Simple-minded sound and fury

Guest post from @TobyMasonBBC

Most people who have either listened to or been interviewed by Felicity Evans on Radio Wales would not describe her as "simple minded" - in fact very much the reverse.

But somehow this morning the Education Minister, Huw Lewis, in the course of trying to explain why he won't be putting a firm policy on student tuition fees before the Welsh electorate in 2016, did exactly that.

It was a somewhat sheepish minister who emerged from the BBC studios in the Bay after the interview, having realised fairly rapidly that it wasn't perhaps an optimum choice of words.

The problem for the Minister is not his unfortunate choice of terminology though - it's the fact that he didn't have, it seemed to me, a clear answer as to why his schedule for the cross party Commission he proposed last night to examine higher education in Wales means it won't come back with any conclusions until after the next Assembly elections in 2016.

The current fee subsidy regime, which gives each Welsh student studying in the UK up to £5,500 a year towards their tuition fee costs, is a firm Welsh Government pledge until 2016. Ministers say it's costed, affordable and sustainable - at least until then.

What comes next? Labour are facing questions from opposition parties as well as the HE sector as a whole to state where they stand on continuing the policy beyond 2016 - questions that will only grow between now and the election. Speaking this morning the Minister refused to give any commitment - saying it would be a matter for the Commission to examine, along with other aspects of higher education funding.

But that appears to mean that Labour will effectively subcontract their policy on student fees to the Commission for the duration of the next Assembly elections and beyond, something the Liberal Democrats have called "cynical and weak"

The Lib Dems have got recent and painful memories of pre-election pledges relating to student finance, of course. Their leader Kirsty Williams told her press conference this morning that "the tuition fees trauma is still with us".

But their fundamental point is this. The Welsh electors will get a once in five year chance to vote for the party of their choice in May 2016 and they should have the right to know where they stand on an issue as key as how much people will have to spend to go to university.

If you say one thing in an election campaign and then do something else afterwards you rightly cop a monumental amount of flak, as Nick Clegg has done. If you don't say anything at all, they argue, then how are people supposed to make up their minds and then hold you to your promises?

Plaid Cymru have called for a cross party Commission on this issue in the past so are going to play ball in order to appear completely consistent. But they sense internal Labour divisions here between those who want to push on with the current policy beyond 2016 and those who want to let it go.

Their education spokesman Simon Thomas noted, "a Commission that does not report until after the next election will be seen as saying as much about the Minister's reluctance to engage with his own party on reform as it does about anything else."

Mr Lewis affected, or at least tried to affect, nonchalance in the chamber this afternoon after being summoned to answer an urgent question by the Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns who asked him rather pointedly about "this simple-minded policy".

He attacked the "synthetic" anger of the opposition parties and on the timescale said, "it could report a week next Wednesday, it could report in five years" which doesn't go very far towards answering the question as to why autumn 2016 is suddenly so significant.

But he is clearly thinking long term - for him, the prize is a national debate followed by a settlement that could endure for ten years or more.

He told AMs that he was very concerned that the "sound and fury" of an election campaign was not the place to debate sustainable policies for the long term. Discuss.

Incidentally, in his response, the minister made great play of his desire to build a genuine consensus around the Commission. According to Angela Burns, his only contact about establishing a Commission with the Shadow Minister of the main opposition party prior to last night's speech was a brief note on the Assembly chamber's instant messaging system.

All in all, a textbook example of how not to announce a cross party Commission on a highly sensitive political topic. The man the Minister has nominated as his chair, Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the current Vice Chancellor of Aberdeen University, has got his work cut out. But looking on the bright side, as things stand at least he's got three years or so to do it.