Access top of Brown agenda

June 29, 2007

The new premier has pledged investment but what does the sector want? Melanie Newman reports

As Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister this week, higher education had been put firmly on his agenda, with promises to increase investment in research and to push ahead with widening student access to university.

"Advanced industrial countries will have in future to aspire to invest not 5, 6, 7, 8 per cent of their national income on education, science and innovation, but 10 per cent - £1 in every £10," Mr Brown said in his Mansion House speech in the City last week.

In his inaugural speech as Labour leader in Manchester at the weekend, he said of access: "To those who say more going to university must mean worse standards, let us reply: when in other countries 50 per cent of all their young people already go to university, and in Britain only 40 per cent, and in Britain just 10 per cent from low income backgrounds, now is the time, this is the task: to show education for what it is... the great liberating force of our generation."

Mr Brown said he wants every school linked to a college or university. He has asked Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, to report on what more universities can do to help schools.

Mr Brown has refused to be drawn on whether he would support removing the £3,000 cap on variable tuition fees when they are reviewed in 2009, but he has not ruled out doing so.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, predicted caution. "I fear that he may resist raising the fee cap to a level that will allow differentiation between universities partly because of a concern that higher fees will turn off poor students," he said.

Mr Bekhradnia added that he did not believe Mr Brown would invest much more public money into universities, except in research. "He has demonstrated a real conviction that investment in research is a key to a knowledge economy," he said.

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk  

BROWN'S RECORD

1999: Spent £68m on a partnership between Cambridge University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, without consulting the Department of Trade and Industry, a move criticised by the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

2000: Said it was an "absolute scandal" that Magdalen College, Oxford, rejected state school pupil Laura Spence, although two of the college's five successful candidates were from state schools.

2000: Handed universities an extra £100m, providing a real-terms increase in funding per student and halting a generation of cuts.

2002: Commissioned the Lambert review, which called for improved university-business links and better Oxbridge governance.

2003: Blocked DfES proposals for a graduate tax, heralding plans for top-up fees, which were capped at £3,000.

2004: Announced £1bn extra science funding as part of ten-year strategy.

2006: Confirmed abolition of RAE after 2008. Replaced by metrics.

HOPES AND FEARS: KEY FIGURES SHARE THEIR THOUGHTS

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University and chair-elect of Campaigning for Modern Universities: "Gordon Brown should promote higher education as a public service and not just as a market commodity; be cautious about any review of fees that promotes institutional or student inequity; and remember than 45 per cent of students are part-time."

Dennis Hayes, head of the Centre for Professional Learning, Canterbury Christ Church University: "A PM who is keen to see more police in our schools is a frightening prospect, and we can expect more of this intrusive behaviour on campus. I also expect more of a vocational turn in higher education."

David Denver, professor of politics at Lancaster University, said he wants Brown to drop the 50 per cent target and set a minimum A-level score for entry to university: "The reduction in student numbers would enable greater investment in universities and allow reform in funding so that students don't start life in debt."

Chris Snowden, vice-chancellor of Surrey University: "Research funding must be distributed to the most productive researchers - recognising quality of output and innovation rather than simply scale of institutional funding at the 'input'. Brown could be influential in dispelling the myth that world-class research is only done at the very big universities."

Andrew Oswald, professor of economics, Warwick University: "I want to see him distance himself from the weary Treasury position that the benefits of education are all about higher productivity and piles of pound notes."

Peter Cotgreave, director, Campaign for Science and Engineering: "More and more is expected of universities, without a commensurate rise in income. The Government needs to take a lead, decide what it wants from higher education and who will pay for it. We need cultural change on endowments. If the rich got tax breaks as incentives to donate, it might help build that culture."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union: "A good way for Brown to show his commitment to Britain's universities would be to bring us up to a competitive level of funding for higher education."

Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University: "To insult Oxford, Gordon Brown raised a misleading media storm over the Laura Spence affair; to finesse the judgments of scholars he imposed metrication on the research assessment exercise; and to displace scholars from running universities he commissioned the Lambert review to recommend that academics be replaced on university councils by business people.

"Most of Brown's initiatives in higher education, from the failed electronic university (£50 million wasted) to the Cambridge/MIT Institute have been unproductive. And his parliamentary support for top-up fees was grudging and delayed. I want Brown to leave universities alone; to raise the cap on top-ups to the market rate and to transfer RAE money to Research Councils UK so that our lead universities can be independent of the funding councils."

Justin Fisher, professor of political science, Brunel University: "I hope that Gordon Brown will continue broadly with existing policies, including the maintenance of a strong element of peer review in future research assessment exercises. I'd like to think that there would be some reduction in general auditing."

John Cater, chief executive of Edge Hill University: "I'd like Gordon Brown to keep Alan Johnson at the Department for Education. Second, I'd want him to recognise that the skills agenda should not be instrumentalist. Almost all employers recognise that the key skills are transferable and interpersonal, and universities have a strong record in developing these strengths."Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council: "For British research, the future is bright, the future is Brown!"

John Craven, vice-chancellor of Portsmouth University and chair of the Universities Alliance: "We hope for a continuing strong commitment to support excellence in research wherever it is found, and no diminution in public funding in exchange for a major contribution to economic development, the skills agenda and to social justice."

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University: "Gordon Brown has been heavily involved in the economic and enterprise agenda in higher education, so it would be bizarre if he were to change things now. I want him to guarantee continued infrastructure funding and enterprise funding, and to work to increase attainment in schools; more applicants with As and Bs at A level are needed."

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, wants the Government to provide: "A funding and regulatory regime that allows world-class research-intensive universities to flourish and compete effectively in the global market; better financial support and incentives for postgraduates; a lighter administrative and legislative burden; further efforts to overcome the socioeconomic causes of under-achievement among the disadvantaged, particularly through strategic improvements to (schools); a regime of work permits and visas that will attract the brightest graduates and the greatest minds so they can make significant contributions to the UK economy and society."

Steve Smith, chair of the 1994 Group and vice-chancellor of Exeter University: "We must ensure that investment in the UK system continues to reach international standards. We must strengthen the connection between higher education and industry, by delivering high-quality research and by providing highly skilled graduates."

Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK: "We will be looking for him to deliver on his calls to bring UK spending on higher education up to the levels of our international competitors."

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