Beckett's gain Blunkett's loss?

June 19, 1998

Tension is rising as the comprehensive spending review nears its conclusion. Gordon Brown's statement last week held both threat and promise for higher education.

On pay, restraint on public sector spending does not bode well. On capital, signs are better. Universities and colleges need renewed capital grants badly. The private finance initiative has proved of limited use since there is often no revenue stream to entice collaborators. New arrangements whereby departments that sell assets keep the proceeds could help greatly, since David Blunkett has more tranches of student debt to sell and will benefit from accounting changes that will remove much of the cost of loans from his books. He is, surely, too fair a man to divert this money to other parts of the education system.

Where matters are apparently not yet resolved and look worrying is science. There may well be more money: Mr Brown seemed to make a clear promise of more last week. But who will get it? Trade and industry secretary Margaret Beckett, with her science background, is an enthusiastic contender. If she is successful that will mean more money for the research councils and more gearing to industrial priorities. It might be additional money. But the fear must be that Mrs Beckett's gain will be Mr Blunkett's loss. He has less gut sympathy with the science community and may not be a particularly robust champion of the funding councils' share of research money.

Whitehall has long hated the dual-support system whereby a chunk of the nation's research money (distributed selectively on the basis of the research assessment exercise) is delivered into the hands of vice-chancellors. Research teams that won the funding do not necessarily get the loot. It may be used instead to build up new work or improve middle- ranking departments.

Rumour has it this freedom is under threat once again. If so, and the remaining funding council research money is moved to Mrs Beckett's department, Whitehall and research council control will be increased. There is the likelihood of more short-termism and more prescription. And there will be fewer opportunities for innovative work to develop especially in unexpected places. Before such a potentially disastrous step is taken all members of the Cabinet should note Roger Needham's views (Research page i) on how research is best managed.

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