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Europe is the model for HE in the devolved nations, says HEPI report

Devolution has changed higher education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, resulting in systems that are less like those in England and more like those of continental Europe, according to some analysis from the Higher Education Policy Institute.

This is the conclusion of a report entitled: ‘Universities and constitutional change in the UK: the impact of devolution on the higher education sector’, published on 16 April 2012. It was compiled for HEPI by Tony Bruce, former research director at Universities UK.

The HEPI report argues that the failure of three out of the four home nations to adopt policies from England may be because these administrations have been more left-of-centre, compared with those (Labour and Coalition) at Westminster.

“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,” he says.

The belief that universities are meant to serve economic and social objectives has created a more interventionist approach by the devolved authorities. This is affecting many aspects of HE leading to greater powers for funding agencies, the abandonment of formula funding, planned provision on a regional bases and wider participation targets, the report explains.

But while devolution has brought benefits for the smaller nations of the UK, their room for manoeuvre has been constrained by the need to maintaining funding for universities at levels where they can compete with institutions in England.

“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,” it states.

However, in some other respects, the performance of HE in the three devolved nations has been less consistent. Problem areas include the participation rates of young people, social access to higher education and research quality, the report finds.

“There is no doubt that devolution has provided the four countries with the opportunity to shape their own HE 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,” Bruce notes.