people to end their education free of debt.

One simple way out might be to agree to continue with the current system for another year or two and let each of the parties put their proposals to the electorate in the 2011 Assembly election. I'm certain that that will form part of the debate during the period of consultation. In the meantime, Plaid Cymru's policy remains entirely clear, it is a policy which I support, and I shall continue to promote it.

1 comment:

Cibwr said...

Good to see that there are those out there who support a basic principle - that education should be free, any benefits that the graduates gain through higher wages being recouped via taxation. It is worth pointing out that society as a whole, not just the individuals in receipt of Higher Education benefits. And that is the difference, there are those of us that see things from the point of view of society as a whole as well as from to point of view of individuals.

My father was in Further Education and thought and still thinks that there is something obscene in people who have gained their degrees in a free education system imposing costs and debts on the generation that followed.

He also believes that education was something of value in its self, helping people reach their potential, equipping them with the intellectual tool kit to further themselves and deal with life.

It seems that increasingly that the National Assembly has choices narrowed by Westminster - if we fund fully education in the way we wish we will have to spend less on other things. I suspect that our idealism will be blunted by this reality - students will suffer - maybe less than in England but I don't see a way out of this within the current constraints.