Leader: More to funding mission than central control

March 2, 2001

The Higher Education Funding Council for England's latest allocations show it at its most controlling. Its critics' fondness for terming it Gosplan after the Soviet planning ministry will not be tempered by the sight of thousands of figures for everything from student numbers to research cash being handed down to supposedly independent institutions.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Hefce's mission is central control of a static system. As the University of Teesside has shown, the funding council is a body with which deals can be done -in its case a two-year one that will mitigate the financial effects of under-recruitment this year. Nor does it seem to respect prestige excessively. It has cut back research funds to elite institutions as a punishment for their comparatively low research student numbers.

By contrast, the allocations show a clutch of new universities being rewarded for enhancing access for students from poor families, alongside big names such as Imperial and Manchester being punished for under-recruitment. This suggests that although expansion via part-time students is problematic, some institutions can do it successfully. If there is to be a round of institutional reorganisation, including mergers, under Hefce's incoming boss, Sir Howard Newby, older universities may be junior partners in the process.

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