Leader: It's lost control again

As poor steering threatens to cut off the supply of homegrown STEM graduates, coalition policy looks set to crash and burn

September 8, 2011

It is less than a year since Lord Browne delivered his report on the future funding of the sector. Since the decision was made not to follow his recommendation and lift the cap on fees, an almost surreal series of compromises between the coalition parties have been driven through at breakneck speed, hitting a number of obstacles before spinning out of control like Lewis Hamilton's McLaren.

Each fix has created another problem, leaving us with a string of unintended consequences that could tie higher education in knots for years. The latest perverse outcome could prove the most damaging. As part of his reforms, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, announced an across-the-board reduction to the Higher Education Funding Council for England teaching grant. Although every banding took a cut, concerns were raised about the arts and humanities: already receiving less funding than science subjects, their grant was wiped out.

Mr Willetts was at pains to reassure everyone that there was no cause for alarm as the arts would in fact get a good deal. What he failed to tell us was that this would come at the expense of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

From 2012-13, science departments will find themselves with only £1,500 per new student on top of the increased tuition fee, despite STEM subjects being far more expensive to teach than classroom-based ones. The AAB policy has delivered a further blow: a number of science and engineering subjects have low proportions of AAB students, leaving departments that teach them open to greater competition.

Now we hear that international student numbers for taught postgraduate STEM courses have almost doubled in eight years whereas those for home students have risen by just 1 per cent, leaving departments vulnerable to fluctuations in the overseas market and the ludicrous vagaries of our visa system.

This lack of growth in UK student numbers will affect the viability of STEM courses and denude the future academic workforce. Of course, this is bad enough, but the effects will be felt well beyond the university.

In his speech to Universities UK, business secretary Vince Cable recognised that universities make an important contribution to the UK's economic growth, yet his government's actions threaten to crush their efforts. No home students and no courses will mean no innovation and no skilled workers for our cutting-edge industries - the very opposite of what the government intends.

A silo mentality prevails. While teaching dominated the recent higher education White Paper, research received scant attention, a situation to be redressed by the forthcoming innovation and research strategy. But there appears to be no recognition of the interplay between the two: the damage inflicted on the teaching budget may have already undermined research.

Giving students more choice was admirable but putting them in the driving seat was reckless, as were so many fundamental changes in such a short space of time. Mr Cable says that the government's task is to "preserve a virtuous circle of excellent research" so that technological and intellectual breakthroughs occur here rather than elsewhere in the world. On that score, it seems doomed to failure.


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