Conservatives may scrap potential-impact terms

Shadow secretary rejects 'clunky business' of pre-defined research outputs. Melanie Newman writes

October 8, 2009

The Conservatives will not force academics to demonstrate the potential impact of their research before it is funded, the Shadow Universities Secretary has indicated.

Speaking at a fringe meeting of the party conference in Manchester this week, David Willetts said: "We do not wish to get into the clunky business of defining the outputs of research projects in advance."

He said it was "particularly offensive" to force academics to tick boxes for bureaucratic purposes and suggested that research councils disregard impact statements when awarding grants.

"We don't want to see these things imported into the research excellence framework," he said.

On 4 October, the first day of the conference, Mr Willetts announced plans to fully fund 10,000 additional university places for the next academic year by offering a discount to graduates who pay off their tuition and maintenance loans early.

"We expect that offering a three-year incentive for early repayment will bring in at least £300 million in additional voluntary repayments - just 1 per cent of the loan book," he said.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Willetts contrasted his proposal with the Government's allocation of 10,000 unfunded places in July for students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

"There is no evidence that the 10,000 places allocated by the Government over the summer have gone to STEM subjects," he said.

As they are expensive to teach, Mr Willetts added, it was unlikely that universities could afford to accept extra places without funding.

"Our additional places will be fully funded so that universities can deliver a wide range of subjects," he said.

Mr Willetts also questioned whether the Government was committed to imposing fines on universities that recruited more students this year than in 2008-09, as it has vowed to do.

Many universities, particularly the newer ones, over-recruited in 2009-10.

"There is a game of brinkmanship going on reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis - we are waiting to see who will blink first," Mr Willetts said.

However, students dropping out between now and December, when student numbers are reported to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, may ensure that universities that have over-recruited fall back within acceptable enrolment limits.

Asked how a Tory government would structure its education department, Mr Willetts said the party had "decided not to decide" at this stage.

But the Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove, had earlier hinted that universities would return to sit with schools under a broad education umbrella.

Noting that universities had been "divorced" from schools in the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and were now "a ward of Lord Mandelson", Mr Gove said: "The ties that bind schools, colleges and universities need to be reinforced and knit more tightly."

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