Budget leaves nip in the air

December 29, 1995

FUNDING. Academics have been moaning about cheese-paring for years, but this was not the alternative they wanted. The old Soviet-era joke about the state of Russian agriculture - "About average - worse than last year, better than next" - came to mind when Chancellor Clarke and Education and Employment Secretary Shephard combined to slice Pounds 300 million, about 7 per cent, off next year's allocations and Pounds 550 million over the next three years.

It juxtaposed unpleasantly with the Higher Education Funding Council for England report showing that although the sector was well-run, as the National Audit Office had said last year, it was already losing ground financially - with teaching making a loss and outside earnings plugging the gap.

Next year's allocations will be tough, but the real crunch could come in 1997 when the results of the current Research Assessment Exercise - which dominated academic gossip and a lively professorial transfer market - are factored in. HEFCE chief executive Graeme Davies, who moved on to Glasgow University in October, tried to dampen transfer frenzy by warning that long-term research culture would matter as much as current individual performance.

His successor Brian Fender, previously vice chancellor of Keele, set in train the first significant review of the funding model Professor Davies regarded as his main achievement. Giving weight to teaching quality is under consideration, and HEFCE launched a miniature stalking horse, a Pounds 4 million fund "explicitly linked to high achievement" in teaching.

The 1995/96 allocations found some big and distinguished fish - Imperial College and Manchester - swept into the safety net alongside season-ticket holder Aston, as "research volume" emerged as the decisive factor. Odd outcomes under this heading prompted an audit headed by former Reading vice chancellor Ewan Page. This found "very significant differences of interpretation" - a deeply euphemistic description in the eyes of some vice chancellors - and led to resubmissions.

If institutions are feeling the pinch, their heads are doing better. With top salaries to be compulsorily disclosed in 1994/95 annual reports, most complied a year earlier, with Pounds 90-100,000 the going rate. Direct comparisons were qualified by the minority not disclosing and differences in the manner of disclosure. These caveats noted, Derek Roberts of University College London - who said he had taken a hefty cut to come from GEC - came top while Mike Fitzgerald of Thames Valley - who said he was very well paid for what he did - emerged at the bottom.

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