Jo Johnson: research funding should be ‘simpler’

‘We don’t need Nobel physicists running car parks. We want the scientists focused on science,’ says universities minister

September 9, 2015
Jo Johnson, minister
Source: PA

Jo Johnson wants to see a “simpler” research funding system as well as faster routes for private provider “challenger institutions” to enter higher education.

The universities and science minister, in a speech at the Universities UK conference today, also said that there would be a formal framework to allow for universities to “exit” the sector if they fail, to ensure a “properly functioning market”.

And Mr Johnson discussed plans for a Green Paper covering the teaching excellence framework and sector regulatory issues “later in the autumn”.

His comments on research funding are significant in the context of the ongoing spending review. The business secretary, Sajid Javid, has commissioned management consultants McKinsey to carry out a review of all Department for Business, Innovation and Skills-funded bodies that is said to have considered the idea of merging the seven research councils into one.

Mr Johnson told his audience at the University of Surrey that he was committed to the principle of dual-funding support for research, a reference to money flowing through both the research and funding councils, as well as to the Haldane principle and to scientific excellence”.

“But I do see scope for a simpler system of delivering vital research funding for universities and opportunities to increase its strategic impact, he added.

“It’s also clear to me that there are many in the sector demanding a process for assessing the quality of scholarly output that is less bureaucratic and burdensome to academics, and takes up less of the time they could be spending more fruitfully on research and also, of course, on teaching.”

Speaking to journalists after his speech, Mr Johnson was asked by Times Higher Education if he could explain what he meant by a “simpler” research funding system.

“The first thing is we have the Paul Nurse review into our research architecture and that’s an extremely important piece work – and we’re listening closely to Sir Paul and taking stock of his emerging recommendations,” he said.

He added: “We see a case for greater strategic coordination of research council activity. So we’re making sure the allocations of the research councils are optimal, that the scope for efficiencies between research councils is reflected in how they are organised.

“We don’t need Nobel physicists running car parks. We want the scientists focused on science.”

Response: Birkbeck's Martin Paul Eve on Jo Johnson's speech

Mr Johnson’s speech also said that the Green Paper, in addition to proposals for the TEF, will “cast a critical eye over the processes for awarding access to student support funding, degree-awarding powers and university title” with the aim of greater choice for students.

He added that the “requirement for new providers to seek out a suitable validating body from amongst the pool of incumbents is quite frankly anti-competitive. It’s akin to Byron [burgers] having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant.”

The government would shortly be lifting its moratorium on new applications for degree-awarding powers and university title, Mr Johnson said.

“Once again, we are opening the doors to new entrants and challenger institutions, all in the interest of increasing the choices available to students,” he added.

The speech also said that “we need to be prepared for the fact that some providers may exit the market”.

Asked afterwards if he would be willing to see a “public university” fail, Mr Johnson replied that a “properly functioning market has to have scope for both market entry and market exit”.

The scope of regulatory measures, in addition to the TEF, outlined by Mr Johnson in the speech prompted suggestions from observers that the Green Paper will lead to a full higher education bill.

“We are a deregulatory government, and much of the higher education system is ripe for simplification,” he said.

In a section of the speech trailed in advance, Mr Johnson said that a TEF was needed to tackle “patchiness” in the student experience across the sector. There is “extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition”, he said. “And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it.”

Dame Julia Goodfellow, the UUK president and University of Kent vice-chancellor, said in her speech that “teaching excellence can only be delivered with sustainable funding” and warned that the UK was “losing out” on overseas students.

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