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Revealed: Tory plan to return devolved powers to London.

Byline: Martin Shipton

THE Conservative Party is plotting to take powers over Welsh universities away from the National Assembly and send them back to Westminster, we can reveal.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan astonished vice-chancellors at a private breakfast by asking them: "Would Welsh universities be better off if higher education was not devolved?" She then asked them to write to her with their views before leaving the room and letting her deputy David Jones field questions from the academics.

A spokeswoman for First Minister Rhodri Morgan said: "Once again, the Tories in their true colours have been exposed. This is exactly what people in Wales need to be aware of - their secret plotting to hand back bits of devolved Wales to Westminster.

"Plans to roll back the devolution settlement should not be matters for private meetings. The Tories need to come clean and tell the people of Wales exactly what their proposals are.

"So much for David Cameron's much publicised pledge for more openness- it's a timely reminder that people should judge them on what they do, not on what they say." Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams said: "I have been told by two sources in the higher education sector that at the end of the meeting, Cheryl Gillan, pictured below, said there was another issue she wanted to raise. "She said, 'Would Welsh universities be better off if higher education was not devolved?' She said she didn't want an answer then, but wanted vice-chancellors to write to her. She then said she had to leave. "People were flabbergasted. After she had gone, one of the people asked David Jones whether she was joking. He said she was serious, and that the idea was being considered. "This is just incredible. At the Assembly we have been talking about the tools we need for economic recovery, and one of those tools is using universities to drive economic development. The Tories are considering taking that power away from us. "It shows that despite all the talk from pro-devolution Tories like Nick Bourne and David Melding, the party is still basically against devolution. "Its instinct is to think in London terms. I wonder whether Nick Bourne even knew his masters in London were taking this initiative. "Of course, there are problems with the funding gap, but instead of trying to get a 'Made in Wales' solution at the Assembly, the Tory instinct is to take powers back to London. "This shows us just what we can expect if the Tories win the next general election." Plaid Cymru education spokeswoman Nerys Evans said: "The Conservatives must confirm whether or not they have proposed taking powers away from the Assembly. If they have then it is obvious that they have no commitment at all to devolution. "The hidden agenda of David Cameron and the Conservative MPs is becoming clearer every day. They are an anti-devolution party who want to go back to the days when Tory Welsh Secretaries were Governor Generals implementing disastrous policies that seriously damaged our nation." A Welsh Conservative Party spokesman said: "This was a private meeting and therefore we will respect the confidential nature of what was said. "Party policy has not changed. Higher education remains a matter for the National Assembly. "Cheryl Gillan simply asked vicechancellors to write to her as Shadow Secretary of State with their thoughts on the future of higher education in Wales.

"Like them,Welsh Conservative MPs and AMs are concerned about the funding gap between institutions in Wales and those in England. "The importance of a thriving higher education sector is critically important for the Welsh economy, particularly in the current climate. "Kirsty Williams was not present at the meeting and therefore was not privy to the discussions." AseniorWelsh academic, who did not wish to be named, told theWestern Mail: "There is increasing disquiet about HEFCW, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. Some universities believe it is favouring some institutions over others. "The pounds 70m funding gap between Welsh and English universities has not been properly addressed. "Also there are concerns that with the Assembly Government's budget facing pounds 500m cuts,Welsh universities will suffer." HEFCW, which was set up by a Conservative Government, has channelled funds to Welsh universities since 1993. Before the Assembly was set up in 1999, it was answerable to the Welsh Office. In 2007-08, there were 125,542 HE students in Wales, with almost 7,000 more doing Open University courses. Welsh HE institutions produce more than 30,000 graduates a year, and in the current financial year will receive grant allocations from HEFCW of pounds 433.8m. In 2004-05, the HE sector was estimated to contribute more than pounds 1.64bn to the Welsh economy. In the last exercise to assess research in the UK (Research Assessment Exercise 2008), 14% of all research activity submitted by Welsh institutions was judged to be "world-leading", with a further 35% assessed as "internationally excellent".
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 3, 2009
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