Leader: Even non-paying should get invite to funding party

May 24, 2002

Politicians promising money normally implies the imminence of an election. So the sight of prime minister Tony Blair speaking out yesterday on the importance of properly funded science, only weeks after chancellor Gordon Brown included approving sounds about universities in his budget speech, is a remarkable one. It has raised expectations throughout the sector that the summer's comprehensive spending review will contain good news for higher education.

Also encouraging is Mr Blair's apparent realisation that universities are key to the new economy he wants to create. They produce knowledge and the spin-off firms to exploit it, and they contain a vast wealth of under-used ideas and people.

The question is how to make the best use of any new resources that the spending review might produce. Some should be used to calm the chorus of disapproval - continuing among the letters opposite - for the research assessment exercise, which has left many deserving departments in the cold. A little should certainly be spent on some policy decisions about the future of the RAE and whether funding councils need to be the arbiters of research quality.

But there is a danger that the government's love for science and innovation will focus any new money on too narrow an area to satisfy the deep structural problems of UK higher education. For many companies, the principal product of universities is not papers or patents, but graduates. Although their numbers are on the way up, the resources to reach them are not. More damaging, the government has shown no sign of realising that knowledge is a whole system, not a series of discoveries to be exploited. Many valid areas of scholarship have no commercial use for now: others never will have. This makes it hard for some valid academic subjects to deliver that "something for something" beloved of the Treasury. University managers must ensure that these disciplines are invited to the party even if it is the potential financial winners who are paying for it.

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