‘Cash-for-access’ claim over £1 million bill for Whitehall ties

Government scheme funded by four universities raises concern in sector over ‘surprising flow of resources’

July 3, 2019
Source: Alamy

The UK government has been criticised for charging four universities a combined £1 million to cover the cost of a team of officials who help Whitehall departments “weave academic insight into the policymaking process”.

One source questioned whether the Open Innovation Team project amounted to universities being offered a “form of cash-for-access to the policy process”. The Cabinet Office announced last month that the scheme would be extended for a further three years, after launching as a pilot in 2016, with four institutions – Brunel University London, Lancaster University, and the universities of Essex and York – agreeing a “£1 million three-year funding deal”.

Oliver Dowden, the minister for implementation, said at the time that each university “will contribute £85,000 per year to help us cover staff and project costs for a team of officials dedicated to helping Whitehall departments weave academic insight into the policy-making process.

“In return, our partners will receive a range of benefits designed to boost collaboration with their academics and educate their students about the policymaking process.”

He added that “while officials will work closely with these partners, it won’t be an exclusive relationship” and civil servants “will continue to work with academics from other institutions, just as they have since the team was set up”.

The initial trial, which ran from 2016 to 2018, and was funded by Lancaster alongside the universities of Bath, Southampton and Warwick, was billed by the Cabinet Office as having helped government officials to “connect with more than 500 academics and deliver almost 30 projects, covering some of the government’s key policy priorities”, including “white papers on mental health and online harm, as well as projects on economic growth and gender equality”.

But some in the higher education sector have argued that the government should be opening up to academic expertise as a matter of course, without charge. One source suggested to Times Higher Education that some universities were deterred from joining on principle by the required payments.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former special adviser in government, said that while it was welcome to see policymakers engaging with academics and no minister should be criticised for engaging with research, he was “surprised by the flow of resources”.

“Research is underfunded in universities as it is…and we are not on the right trajectory to hit the government’s own research spending targets. So the government urgently needs to spend more of its own resources on research,” he said.

“Plus, charging a handful of universities to have impact seems a little odd when policymakers should be searching for the best policy solutions from all sources.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Working with academics through the Open Innovation Team has brought expertise and fresh thinking into how government officials approach some of the most challenging policy issues.

“The team works with universities from across the sector, not just those who sponsor the project, to generate new ideas to help improve the work of government.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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