Don’t bank on promised UK research spending increases

This week’s spending review could see commitments revisited and important policy documents released, predicts Nick Hillman

十一月 23, 2020
Map of UK made of coins
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In just a few days’ time, the Westminster government’s much-anticipated and long-awaited spending review will finally take place. If the key to political success is under-promising and over-delivering, it is likely to be a let-down.

Two years ago, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, was promising a full multi-year spending review in 2019. Last year, his immediate successor, Sajid Javid, delayed this to 2020, but then resigned before he could deliver it. Now, the third Chancellor in three years, Rishi Sunak, has downgraded the review to a mere one-year settlement.

In general terms, that pushes major reforms down the road, hopefully to a period when the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror and the country is on the path to recovery. But for three reasons, it is an error to think the spending review will therefore be unimportant for higher education.

First, when even the totemic 0.7 per cent commitment to international development spending is in doubt, it is unwise to take for granted the arrival of the whole £22 billion in annual spending on research and development that, just eight months ago, the Chancellor promised by 2024/25. It would be relatively easy for him to stand up in the House of Commons on Wednesday and say: “I am sorry, but the country is just not as wealthy as we thought and we have many urgent priorities. So now we must all tighten our belts.”

The arguments against rowing back on past promises are strong, too, of course – university research has proved its value in the crisis – but, then again, Dominic Cummings’ departure weakens the place of science at the heart of government. Plus, anyone who thinks the lesson of past spending reviews is that research budgets get automatic protection is wrong. In 2010, when I was involved with the spending review implemented by the Coalition, a cut to the research budget was actually signed off before being unwound at the final hour.

Second, at least three major documents affecting higher education could emerge around the time of the spending review: a further education white paper; a response to last year’s Augar report; and the independent review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework. Some vice-chancellors expect the higher education equivalent of one of the Beatles’ Christmas flexi-discs, too, in the form of an HE strategy paper. So even if the downgraded spending review is not crucial to other areas of government activity, there is a big chance the coming days will be decisive in plotting the course of higher education.

Third, higher education reforms often take ages to implement. It may sound absurd but it might soon be too late to bed in major higher education reforms before the next general election. For example, if the government wants to transform university admissions in their entirety, as it is suggesting, then it needs to propose a system fast if it is to be consulted upon, implemented and shown to work smoothly before the next election, due in 2024.

Funding changes can, perhaps regrettably, be implemented more swiftly. There are plenty of people who believe the money available for educating each student should be reduced. Alongside its well-publicised recommendation to cut the full-time undergraduate tuition fee cap to £7,500, the Augar report recommended an 11 per cent cut in the amount of money received by institutions to educate each student by 2022/23.

Some people close to the Treasury will want to go further, not least because of the reclassification of student loans in the national accounts. The portion of student loans expected to be written off in the future now appears as public spending, making the current system look much more costly. That raises the possibility of new caps on student places – either sector-wide or targeted on so-called “low value” courses. This would be catastrophic, given the surging demand for higher education; a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that England alone needs 360,000 full-time places over the next 15 years.

Another thing to watch out for is any flexing of Whitehall’s muscles. From the days of the establishment of the University Grants Committee a century ago, higher education policy has always respected the autonomy of institutions. This was most recently enshrined in law through the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). But there is something of a turf war going on in higher education just now. For example, the Office for Students and Universities UK have both just put out statements on judging the quality and standards of higher education, which is a topic the government also has strong views on. It is perhaps a little unedifying, given that the well-respected and UK-wide Quality Assurance Agency is the official designated quality body and one of the most important remaining planks of a single higher education sector across the four parts of the UK.

UK universities have just had to absorb more change than in any other quinquennium of the last millennium – and that would have been true even without the upheaval of Brexit and then the pandemic. Yet the pace of change is unlikely to slow down in the years ahead. So, above all, it is vital that any changes prompted by the government’s changing financial, geopolitical or ideological position recognise the higher education sector’s continuing underlying strengths and are not just aiming at change for change’s sake – or stimulating a culture war from which no one gains.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.



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Reader's comments (1)

So what if research funding were to increase? As always, it will be directed towards the couple of Russell group universities. Doesn't really matter to the rest.