Leader: We see your problems, but no quick solutions

October 25, 2002

The Treasury's decision to publish the cross-cutting review of science and research this week - it was completed in March - fuels speculation that its recommendations will find their way into next month's higher education strategy paper, along with promises of new money for the sector. If so, there will be few complaints from higher education.

The report confirms a long list of grievances - low pay, research council grants that end up costing institutions money and the huge subsidy in unpaid staff time that props up university research. Another conclusion is that government departments should give research more thought and money. This could mean their spending more in universities.

Less welcome is the review's admission that it could take the rest of the decade to solve the problems itemised. The junior staff trapped on low and inflexible pay, rightly identified as a key problem group, may not want to wait this long. There will also be caution about the review's conclusion that research council money is "spread thinly" among institutions outside the Russell Group, suggesting a further concentration of spending in a narrow elite of universities.

The paper raises hopes that the government will spend more to close the funding gaps it identifies. But the sums needed are so large that the state is unlikely to find all the cash itself. No funding mechanism so far proposed would close the £2 billion gap between the research that universities do and the money they are paid to do it. If things look a little brighter this week for hard-pressed universities and their staff, they look more ominous for opponents of top-up fees.

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3 October