Anger after DFES spurns warnings

August 1, 2003

Academics and politicians reacted angrily this week after the government dismissed their warnings about research concentration, staff pay and student funding.

Shock and bitterness were two reactions to the government's double-barrelled blow to higher education, which came in the form of the Department for Education and Skills' responses to the higher education white paper consultation and to the House of Commons education and skills select committee's report on the white paper.

Writing in this week's THES , Barry Sheerman, chairman of the select committee whose report last month savaged most of the key proposals in the white paper, said: "My frustration comes from the rejection of most of our recommendations, despite a few honeyed words and phrases about the quality of our endeavours.

"All in all, some members of my committee may be wondering this summer whether all the work and effort that went into what many have regarded as a thoughtful and innovative report has made any difference at all to government thinking."

Mr Sheerman said he was shocked that the government had "washed its hands" of the staff salaries issue and that it had ignored the "serious misgivings" of the higher education sector regarding the government's drive to further concentrate research funding in top-rated departments and universities.

Colin Matheson, chief executive of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "There is a real bitterness in our part of the sector. We, as institutions, have done everything that we have been asked to do on the widening participation agenda. We feel that we were promised a level playing field when we became universities in 1992 and that hasn't happened.

We need the freedom and resources to develop.

"The paradox is this government, with one breath saying that they want to widen participation and with the next saying that they are not very interested in what we do and allowing us to develop."

The documents are broadly similar in their responses on research. In its select committee response, the government confirms that funding will be cut for middle-ranking departments, those rated 4 in the last research assessment exercise, with next year's £118 million being held steady for 2004-05 and 2005-06, which amounts to a cut once inflation has been taken into account.

The white paper response document states: "The changes we propose are not a signal for institutions to close 4-rated departments, or for individuals to seek work elsewhere. Institutions must, however, decide on their future strategies based on their strengths and weaknesses and whether they wish to support research not funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England."

The response to the select committee report says there is no question that the government is trying to dictate the missions of universities. But, in the same paragraph, it says that some institutions will be affected and that it is right that government offers them "help in developing their missions, if they wish to take it".

The white paper consultation response adds ominously: "We want universities and departments to concentrate on what they do best. That may mean some tough decisions."

On staff pay, the select committee response document dismisses the committee's call for more money to improve pay. It says: "Higher education institutions, as the employers, are responsible for the pay of their employees."

It also rejects the committee's call for top-up fees of £5,000 and grants of up to £5,000 paid for by raising interest rates on loans.

It defends the government's proposed £3,000 fee as the correct balance between allowing universities the freedom to raise income while not threatening access. It says that raising interest rates on loans would hit lower earners hardest.

On expansion, the document suggests that the government might not be too worried if the sector fails to hit Tony Blair's 50 per cent participation target by 2010. It says that the government is "ultimately less concerned" with the precise percentage of participation in any particular year than with getting people into the higher education and training that they and the economy needs.

The select committee said the government was wrong to make vocational foundation degrees the main vehicle for expansion towards the 50 per cent.

But the government accuses the select committee of misunderstanding expansion issues and says it is entirely appropriate to focus on foundation degrees, which, it says, will be attractive to school leavers and employees.

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