Britain's smaller research universities have delivered a pre-emptive strike against a fundamental review of research funding.
Just two weeks before the Dearing committee publishes the results of its inquiry into higher education, the "94 Group" of universities has circulated a paper warning ministers not to tamper with the dual-support system.
The paper, which spells out arguments backed by Tessa Blackstone, the higher education minister, when she was master of Birkbeck College (a member of the group), defends the system under which cash is distributed both by funding councils and research councils as "a thing of genius".
It holds up the research assessment exercise as "a highly successful device" for allocating money "fairly, effectively and with good accountability". And it warns that any further transfer of cash from the funding councils to the research councils will lead to "serious problems" in maintaining these same qualities.
The House of Commons science and technology committee raised questions over the dual-support system in March. Members asked "whether there would be any advantage to transferring all research funding to the research councils", in the light of concerns about increased selectivity by the funding councils, and a lack of coordination between them and the research councils.
But the 94 Group is also worried about reports that Dearing will recommend a major review of research funding, possibly giving greater responsibility to the research councils.
The group of 14 universities, collectively responsible for almost a fifth of university science, argues that while dual support has some weaknesses it "served the UK extremely well and, while it is not perfect, in our view a balanced judgement points conclusively to further evolution of the system rather than its dismantling or abandonment."
The paper says universities do not see the existence of a research funding gap of Pounds 530 million for salaries and Pounds 470 million for equipment, figures submitted to the Dearing inquiry, as justification for strengthening one arm of the dual support system at the expense of the other.
It points out that funds provided by the research councils are all of limited term, most being grants of one, two and three years, and "no university can plan strategically in respect of them". More cash from the research councils would mean more staff on fixed-term rather than permanent contracts.
The 94 Group is also worried that a shift of resources to the research councils would result in a repeat of the 1992 transfer of Pounds 150 million, after which the volume of research was increased rather than the money backing existing research projects, as had been promised by the Government.
The paper says the research assessment exercises have "focused the thinking of university researchers to a degree which is striking by international comparison maing it clear where Britain's research strength lies."
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