Fail at social inclusion and win more money

December 1, 2000

After campaigning for additional investment, the higher education sector is seeing results. The government is promising it substantial new funding. This is good news after the damaging decline of unit of resource of the past decade. The increased investment should bring welcome relief. Yet there is scepticism in some parts of the sector as we read behind the £1 billion headlines.

I write as the vice-chancellor of a post-92 university and chair of the Coalition of Modern Universities. So, can I rejoice at the headlines? Sadly, probably not. Am I being churlish or have I developed an in-built caution to see the detail before I celebrate? Will the funding for teaching students, including that from the welcome ambition to increase participation, increase in real terms in all higher education institutions?

When we unpick the recent funding statements, for some there is little to celebrate. Our paymasters seriously neglected our buildings and infrastructure prior to incorporation. This is taking years and millions of £, to remedy. Until 1992 we had no dual funding for research, putting us at a serious disadvantage in the research assessment exercise. But we are striving to overcome these disadvantages, thanks to the efforts of dedicated and talented staff.

Universities such as Westminster rarely feature in government announcements, yet we do much to fulfil their laudable mission to raise standards and aspirations among disadvantaged groups, to promote Britain's efforts internationally and to help businesses to improve competitiveness. We have responded to the clarion call to widen participation. In fact, we were doing this long before special funding incentives were offered. Our student demography shows our success in attracting large numbers from the socioeconomic groups targeted by government in its battle for social inclusion.

Government statements about higher education are revealing. Attention is focused almost exclusively on "leading" or "top" universities or "HEIs with the most demanding entrance requirements". From the debates last summer about university access, a stranger would have believed there was only a handful of universities in this country, all discriminating against students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Under the Excellence Challenge proposals, important in helping to raise aspiration and achievement, there is now some funding for our existing work. Additional funding is being given selectively to universities that have failed those from the inner cities. This is in stark contrast to other funding initiatives, particularly related to research, where funding is given to those who have achieved highly.

No one would argue against investing in our science base, so the Science Research Initiative Fund, worth £675 million, deserves support. But it is to be allocated to universities with top RAE scores. This is discouraging for universities that are still building their capacity for science and research. We too are starved of laboratory and equipment investment. RAE 2001 will soon be upon us and peer judgement will be made of our achievements. But the SRIF will be allocated against the old scores of 1996, so we cannot even enter the race, just as we could not enter for Joint Infrastructure Fund grants.

The success of UK plc depends not only on having world-class research but also on having well-educated graduates keeping abreast of knowledge development. Much of this work takes place in universities that are not rated as "top" in the RAE. There is a desperate need for investment in the basic infrastructure for teaching. Those not receiving special funding through RAE and associated initiatives have no public funding opportunities for basic infrastructure investment.

Education secretary David Blunkett has announced additional funds to support increases in academic and non-academic pay to facilitate staff recruitment and retention, equal opportunities and human resource development. Top-quality education is the aspiration of all HEIs, so this money should be made available to all institutions. Improved funding is promised for mature students and those from poorer backgrounds who have been most adversely affected by changes in student funding. This is welcome, but we administer an increasing number of pots of money to help special categories. We are happy to do this, but the cost is high. Is it not time for these small pots to be combined into a single, more accessible fund for those in need?

I hope that the new funding recognises the importance of investment in all our institutions, thereby signalling to the majority of students that just because they are not studying in "top", "leading" or "universities with high A-level intakes", they are still important and the country values their education.

Geoffrey Copland is vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster and chair of the Coalition of Modern Universities.

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