Collision courses

March 7, 1997

Hopeless contradictions in funding council policy point to the conflicting demands of government pressure, argues G. R. Evans.

Does funding council policy reveal a dangerous enslavement to government dogma?

The Further and Higher Education Act 1996 requires the funding councils to fund "activities which the governing bodies of higher education institutions consider necessary or desirable to provide or carry on for the purpose of or in connection with education or research". But since there is not enough money for everyone to have all they want, there have to be decisions about who gets what. The funding council may operate a policy which turns out to be in conflict with that of the university.

If that happens, considering something "necessary or desirable" will not get a university very far. It will just not get the money.

In February the Higher Education Funding Council for England sent out its circular containing the recurrent grants for 1997/98 together with a statement of policy. "Fixed sums of money are made available within each subject area and are then distributed to institutions on the basis of the quality and volume of the research conducted." So good performance is to be rewarded.

But its non-formula funding is angled in a different way altogether, to assist certain poor performers to get better by giving them more money. So despite the noticeably weak performance of education department research in the RAE, there is to be "a joint initiative with the Teacher Training Agency . . . to promote applied and pedagogic research in education". This is presumably because there is a panic about teacher training and standards in schools.

There are to be "funded places in those areas of the country that are currently under-provided", so in university teaching too there is to be preferential funding for those who need it most. But at the same time, "to him that hath shall be given" in the form of "funded places on high-quality science or engineering courses".

Such contradictions in the document's thinking can only be read as indications of the effects of trying to hold together confusing Government policy directives.

In fact, the vocabulary of the document more than hints at policy control through funding. HEFCE says it "aims to encourage institutions to conduct programmes with users of research". The ethics of benefaction have been much in the news this year, especially in connection with the funding of Oxford and Cambridge chairs. Government policy allows de facto policy control to industrial and commercial and even charitable funders, which can in their turn limit the statutory right of universities to decide for themselves what is best for them.

Perhaps conflicting principles do not matter so long as it is clear that that is happening, and so long as everyone can see that the results will be in the public interest. Those who suffer financially under these disbursements will be the lower-middle-rank struggling to do better without "targeted" financial help to reward or to assist; and above all the "beginners" in research. And where are the personal rewards for the researchers and teachers who do all the work, especially the lone stars in dimly-lit departments?

The figures have been taken at face value, as though RAE ranking was guaranteed to be accurate. Funding as a reward is fair only if all the panels have produced comparable profiles. But they have not. They have also been taken as a crude moral yardstick. "Reward" and "punishment" are not inappropriate terms where the underlying assumptions are those of the "could try harder" genre of school report. But Oxford and Cambridge started miles ahead, and some of the others were pretty well-placed in the starting blocks too. If what we want is more universities of Oxbridge quality we should be asking how to achieve that.

G. R. Evans lectures in medieval intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

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