Not what the doctor ordered

Moving health research and education funding to the Department of Health may mean higher education loses its voice

May 23, 2013

With a little over a month to go until the government’s 2015-16 spending review, the battle lines for the sector have been firmly drawn. In the blue corner we have the ring-fenced science and research budget of £4.6 billion, while in the red corner (or is that the Lib Dem-yellow corner?) we have the £300 million widening participation premium (now known as student opportunity funding).

As the Treasury looks for a potential £1.5 billion in savings from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, both sides look decidedly vulnerable given the political problems that would be associated with a raid on other funding, such as student grants.

In some quarters, this has been painted as a fight to the death; in reality, the cuts may just leave one of the funding streams badly wounded. But could there be a third option involving jiggery-pokery with Whitehall budgets?

The fear is that somewhere down the line the DoH would try to decouple the education of doctors from universities

As we report this week, it seems that serious consideration is being given to moving health-related research and education funding from BIS to the Department of Health.

The idea, it seems, is that by shifting the Medical Research Council’s budget and funding for the training of doctors to the DoH, BIS can, in one fell swoop, deal with almost two-thirds of its expected cut. The funding itself would then, in theory, be safely ensconced in the “protected” health budget.

However, as we know by now with this coalition, the consequences of such plans are not always sufficiently thought through. The DoH may seem like the natural home for the medical training budget (nursing training is already in the DoH’s remit) but universities have a far greater say in the training of doctors if the Higher Education Funding Council for England holds the purse strings. The fear is that somewhere down the line the DoH might try to decouple the education of doctors from universities. This would seem fantastical were it not for the fact that this appears to be already happening with the training of teachers.

Likewise, placing the MRC’s funding alongside that of the National Institute for Health Research in the DoH basket may look like a neat solution because of the overlap in their work, but it carries some serious dangers. As one medical school dean told us, the “design, implementation, outputs and evaluation of the science” under the two bodies are “very different”. If the mandarins in the DoH do not fully grasp this, the council could lose out.

However, perhaps the biggest concern with these plans is that they seem to represent the latest instalment in the long, slow death of BIS as its constituent parts are sold off to the rest of Whitehall. If health research and education are moved and then later Michael Gove, the education secretary, gets his way and acquires the rest of higher education, where does that leave the “department for growth”?

Sadly, the sector may have little room for manoeuvre, as a major cut to the science ring-fence or widening participation funding could spell disaster for some institutions.

But vice-chancellors should beware of accepting such budget shape-shifting at face value, and at least consider the danger of higher education policy being diluted among several departments. Such an eventuality would make lobbying for the sector’s interests even harder at a time when it is already near-impossible for universities to present a united and coherent voice in support of the benefits they bring to the country.

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