Leader: Beware own goal on research field

August 27, 2004

There is no denying the need for universities to calculate the full cost of their research; other organisations do it as a matter of course and the underpricing of contracts has long been recognised as a contributory factor in higher education's funding gap. But academics and administrators are understandably concerned that the cure may be worse than the disease if government proposals are implemented. The very fact that the Office of Science and Technology's guidelines run to three volumes says everything about the bureaucratic burden facing research staff.

The issues are not as straightforward as they might seem, even without the orgy of form-filling that many fear. If research competition were a purely domestic activity, broad principles might be all the central direction required; detailed pricing could be left to the market. Private companies cost research and tender for business without itemising every stage of the process. It is up to the commissioning body to choose the quote it likes best, balancing quality against price, as any private customer would. But the research market is highly international and British universities will be at an immediate disadvantage if they are forced to work under different rules from competitors. The European Union's Framework Programme is the most obvious arena in which the playing field may be less than level: Continental universities are already making it clear in preparatory meetings that they cannot and will not produce the costings that will be demanded of institutions on this side of the Channel. As in other areas of international competition, British universities will be up against state-subsidised bids that may secure much of the funding that the new system is designed to recoup.

Whatever system is introduced, there will be conflicting pressures on universities. Combined with the dual funding system, the new requirements may mean that the rich eventually get richer, while less research-intensive institutions find it harder to compete. As a minimum, ministers must show that the system is both fair and no more onerous than necessary. They would be wise to go slowly because, for the moment, good judges have doubts on both scores.

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