Funding gap threat to medical schools

November 7, 1997

VARIATIONS in research income between different medical schools are greater than ever, with some schools receiving ten times more money than others, it was claimed this week.

Sir Keith Peters, regius professor of physic at Cambridge University and a member of the independent task force which reported on medical academic careers, brought the funding gap to the attention of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology.

He told the committee that where medical academics were given the right opportunities, such as at the postgraduate medical schools, United Kingdom research was well up to international standards.

But at other medical schools, where medical academics taught, did research and National Health Service clinical work, "we are asking our clinical academics to compete (on research) with, in many instances, one hand tied behind their back". The select committee heard that the NHS and universities needed to work together to reduce pressures on clinical academics so they could dedicate more time to research and improve their research assessment exercise performance.

But Sir Rex Richards, chairman of the task force, said the government's Steering Group on University Medical and Dental Education and Research (SGUMDER), the only joint Department for Education and Employment/Department of Health committee, was "not being particularly effective".

He added that two new task groups were being set up by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the NHS executive to look at links between teaching, research and patient care and health care and the RAE.

Sir Derek Roberts, provost of University College London, told the committee he feared the "knock for knock" agreement - whereby medical academics did NHS clinical work and NHS consultants taught without a transfer of money between the DFEE and DoH - was "creaking".

"The principal of knock for knock is very good. It worked when both groups thought they were not under pressure. I feel it is now being questioned when both sides have to count their pennies," he said.

The task force called for a greater academic voice on NHS trusts associated with medical and dental schools. There is usually one academic representative on a trust which works alongside a university. Sir Derek said that if UCL decided to move medical students' training from its current hospitals, "we could destabilise these hospitals with very serious effect".

He said that consideration should be given to the concept of a university hospital NHS trust, where the main hospitals linked to a university and medical school would be run by a single management. This would save universities having to negotiate terms with each hospital trust separately.

l The government will not set out its plans for university research until after the Comprehensive Spending Review, it says.

Whereas some of the Dearing recommendations are to be addressed in the lifelong learning white paper, a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said no response on research issues was expected until after the spending review next year.

John Mulvey, director of Save British Science, said there was concern that a response was not expected earlier. "We don't think much of a white paper which doesn't say much about science and research," he said.

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