How to attract the funders in the new year

January 1, 1999

We hope you enjoyed 1998, because 1999 may well be eerily similar. First, as the bills for Christmas come home to roost, money. 1998 was a banner year for anyone lucky and clever enough to be in a highly rated, research-intensive university department, with record sums being pushed towards research. By contrast, the best that teaching-intensive institutions and individuals can look forward to is a lessening of the squeeze that has permitted higher education's massive growth in recent years.

Partly for this reason, Michael Bett's report on the machinery for determining higher-education pay is eagerly awaited. One possible recommendation, a pay-review body for academics, might be a useful machine for pointing out how bad pay and conditions are in the sector. But because academics are not civil or public servants, there can be no guarantee that its recommendations would be funded.

For most institutions, students, and plenty of them, are the route to financial salvation and political acceptability. As we point out today (page 1), the battle is already being fought between universities and further education colleges over where the new students entering higher education are to go.

In the longer term, the competition for students will increase partly because of the money they bring in and partly because increased access is something universities have to offer because they know their political masters want it.

Even institutions that cannot offer world-altering spin-out firms can do their bit for the competitive Britain the government desires by deepening and widening their student base. Some universities, such as Derby (page 5),have caught on to this message faster and more intelligently than others. This year, more will do it - ideally without making the mistakes that took the experiment so badly off the rails at Thames Valley last year.

The tentative expansion that is set to occur this year will do so in a context in which both students and funders will expect better-quality teaching and, indeed, improved student support all round.

But higher education can face 1999 in the knowledge that employers, government and others are making the right noises about its economic value.

So far the rewards are mostly flowing to those who can make their case to the Department of Trade and Industry and its allies such as the Wellcome Trust. But the emergence this year of the Regional Development Agencies, under the political sway of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, will focus attention on regional priorities that too many universities have neglected for too long. Stephen Byers, a local-government veteran and now trade and industry secretary, may also be keen on the regional message. As a former schools minister, he may or may not love research as much as Peter Mandelson did.

The same applies to the launch of the Welsh Assembly and even more to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. As the memberships of the RDA boards make clear (page 6), higher education is to be heavily involved in their thinking.

The RDAs are not going to replace existing streams of higher education funding any time soon. But the funding success of British academic researchers has not been because of good luck. Instead, it owes everything to the research community making clear to funders just how it can further their aims as well as its own. This new year's resolution should be for all in education to pitch the merits -not the needs - of their institutions harder. Happy new year.

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