I’m surprised it has taken this long.

This week the Welsh Assembly’s decided to allow Welsh Universities to charge up to £9,000 for tuition fees (as UK Government policy) but pay the difference between that which students currently pay (£3,290) and whatever the university charges – but for Welsh students only. The key points of the policy are:

  • Welsh universities will be allowed to raise their fees up to £9,000 from 2012-13.
  • All Welsh students living in Wales will get a grant to subsidise the difference between the current and future fee (anywhere up to £5,710 depending on what the university charges).
  • This also applies to Welsh students who study in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, as well as those who stay in Wales.
  • This will be paid for by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Naturally, accusations of racism are at play.  The Daily Mail excels, suggesting “apartheid” on fees and arguing that students were being “punished for being English.”

Now, they may have a point. One definition of “racism” (which I believe their newspaper front page used to describe the policy) is “Discrimination or prejudice based on race.” In this case, that would, I suggest, apply. Welsh students will receive the grant and they’ll take no real hit on the pocket. English students – who may be studying at the same university, taking the same courses, sitting next to the Welsh students paying £3,290 – will not be eligible.  That is discrimination on the basis of nationality.

However, where I think the Daily Mail is wrong is the fact that they blame the Welsh Assembly Government for this. Devolution was intended to allow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to govern themselves in the areas devolved to them, and to make distinctive policy in those areas where they disagreed with what the UK Government decided. And we’ve already seen examples of it. Scotland, for example, led the UK on the smoking ban, introduced Free Personal Care for the elderly and changed university fees to a graduate endowment, latterly scrapping that as well. Wales has introduced free prescription charges – a move which Scotland will follow – and now decided that universities should not cost their students more than they do at the moment. In short – devolution has done as intended. It has allowed the devolved nations to operate differently in areas where they have legislative powers, to develop distinctive policies for their respective populations and, more recently, to protect their population from the upcoming rise in tuition fees.

But that’s not the only reason I don’t think they can be blamed. Take a look at the House of Commons. It is a UK Parliament, it is true, but only 59 MPs come from Scotland, 40 from Wales and 18 from Northern Ireland. Which means there are 533 English MPs in the House of Commons (650 total seats minus 117 non-English seats).  Of those 533, the Conservatives hold 298 – a majority over the opposition English MPs on its own. When you add the 43 English Lib Dem MPs, there are 341 English MPs on the government benches against 192 in opposition (191 Labour plus 1 Green).

The point I’m making? Even if all of the MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (including government MPs – 12 Conservatives/ Lib Dems from Scotland, 11 from Wales) vote against the tuition fees rise, it will still be carried by ENGLISH MPs voting for it. This isn’t foundation hospitals or the original top-up tuition fees debate, where the Labour government relied on their Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote in favour of something which was only to be implemented in England. English MPs are voting for this – and will carry it themselves.

So let’s not blame the Welsh Assembly Government or the Scottish Government for deciding to do something which will benefit their own students. This is the natural and inevitable conclusion of devolution – different policies for different parts of the UK. I’m honestly surprised it has taken the English this long to realise that they are getting shafted by the system.

But its not of our doing – so don’t blame us.

PS – Also – don’t blame me for the map above not including Northern Ireland and including Cornwall. I thought it demonstrated my point pretty well but I’m not responsible for drawing it!